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Friday, March 7, 2003

Takanohana getting grip on life off the dohyo


Staff writer

Recently retired yokozuna Takanohana was the idol of the sumo world during the 1990s and his departure from the sport earlier this year leaves many wondering how it will carry on.

News photo
Takanohana, retired yokozuna and winner of 22 tournaments during his career, speaks to The Japan Times at an exclusive interview in Tokyo.

Along with older brother Wakanohana (also a retired yokozuna) the pair formed the base of the powerful Futagoyama stable, which dominated sumo for much of the past decade.

A 22-time Emperor's Cup winner, the 30-year-old Takanohana has become an oyakata (stablemaster) and is expected to take over the Futagoyama stable from his father.

Japan Times: Now that you have officially retired how are you feeling about the future?

Takanohana: I would like to create more opportunities to let people around the world know about sumo.

JT: For so many years you were seen as a very stoic symbol of the sumo world but you have opened up recently. Is your more natural personality coming out now?

Since I don't have to fight anymore, I have time to spare and a chance to think about other things.

You look very relaxed now.

I am (laughs).

Did you try to make yourself look stoic or strict when you were active?

Competing in sumo is very tough. I forced myself to be hard and tough. Now I'm set free from the toughness.

Can you describe the stress you were under during the past two years, when you were almost always sidelined by injuries?

I had surgery to repair my right knee. I hoped time would resolve my problems and kept working hard every day. But it took more time than I expected before I could work out.

I had no problems making normal movements, but the actions involved in sumo were another story. You have to make hard contact, move laterally and twist.

You have to be in perfect condition. Therefore, I decided not to fight until my right knee became fit enough.

It must have been a tough time when you were not able to fight.

That's right. But I also had some other injuries to let heal from the long course of my sumo career. I thought it was a good time to overhaul.

Did you feel pressure to hurry back?

I thought I had to get back to fighting as soon as possible. But it was different from pressure.

How do you feel physically now? Are you having to do any more rehabilitation on your knee just to lead a normal life?

To lead a normal life, I have no problems at all.

After your unfortunate injury during the 2001 Natsu Basho, you required major surgery on your right knee to repair ligament damage. You chose to have the operation done in France, instead of the United States as many Japanese athletes do. Do you have any second thoughts about the course you took for treatment?

At first, I tried a lot of hospitals in Japan and saw several doctors. I was thinking about going abroad to fix my knee at that time, but I had no idea where to go.

Originally I was thinking of going to the United States. But a Japanese friend who has lived in Paris for a long time told me he knew a knee expert and recommended I go to Paris.

When I met the doctor in Paris and saw his eyes, I wasted no time in selecting him (for the operation).

Didn't you think about trying something different?

Never (laughs). I never had a second thought about my decision. This must be my personality (laughs).

News photo
Musashimaru loses in a playoff with Takanohana for the championship of the Natsu Basho on May 27, 2001, at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan. Takanohana fought despite having torn ligaments in his right knee the day before the bout.

You had many memorable bouts during your career, including going against your brother, Wakanohana, for the yusho in a playoff on the final day of the Kyushu Basho in 1995 and your victory over Musashimaru the day after your injury in the 2001 Natsu Basho. Can you talk about those two bouts and any others that stand out in your mind?

The bout with Wakanohana drew a lot of attention. Both my brother and I had momentum at that time and it was a big bout in my career.

To stand on the dohyo with my brother was the most impressive thing.

It was the only time you fought your brother in an official tournament. Fans would liked to have seen more of that. How about you?

It would have been great if we had fought each other several more times. But we didn't have the chance. Once in your career.

You know, this is the way life is (laughs).

How about the bout with Musashimaru in the 2001 Natsu Basho? It aggravated your injury, didn't it?

It was my fault that I got injured on Day 14. So I had no other choice but to fight.

Do you think that bout shortened your career? Was it a mistake to fight despite being injured?

It was the right decision.

Was it the fighting spirit of a sumo wrestler that drove you to fight or the responsibility as a yokozuna?

It was not the responsibility as a yokozuna. I would say it was my fighting spirit.

Any other bouts stand out in your memory?

The bout against Akebono on the final day of 1994 Kyushu Basho (where Takanohana beat Akebono to win the tournament with a 15-0 record) when I clinched promotion to yokozuna. And every bout when I won promotion from makushita to juryo, or juryo to makunouchi are also very memorable.

