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Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2007
Hakuho, and other foreign-born wrestlers, dominate the Autumn Basho
By MARK BUCKTON
Of the 700 men active in professional sumo less than 10 percent are foreign-born. Of the six divisions in which they compete, only one went the way of a Japanese rikishi at this year's Autumn Basho. The remaining five divisions were dominated by men from afar.
Foreign dominance at the very top — in the makunouchi division — was again an overwhelming factor in who eventually claimed the Emperor's Cup and, as was predicted here prior to the basho, the naturalized Japanese (Mongolian-born) maegashira Kyokutenho (12-3) of Oshima Beya pushed fellow Mongolian, yokozuna Hakuho (13-2), all the way with his Day 15 win over Tamakasuga in the early bouts of the final afternoon. Hakuho was left needing a win over ozeki Chiyotaikai to avoid a head-to-head play-off and was obliged to pick up his fourth top-flight championship to date, a victory that in terms of potential and proven ability already puts him ahead of fellow yokozuna Asashoryu at similar times in their respective makunouchi careers.
Just off the pace, young Goeido of Sakaigawa Beya impressed many in his first-ever top division basho and was in the running for the title up until the last few days. While he will have a tough time repeating his 11-4 record in November, he can at least revel in the moment and receiving a Fighting Spirit prize for his efforts.
Ama is another Mongolian and a relative lightweight at 126 kg but he added yet another legion of followers to his fan base — if the audience noise he generated when he was preparing for his bouts is anything to go by. He finished 10-5, claimed his first Outstanding Performance award, and took the scalps of two ozeki and the yokozuna.
In the juryo division, the popular Baruto of Estonia again walked away with the second-division title on the back of a 13-2 record. He must now focus on his lower body and trying to avoid repeats of the injuries that sent him down to juryo earlier in the year.
As good as the rest were, and have the potential to be though, one man keeps coming to mind — Hakuho Sho — 69th yokozuna of this parish. He lost twice in the just-completed tournament but with only 21 makunouchi basho under his belt he has already secured four outright titles, five jun-yusho (runners-up positions) and five special prizes for various aspects of his game. Those numbers are very similar to the record of Asashoryu, though the absent yokozuna had won seven by the same point in his career.
When considering the quality of opposition and the ability to perform against those ranked higher, the differences start to appear. Pre-Nagoya 2007, Asashoryu had never won a yusho when up against an active yokozuna who completed the tournament. Hakuho, on the other hand, has only ever fought in the presence of a dominant alpha male, and, prior to Asashoryu's forced "vacation," benefited from just one single basho in which the senior man was absent.
The signs are there that sumo is turning a corner and that the second Hakuho era* is just starting. That Asashoryu will serve as a stepping stone on Hakuho's path to eventual career glory remains open to debate but consider this: Hakuho's wins have already reached double figures 13 times in a top roster dominated by a strong yokozuna, while Asashoryu went into two digits less than half as often when facing the same circumstances — and only then against ailing yokozuna Takanohana and Musashimaru in the injury-ridden twilight of their careers.
As entertaining as the last tournament was, in years to come, when sumo fans are reminiscing, one event will stand out — the unexpected ascension of a middle-aged woman, for reasons still unknown, to the dohyo in the second week of action at the Ryogoku Kokugikan.
"No big deal," many might say, but with women deemed "impure" in certain aspects of Japanese Shinto belief associated with sumo, this act placed the Nihon Sumo Kyokai in between a rock and a hard place. As sumo lore goes, the basho should have been halted, the dohyo destroyed and a new one built from scratch. None of the above happened for the simple reason that, in true Japanese fashion, "interpretations" reigned supreme. The interpretation this time went that she did not enter the dohyo's circular fighting area and, thus, all was hunky dory.
Call it face-saving, or just common sense, to let the basho continue, but just what to call the way in which the whole thing was treated by some of the Japanese media escapes this sumo writer. By the next morning images of the woman in question showed a blurred face and unrecognizable as female. Her own short hair and reported usage of the word "person" as opposed to "woman" served to initiate the necessary collective amnesia that will assign this to mere "rumor" status in the years ahead.
Many sources mentioned NHK playing their part by cutting the scene in question from their evening digest and I for one can't but wonder how the national broadcaster reacted when large numbers of sumo fans laughed as the Prime Minister's trophy was handed to Hakuho, accompanied by the announcement of the name of ailing fiftysomething Shinzo Abe — on the very day that the LDP decided to replace him with sprightly septuagenarian Yasuo Fukuda!
* The first Hakuho era was dominated by former yokozuna Taiho and Kashiwado during the 1960s, thanks to an alternative reading of the kanji used in their names.