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Wednesday, March 30, 2010
And then there were three (foreign ozeki, that is)
By MARK BUCKTON
Special to The Japan Times Online
Depending on the exact timing decided upon by the Sumo Association, sometime this week, sekiwake Baruto of Onoe Beya will receive an official visit from members of the association to advise him of his promotion to the sport's second rank — that of ozeki.
Baruto is already aware of what is coming in the days ahead, having essentially guaranteed his ascension to the exalted rank during the middle of the second week of action in the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium. To some extent he will thus just play a part in a staged act, one seen many times before in Japan but one that all but ensures the near future will see the top two ranks in sumo filled with only non-Japanese rikishi.
Hakuho, who won the Osaka Haru Basho and claimed his 13th crown to date, will likely remain the dominant — and sole — yokozuna for the next year at least. Kotooshu (Bulgaria), Harumafuji (Mongolia) and now their new Estonian counterpart in the rank are unlikely to be heading back down the banzuke anytime soon barring appearance preventing injury, and with Kaio and Kotomitsuki on the "wish he'd retire and be done with it" list of many, few level headed folk will argue that sumo today is being carried by its foreign contingent.
Of course the naysayers will soon appear from the woodwork lamenting the lack of homegrown talent and for the most part they will have a point. Others, meanwhile, will blame this dominance from afar on a range of excuses. Bans on numbers of rikishi born overseas joining the sport will be discussed once again, but are already in place — and still they succeed! And this basho succeed they did — in force.
Not only did a Mongolian (Hakuho) take the Emperor's Cup yet again (no Japanese has won a tournament in over four years), and not only did an Estonian see himself promoted to ozeki (the last Japanese promoted to he rank was almost three years ago, and before that there were five barren years in as far as Japanese rikishi challenging for ozekihood went*) and also secure the honor of a jun-yusho with a couple of special prizes thrown in for impressive performances throughout the two weeks of action, but foreign rikishi were running rampant throughout the sport's six divisions.
Seven of the double figure scores of 10-5 and higher in the uppermost makunouchi division belonged to rikishi from afar compared to just four local lads with similar scores. Down in Makushita, up and comer Aoiyama of Bulgaria went undefeated at 7-0, as did the very impressive Sensho of Mongolia in Sandanme — lower-division rikishi fighting just seven times in a basho.
The Juryo and Jonidan divisions both went the way of Japanese rikishi — Kimurayama and Chiyonishiki respectively — but both of these men are fast approaching 30 years of age and have already peaked. The 7-0 victory of teen Sasakiyama in Jonokuchi, sumo's lowest division, was therefore the only accomplishment of note in the divisional championships for Japanese-born fighters. And in what was his first proper basho to go without a defeat will at least turn a few hopeful eyes his way in the coming months.
Back in the top flight Hakuho, in walking off with his 13th yusho to date showed no signs of being affected by the much publicised soap opera retirement of Asashoryu post Hatsu Basho; his 15-0 unbeaten performance a class act day in, day out. Even new ozeki Baruto found himself outclassed having swept all others himself prior to their Day 11 meeting.
The Mongolian's uwatenage victory saw the bigger Estonian (Baruto is currently 198 cm and 178 kg compared to just over 190 cm and 150 kg for Hak) dumped unceremoniously on his rear. It's a lesson in sumo he would do well to learn from for the one day when he will be able to rise higher. At present there aren't that many betting he won't.
*Not including the "re-promotion" of former ozeki Tochiazuma following demotion due to injury. Conditions for such second chances are considerably easier than a first-time promotion to ozeki — 10 wins in the first sekiwake basho, as opposed to 33 or so wins over three basho as a sekiwake prior to any initial promotion.