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Natsu Basho Preview: Lone Yokozuna Asashoryu poised to become one of sumo’s all-time greats
By Lora Sharnoff


Some sumotori from Mongolia in recent years seem to be accomplishing something even the forces of Genghis Khan couldn’t achieve: a successful invasion of Japan. Not only does Mongolian Asashoryu currently stand as the lone holder of sumo’s highest rank of yokozuna, but he also seems likely to break or tie a number of records in the next few years and go on to become one of the greats in the sport’s history.
 
The 124-page volume features a full-color cover with photo statistics; everything you need to know to follow the Central and Pacific Leagues in English.

There is also a listing of the 683 foreign players who have appeared in Japanese pro baseball between 1950 and 2003.
Photo by Neil Krivonak

By capturing the championships in the first two tournaments of 2004 with unblemished 15-0 scores, Asashoryu has chalked up exactly 30 consecutive wins which already ties him for the fourth best record of that sort with the recently retired Yokozuna Takanohana (now Takanohana Oyakata).

If he gets another 15-0 in the Natsu Basho beginning May 9 in Tokyo, he will tie for the third best consecutive win record ever with the great Taiho. (Actually the end to Taiho’s winning streak was fraught with controversy, as the referee in the ring declared him the winner, only to have the decision overturned by the five judges sitting around the dohyo.

(Photographs published in newspapers the next day indicated Taiho’s opponent’s foot actually did step ever so briefly out of the ring first. That evidence was too late to help Taiho, but the surrounding uproar led to the institution of a videotape room for the head judge to be wired to and consult with the facility.)

However, that is another story, so let’s get back to Asashoryu. Among the records he already holds are the fastest progress to yokozuna promotion since the institution of the six-tourneys-a-year system; first yokozuna from Mongolia, third youngest grand champion (after Kitanoumi and Taiho).

Also, despite Japan’s long economic recession and an accompanying decline in the number of kenshokin (those banners carried around the ring before certain matches which represent winner-take-all monetary bonuses put up by companies or groups of supporters), the yokozuna from Ulan Bator garnered an all-time record of 32 on the last day of the Haru Basho this past March in Osaka.
 
Asashoryu may occasionally get criticized for improper behavior, such as not showing up at the funeral of the previous Takasago Oyakata (his head coach’s head coach), skipping the tsunauchi-shiki (ceremony to make his latest yokozuna hawser) in January, and most recently the complaint from Makiko Uchidate, the only woman member of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, that he accepts the kenshokin with his left — rather than the standard right — hand.

The truth is his detractors will simply have to learn to grin and bear him. That’s to say, at the present juncture no one else in sumo appears even to approach him in all-around technique and power.

Shortly after the last tournament, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council expressed its hope that one of the Japanese ozeki such as Chiyotaikai or Kaio will rise to yokozuna in the near future. But this writer does not foresee that happening. Chiyotaikai is not technically versatile enough to hold sumo’s highest rank. Kaio is better in the technique department and is quite strong, too; however he is too prone to injury.

The same can be said as well about Ozeki Tochiazuma, who had been expected to make a big drive for yokozuna promotion this past January in the wake of his yusho in Kyushu in November; instead, he dropped out of the January tournament with an injury and remained sidelined throughout March.

Sekiwake Wakanosato also has great potential but tends to get injured each time he seems ready to make a big move. Your humble scribe recommends keeping an eye on Asashoryu’s Takasago-Beya stablemate and fellow native of Mongolia Asasekiryu, runner-up in the last basho, along with Kaio and Chiyotaikai, and was awarded two (Ginosho and Shukunsho) of the three special prizes bestowed on the final day of a tournament.

Unfortunately for certain members of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, Mongolians are likely to remain a force to reckon with for some years. As of this March, 37 Mongolians were on the Sumo Association’s roster; and there are apparently several more currently as exchange students in Japanese high schools, just as Asashoryu and Asasekiryu before them, hoping to follow in the footsteps of those two men in professional sumo.
Eleven things you might not know about sumo
 By Mark Buckton
1. The first yokozuna to meet a sitting U.S. president was Hitachiyama (1874-1922). He met Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 during a tour of the U.S. intended to popularize the ancient sport there.
2. Oikari, yokozuna on the Kyoto banzuke before the Osaka and Kyoto associations merged with Tokyo‘s, led a 1910 tour of rikishi to London. However, due to “administrative difficulties,” his sponsors forgot to buy the return tickets, and he ended his days penniless in South America trying to work his way home.
3. Each envelope received by winners of the day‘s final few bouts contains just ¥35,000 of the ¥60,000 advertisers pay to have their names paraded around the dohyo on the colorful banners. The remainder goes toward producing the banner and tax.
4. In the years after WWII, when much of Japan was in both economic and social turmoil, the Kokugikan was used by the occupying U.S. troops as an ice rink.
5. It is a well-known fact women may not enter the dohyo, but it is less well known they are not allowed to touch the head and shoulders of rikishi.
6. While Akebono is often believed to have been the first foreign yokozuna, recent reports from sumo aficionados indicate there have been up to four Koreans who reached sumo's top rank. The greatest modern era yokozuna, Taiho, was not legally Japanese, having been fathered by a Ukrainian at a time citizenship could only pass through the male bloodline.
7. Former Yokozuna and current Rijicho Kitanoumi put off his pending withdrawal from the sport in 1984 to ensure he performed in at least one basho in the newly built Kokugikan in 1985.
8. The Japanese word yaocho, which refers to the allegations of bribery received to throw matches, originated in the late Edo era when greengrocers (yaoya-san) were said to have been the driving force behind the pollution of the sport with money.
9. Former Yokozuna Futabayama, a pre-WWII sumo star who holds the record of winning 69 consecutive bouts, had nine toes and one eye. His impaired sight went undiscovered until after he retired.
10. French President Jacques Chirac is an avid sumo fan and follows each basho via TV and the Internet.
11. On Day 15 of the July basho in 1954, Tokyo-born Yokozuna Tochinishiki secured his ninth championship with his first zensho yusho (15-0) record by beating the original Wakanohana to claim the Emperor's Cup. Remarkably, he fought with the knowledge that his father died in a car crash the evening before.

Another interesting phenomenon is the recent rise of men from Eastern Europe and the former USSR, just as all American names disappeared from the sumo ranking sheet (banzuke) for the first time in 40 years with the retirement of Sentoryu (Henry Armstrong Miller of St. Louis) in November of 2003.

Kokkai of Georgia (the former Soviet republic—not the American state) has chalked up winning scores since his debut in the top makunouchi division this January. In juryo this March, Roho ended up with his first losing record since his professional sumo debut but still scored high enough to remain in that division where he will be joined in May by Kotooshu of Bulgaria, a former All-Europe Wrestling (Greco-Roman) champion.

There are three more Russians as well as a Czech in the lower divisions, and it will be interesting to see if one of them eventually emerges to become sumo’s first Caucasian ozeki, and ultimately yokozuna. In any case, for the time being, there seems to be no stopping the “foreign invasion of sumo.”