How about the bout against Chiyonofuji in the 1991 Natsu Basho?

When I entered sumo, Chiyonofuji was already one of the greatest yokozuna of all time. I hardly imagined I would fight him.

I felt as if I was standing on the dohyo with an incredible, imaginary person. In that sense, it is more than a memory.

Two days after you beat Chiyonofuji he retired. Did you ever wish you could have fought him again?

I didn't think of that. I was just very grateful and would like thank him for fighting me.

Your departure from the sumo world is being treated much as the retirement of Shigeo Nagashima was from baseball in 1974. There seems to be a great sense of anxiety about whether any Japanese wrestler can rise up and take your place as a true idol of the sport. How do you feel about that?

News photo
Takanohana set the record for being the youngest wrestler ever to win a tournament when he captured the 1992 Hatsu Basho at the age of 19 years, 5 months.

I think Japanese wrestlers can be stronger. Looking back at sumo history, I have an impression that we are getting to an era where Japanese wrestlers have to become stronger.

Currently, neither yokozuna is Japanese. But I think the two stand on the dohyo with the Japanese spirit in their heart. Even the foreign wrestlers do.

Therefore, Japanese wrestlers should have more pride. And if they perform well on the dohyo, it would be great for sumo.

Are you saying Japanese wrestlers remember the Japanese heart?

No. Everybody already has a Japanese mind.

But you can learn a lot of good things from people from other countries. If you add those things to your Japanese mind, you can make what you value better, and the number of people watching sumo will increase.

Many observers believe that the sport will have trouble sustaining interest following your retirement. Do you have any ideas on how sumo can create new fans in the coming years?

It is very important to increase attractions or events for children. Then their parents and grandparents will get involved.

If you can unite those generations, you can create a very good thing.

Do you think sumo could be promoted and marketed better both in Japan and abroad?

With help from the media, we would like to make sumo a major sport -- like the Olympics or World Cup -- which many people want to watch.

But when you regard sumo as one category of sports, it is not right just to say it should rank as one of the most popular sports worldwide.

For example, there are nations that respect their own sporting traditions. We have to think about how sumo can gain popularity in those countries.

How about the current format of six tournaments per year? Do you think that is too many or just the right number? Would four be better?

It is very hard to say (laughs), but we have jungyo (local exhibitions) in addition to the tournaments. So I would say the current schedule is very tough.

Each year half the tournaments are held in Tokyo. Do you think other cities, such as Sapporo and Hiroshima, should have a chance to host their own tournament every year or two just to give the sport more exposure?

Actually, I want people to visit Ryogoku Kokugikan (Tokyo's sumo arena) and experience how great it is.

When the tournament is held outside of Tokyo, we have to use a gymnasium. It is meaningful to hold a tournament at a local place, but I want people to watch sumo at Kokugikan.

When you enter Kokugikan, you feel the unique and special atmosphere of the place. If the Japan Sumo Association reserves space in Kokugikan for people from particular prefectures, that would be best.

There they can watch sumo very closely.

Unfortunately, the gymnasiums don't have the atmosphere that Kokugikan has. People can enjoy atmosphere they can never experience through TV or other media.

Also, we should get more children involved. If we do, more people will come to Kokugikan to watch sumo.

What did you think about the exhibition tournaments that have been held overseas in the past? Are they worthwhile?

It is a great thing to do. Considering cultural and personal exchanges, for example, between Japan and the United States, it would be great to have more opportunities like that.

I've been to San Jose (Calif.), Vancouver, Paris, Australia, Austria, Spain, Germany and Brazil on these tours.

How do you feel about going abroad as a professional sumo wrestler?

The most impressive experience was when I went to Brazil.

There are a lot of immigrants from Japan there. They watched with tears in their eyes and applauded our wrestlers. It was not just some people but almost all of the people in the gymnasium.

At that time, I realized sumo is part of the Japanese soul. And because of this, I felt we needed to give nagomi (peace of mind, healing) to all the people who watch sumo.

Sumo is a very tough sport. But when we only show the toughest aspect of sumo, people also feel tough. Even for Japanese people, it is difficult to understand the toughness of sumo.

But we want to provide foreigners the opportunity to watch sumo as much as possible.

