Sumo 2017: A New Dawn

Photo: Better Than Bacon on Flickr

Sumo 2017: A New Dawn

Caleb Gibbons

I had the distinct pleasure of attending the final day of the 2017 New Year’s Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo, Japan this January. To say this tournament was historic would be an understatement. Kisenosato was awarded the Emperor’s Cup for the first time in his career.

Better Than Bacon on Flickr

Ozeki ranked Kisenosato was promoted to the top rank yokuzuna (grand champion) that week. This marks the first Japan born sumo wrestler to achieve yokuzuna rank in 19 years! Wakanohana was the last Japan rishi to achieve the top rank way back in 1998 (the last time I lived in Japan). To highlight the significance, it should be noted only 71 men have achieved the top rank of yokuzuna in the last 265 years. Kisenosato is the 72nd. The sport was dominated by the Japanese from inception until about 30 years ago and is currently dominated by the Mongolians who have captured the Emperor’s Cup in 60 of the last 64 basho’s (the Japanese have secured a scant 3 wins since January 2006). We joined the after-party of the venerable Sadogatake sumo stable post tournament, which was a treat! Be sure to wear your Sunday best as the 60+ tables of 10 were all dressed up to the nines. The event was likely only topped by the celebrations at Kisenosato’s Tagonoura stable on the night.

davidgsteadman on Flickr

Kisenosato fought initially under his surname Hagiwara, taking on the shikona name Kisenosato at 18 when he entered the makuuchi division (the 2nd youngest to enter after Takanohana). Despite the early ramp, Kisenosato is seen as a “late bloomer”. To draw an analogy, he is like Phil Mickelson who was 11 times runner up before winning his first major golf championship. Kisenosato has been 2nd best on 12 occasions, including 4 times in 2016 alone (6 major tournaments are held per annum). Like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar travails where he finally secured a win on his 6th Oscar nomination, Kisenosato has been given the nod on his 5th vetting (7/13, 1/14, 7/16 and 9/16 previously) for the top ranked yokuzuna title. Historically one would have had to secure the Emperor’s Cup twice before moving up to the highest rank, but given that he secured the largest number of wins in 2016 (albeit without securing the cup) it was viewed as a legitimate proxy of excellence.

There are now four yokuzuna level wrestlers competing in Japan with the other 3 Mongolians. 6 foot 4 inch (2 m) 350 lb (160 kg) Hakuho, arguably the best to ever enter the dohyo, was the only yokuzuna competing at the latest New Year’s tournament. 6 foot 2 inch (1.88 m) 392 lb (178 kg) Kisenosato clearly had broad shoulders and they will be required to carry the weight of the nation moving forward. The other active yokuzuna Harumafuji and Kakuryu will be back at the next basho and cannot rest on their laurels any more than newly minted Kisenosato can.

Ryougoku Sumo Hall only holds 11,000 spectators and I think they could fill 3 of them going forward.

Photo by David Jackson

I’ve been engulfed in a wave of Japanese culture since returning to Tokyo at 2016 year-end from Singapore, after a 17-year Japan residency gap, (13 of those years spent in New York).

Poor planning had it looking like we would be out of luck on securing tickets for the Hatsu Basho 2017 final, but miraculously my brother-in-law, Mori secured 3 tickets for Sunday’s pivotal festivities. My 12-year old and eldest, J Taro was also in attendance, although he might have opted for the 3pm kick-off versus the 12:30 I insisted on (Wi-Fi withdrawal syndrome evident). Ticket prices run the full gamut at Ryogoku Kokugikan and I have availed myself of all price points. On this occasion, the tickets were “steerage” class, level II, row 14, i.e. wherever you can find a spot. We managed to splice 5 seating changes into a great day. My previous sojourn with my Singapore friends was on the 1st level, but the quad seating proved a bit tight for 85kg + (being kind) spectators. It was like a less interesting version of Twister, but thankfully neighboring quads stored our provisions and the sumo proved to be the spectacle promised. US$35-US$250 covers the full range of ticket options, but the quad for a grand includes a gift bag, bento and nomihodai (all you can drink) beer/sake. They might have broken even of our foursome of the day.

Booking my tickets for May, you should too! You can book them here. JCG