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Friday, Aug. 27, 2010


Does a new Sumo Association boss signal a new direction?

Special to The Japan Times Online

In the wake of the latest crisis to rock sumo, the Japanese Sumo Association recently voted to replace their chairman, Musashigawa, with a new face, that of the head of the stable by the same name — Hanaregoma (Oyakata).

In recent weeks, the ill health of Musashigawa apparently brought on by the stresses of the gambling scandal that rocked the sport earlier in the summer led to him all but disappearing from public view, which in turn led to the former yokozuna known as Mienoumi being temporarily replaced for the Nagoya Tournament in mid-July by Hiroyoshi Murayama, one time head of the Tokyo Public Prosecutors office.

However, in selecting the 62-year-old Hanaregoma, the Sumo Association has really only opted for a non-controversial gap-fill measure as all sumo elders must retire at the age of 65.

Never one expected to attain the ultimate post in the Sumo Association, the former ozeki now known as Hanaregoma is just the third non-yokozuna grand champion to fill the spot in the post-war period and is not expected to instigate any real reforms in his (maximum) two and a half years in the post. With this in mind, behind the scenes, slowly but surely the next generation of potential Japan Sumo Association chairmen are more than likely considering their own options. These men will be in their late 30s, 40s, perhaps even early 50s, and all will at one time or another have considered a "run" for the top as do all members of any large organization.

Traditionally, sumo stables have belonged to "ichimon" groups (see below). There are currently five such groups, each with a varying degree of historical and success (of former rikishi) based influence when it comes to voting in internal sumo association elections to see exactly who is assigned to which spot in the association hierarchy. Not unlike Japanese political parties with their internal factions and charismatic personalities attracting younger, less experienced members, these ichimon more often than not vote as one, ensuring their own oyakata elders are assigned positions of power.

Earlier in 2010 in one internal election now long since overshadowed by recent arrests over illegal gambling and the latest change of the chairman, there were signs that the younger stablemasters that have retired from the ring over the last 10 years or so might be looking to force into positions of power some of their younger brethren with, by sumo standards, some rather radical ideas on how to run the association.

Newspaper and magazine editorials in Japan have largely ignored these indications of change from within, starting with the relative "young-bloods" led ideologically by former yokozuna Takanohana, 38. Head of his own stable, Takanohana was just last week elected to lead the ringside judges while still considerably younger than the vast majority of men acting as such. For many this is seen as a crucial step on the ladder to the rank of chairman in the future.

His sway over others of his generation now establishing themselves in their respective stables may itself be in its infancy, but is bound to grow as he leads from the front. To date Takanohana has shown himself as more than willing to rock the sumo boat when he deems it necessary — opinions on ticket allocation via an outdated system involving teahouses perhaps the most famous of his attempts at internal reform to date.

The sport's 65th yokozuna will now already be looking to the future, post Hanaregoma, and may eventually be pitted in a run-off with perennial fan favorite, current Kokonoe Oyakata and former yokozuna Chiyonofuji, 55. This may take place in 2013 or earlier, depending on what — if any — reforms the current chairman puts into place. It has been claimed that Hanaregoma intends to increase the number of voting board members from outside the association, but this is a move lacking momentum and even if implemented is unlikely to keep the reform vultures at bay for long.

Both Takanohana and the always popular Kokonoe will carry "baggage" into any future race for the chairmanship, and no real indicators of Kokonoe's desire to be elected top-dog have ever really emerged even if he would seem to be a "shoe-in" at some point in time, given his own success in the ring. This may be in part down to many alleging his own career on the dohyo was tainted by fixed bouts.

Takanohana, on the other hand, has had well-documented family issues tarnish his image as a yokozuna over the past decade, and may just have upset a few too many in the world of sumo by going against that traditional Japanese approach of waiting your turn to be head honcho.

Neither man will thus enter any eventual race for the position of rijicho on the back of a stain-free reputation. But, when all is said and done, sumo needs a man with the better part of a decade — or more — to put into the job of bringing sumo in line with the expectations of a Japanese public fed up with scandal after scandal and promises of reform that just never seem to be carried through.

Ichimon groups of stables in sumo:

Dewanoumi Ichimon — 11 stables
Nishonoseki Ichimon — 14 stables BR/>Tokitsukaze Ichimon — 9 stables
Takasago Ichimon — 6 stables
Tatsunami Ichimon — 10 stables
No ichimon affiliation — 1 stable

For a full list of the actual stables in each ichimon, go to the official Sumo Association homepage in English at: http://sumo.goo.ne.jp/eng/ Click on Sumo Beya Guide on the right side under "Who's Who."

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