You came from a sumo family, with your father having been an ozeki and your uncle a yokozuna. When you were growing up what other sports were you interested in?

I liked almost every sport. I liked baseball and soccer.

I used to play baseball and soccer when I was a kid because I could play with my friends. I also played menko (children's game played with cards).

What trait is the most necessary for a sumo wrestler to possess?

To make the most of your strengths. You can overcome your weaknesses by utilizing what you do well. This applies both physically and mentally.

Neither can be lacking. The mental aspect is one thing and physical is another. Only when both unite, can you fight on dohyo.

Neither can be stronger than the other one. It's hard to put a percentage on it.

Sometimes you are stronger mentally than physically, and other times, you are weak mentally but move well.

The best is when it's 50-50. But it is very hard for a human being. That is the point.

Can you take us through an average day for a sumo wrestler leading up to a tournament? Is the schedule the same for a yokozuna?

We wake up at four or five in the morning. Our practice ends before noon.

After we eat lunch we work out individually. Some wrestlers do weight training and others do shiko (fundamental sumo steps).

The yokozuna work out on the same schedule.

From the outside, the life of a sumo wrestler seems to be very one-dimensional. Did you have time to keep up on current events while you were wrestling?

Basically, we were thinking about sumo all the time.

Did you have time for any hobbies?

I had little time for hobbies. For example, I seldom went to play golf, which I like.

When you spend your time on hobbies, you use physical energy. I thought if I used physical energy for something, I should use it for sumo.

I do like listening to music each day.

Speaking of hobbies, I like to walk around town. Before retiring it was a little bit hard because we wear kimono and setta (Japanese-style sandals).

Also when we are walking, we draw a lot of attention because we're sumo wrestlers. But from now on, I'm looking forward to walking around and seeing the town the same way ordinary people do.

You mentioned music. Do you have a favorite artist (Japanese or international)?

I listen to all kinds of music, but right now I love to listen to healing music. I can listen very naturally at home.

You have a son of your own now. What are your thoughts about his future involvement with sumo?

Now everybody has the freedom to choose their occupation and there are a variety of choices.

My son grew up watching his father fighting on TV. So sumo has already become a part of his life by cheering me on.

He can do anything he wants and I want him to take advantage of this. I'm not going to force him to be a sumo wrestler.

He likes to play at school. He doesn't do a particular sport now.

Can you tell us who are some of the people you admire outside the sumo world either in sports or other fields and why?

I jumped into the sumo world because of my admiration for my father. It is still the same now.

Do you have a favorite saying or phrase? Words you use to live by everyday?

I want to be pure all the time. I want to be pure to my life, to people and to sumo. Pureness is very important to compete in sumo.

Did you ever feel fear on the dohyo?

I was most nervous in my very first bout (laughs). Of course, every time I fought I was nervous, but as I gained more experience, I learned the way to overcome it.

Fear? I think I had fear, too, at first. I felt my legs shaking. I overcame it by stretching.

What do you think about women not being allowed on the dohyo?

There is a serious discussion in the Japan Sumo Association about this. Hard collisions take place in sumo and there is a chance you can break your neck and die.

In sumo we make that hard contact every day. We can't bring women up to that dangerous place on the dohyo.

In sumo, it is said that men or sumo wrestlers must defend women. But traditionally, we have not expressed this. We did not talk about it.

A sumo wrestler is a warrior. On the dohyo, we vomit blood or get wounded.

Women are so noble and fighting is a man's job. This is the Japanese version of putting ladies first.

Is it discrimination against women?

No. Men should not be allowed to take women on the dohyo because it is the place of fighting.

Why do you think sumo is so important to Japan?

Because sumo is a symbol of strength. Strength to fight and defend women.

This is common thinking in the sumo world and it is very Japanese-like. It is hard to understand. But this is the reason that sumo has continued be part of the Japanese soul.

It is hardly said, but the major league of sumo exists here in Japan.

A lot of guys come from abroad. They are, for example, amateur wrestlers or junior Olympic hopefuls.

They come to Japan and try to adjust to the Japanese style. They can do that because they are dedicated.

What advice do you have for children who would like to try to pursue sumo for a career?

Draw a circle on the ground and have fun with sumo -- it's easy.

This is the sport their parents and grandparents used to watch. I want kids to remember that.

The original Japanese text of this interview is available on our Web site.


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