Yokozuna Hakuho recently announced his retirement. Hakuho achieved excellent results in every respect including a record 45 tournament victories. Hakuho virtually dominated the sumo world since another strong Mongolian Yokozuna Asashoryu retired in 2010. Since the present system of six-tournaments per year was introduced in 1958, only two Yokozuna, Taiho and Chiyonofuji, had won more than 30 tournaments, but even their numerous excellent records were nearly all broken by Hakuho. From around 1990, sumo became boring, as sumo wrestlers became more and more colossal and their matches tended to be simple clashes of plump bodies. But Hakuho reaffirmed the appeal of sumo with his fast and versatile techniques. In addition, when sumo association was shaken by numerous scandals, such as the assault of wrestlers by his stablemaster and senior disciples, the use of drugs by wrestlers, the retirement of Asashoryu due to poor behavior, baseball gambling and the match-fixing problem, Hakuho, as the number one wrestler, Yokozuna, greatly contributed to the survival of sumo. He also made significant social activities, such as supporting disaster-stricken areas and organizing Hakuho Cup boys' sumo competitions. He was indeed a super great Yokozuna.
While rowdy Asashoryu was in his heyday, Hakuho was deemed as a refreshing young hope who would lead the next generation of the sumo world. However, when his retirement approached, Hakuho became less and less popular and some even argued that Hakuho was not eligible for remaining at the Sumo Association as an elder. Those who criticized Hakuho responded in particular to his rough use of slaps and elbows, his expression of dissatisfaction with the match judgment, and his urging the audience to three cheers or 3-3-7 beat during the winning interview. It was said that Hakuho’s behavior lacks dignity as Yokozuna and undermines the tradition of sumo wrestling.
I think that the criticism to Hakuho was caused not only by the behavior of Hakuho himself, but also by the weakness of the Japanese wrestlers. Japanese wrestlers never won the championship for 10 years from 2006 when Hakuho won the tournament for the first time until Kotoshogiku won the tournament in 2016. For 10 years, not only Hakuho won more than 30 tournaments, but other tournament winners were also mostly Mongolian wrestlers. I think it is undeniable that this situation caused frustration and disappointment among Japanese sumo fans and those who are close to the sumo organization and they came to be dissatisfied with Hakuho's behavior. However, as described below, it is necessary now to recruit wrestlers from among foreign young men in order for sumo to survive and if we do so, we should enjoy the internationalization of sumo and give up the one-sided favor of Japanese wrestlers.
At the root of the problem lies the continuous loss of popularity of sumo among youngsters in Japan. Before and shortly after the WWII, sumo and baseball were the only options for young people with athletic ability to achieve success through sports. Nowadays, in such sports as soccer, golf, tennis, figure skating, basketball they can make money much smarter than sumo. Therefore, many strong young people move to other fields instead of sumo wrestling. The number and quality of young Japanese people aspiring sumo wrestling has been continuously declining. The high level of sumo can no longer be maintained by Japanese wrestlers alone.
Hakuho's last match in Tokyo with Takarafuji
Japanese fans who want to enjoy sumo should be grateful that powerful young people from various countries around the world come to Japan and enter the harsh world of sumo. The professional Sumo has now become like the American Major League Baseball. Strong young people from overseas will cross the sea and jump into a world with completely different languages and customs! Thanks to that, the level of sumo is maintained. Japanese sumo fans should go easier on foreign wrestlers.
The criticism against the foreign-born Yokozuna says that he damaged the tradition of sumo wrestling. However, the content of sumo tradition is not always clear. Sumo, for example, is said to be related to the sacred Shinto ritual. But, the professional sumo is in reality not directly linked to the Shinto ritual or the ancient imperial ceremony. Such a link was emphasized to authorize the professional sumo and secure it a good status in the society. Sumo is not as mystic as they say. On the other hand, sumo is certainly not a sport in the meaning of the modern times which solely concerns win or loss. Sumo wrestlers should not do everything to win as long as the rules allow. It has certain esthetics, which is related to the concept of strength seen from the Japanese people and exactly this esthetics is what we say the tradition of sumo.
Sumo originally started with a comparison of the strengths of primitive men, and there are similar martial arts in every country in the world. Sumo took shape as a popular pastime in the latter half of the Edo period, when it was gradually organized in the Japanese style and excessive violence was eliminated. Yokozuna is a person who embodies our longing for an unusually strength, and was established from Edo to the Meiji era as an attraction and symbol of sumo. There is the word Yokozuna sumo. Yokozuna, like a historical drama hero of poetic justice, should first allow the junior opponent to do his best, then easily defeat the challenger when the time is come and show a cool face. It's a matter of course for Yokozuna to win, so it's out of the question to resort to dirty means or to be overjoyed or take guts pose after winning This is not a rule. But that's what spectators expect. Yokozuna must embody this kind of absolute strength, so it is also important for him to retire without missing timing when he realizes that he cannot match such requirement.
However, even in an era when only the Japanese were the protagonists of the sumo world, the reality did not correspond to the ideal. The professional sumo is first and foremost an entertainment industry. It is expected to provide sumo fans with good showtime and it must make its own living. Therefore, Yokozuna were created from incapable sumo wrestlers, when people wanted their hero. There must have been cases where the matches were fixed in order to meet the expectations of the fans. Relationships with gangsters were indispensable for provincial tours. As is often the case in the Japanese sports world from school clubs to professional, It was a come common practice to use violence against juniors and young people. The times have changed and the sumo wrestling has been modernized according to the demands of the times, but the reality is that there are still many challenges.
New Yokozuna Terunofuji performs his dohyouiri.
Under such circumstances, as sumo is no longer fun only for Japanese people, it is necessary to change sumo practicis to the needs of the modern society and to clarify rules so that everybody can clearly understand what are required or expected from sumo wrestlers. As I explained before, there are things which are not prohibited by the rules but are not welcome because they are against the ethics or concepts of sumo shared by the professionals and fans. Unfortunately, their contents are often unclear and fluid, but that is not good. I think that various attempts are being made within the Sumo Association to change the awkward situation. We should take it further and clearly define what the attractive modern sumo should be. Then, both foreign and Japanese wrestlers should make best efforts to embody the goodness of sumo required in the present age.
What is vital is to re-educate the people involved in sumo. In particular, in order for the wrestlers to change, it is essential that the stable masters and other sumo elders who are raising the wrestlers will change. Sumo elders are the formal members of the Sumo Association. It appears that former sumo wrestlers, even when they are not capable as coach, often take care of the sumo stables, just because they were strong as sumo wrestler and able to buy elder status. Strong wrestlers are not necessarily good trainers. Many of the problematic wrestlers are Japanese wrestlers rather than foreign wrestlers. And in many cases, their masters are the source of the problems. Disciples tend to break rules because their master lacks eligibility as a leader or manager. Asanoyama (former Ozeki) went to the night town while Covid-19 was rampant and was sentenced not to participate in the following 6 tournaments. This was apparently caused because of the loose daily behavior of his stablemaster. The case of violence between Yokozuna Harumafuji and Takanoiwa, which happened in a meeting of Mongolian sumo wrestlers, resulted in a drastic solution of dismissal of Yokozuna. That was because the stablemaster of Takanoiwa, the former very popular Yokozuna Takanohana, wanted a showdown with the Sumo Association and tried to bring the case to the police.
On the other hand, I should introduce the case of Terunofuji. He had fallen from Ozeki to Jonidan, the second lowest echelon, due to injuries, but after resumption, he skyrocketed and became Yokozuna in two and half years. In the interviews, he always uses humble words and thanks the people around him, and keeps a calm attitude on the ring. Even those who complain about Hakuho, praise Terunofuji openhandedly. Terunofuji has certainly wonderful personality and wiseness to learn from what has happened in the past. In addition, Terunofuji has a good luck of having a good master Isegahama, former Yokozuna Asahifuji. He encouraged Terunofuji, who was depressed and almost to give up sumo because of injury and illness, to continue wrestling and continuously gave good advices. I don't think Hakuho and Asashoryu would have been exposed to many criticisms if they lived a sumo life under a leader like Isegahama.