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SUMO: Ozeki Tochinoshin

From the beginning of the Natsu Basho, I was talking about the fact that sekiwake Tochinoshin was on a run to get a promotion to ozeki. And from the beginning we all knew pretty much what he needed to do to get it. He needed 11 or more wins with preferably at least one win over an ozeki or yokozuna. That path was made more difficult when yokozuna Kisenosato, and both ozeki—Takayasu and Goeido—went kyujo [absent due to injury or illness] before Tochinoshin could even have a crack at them, leaving just yokozuna Hakuho and yokozuna Kakuryu in the tournament. Basically, he had to win half of his available matches at that top-most level. Making it even more difficult, he had NEVER beaten Hakuho in an official match (though he had occasionally gotten the better of the yokozuna in practice and in exhibition matches)—he was 0–25 against him in honbasho [grand tournaments].

Of course, by now we all know how it turned out. Tochinoshin went 13–2, including a first ever win over Hakuho, and finished as runner-up for the yusho [tournament championship]. So the whole sumo world was pretty dang certain that Tochinoshin had passed the test and earned his promotion to ozeki. But, sumo being the sport it is, it still wasn’t absolutely certain—the Kyokai [sumo association] has the final word, and they could hold up the promotion for any number of reasons.

But they didn’t. On Monday following the basho, the Kyokai announced that on Wednesday they would give Tochinoshin his promotion. (That’s how it happens in sumo, the Kyokai has final and absolute authority, and they almost never do anything of consequence without first letting the entire world know what they’re planning.)

The promotion “ceremony” is short, formal, and very Japanese. A few members of the Kyokai show up at the rikishi’s heya [sumo stable] and meet with the candidate and his oyakata [stable master]. They offer a big piece of parchment with the promotion degree written in hand-brushed calligraphy. The candidate bows deeply, accepts the parchment, makes a halting, nervous, formal statement of acceptance, and it’s all over. Then the other members of the heya bring in tables filled with blessed sake, blessed rice, and other food items that are considered to confer good luck and good health. Most notably, they bring in several large, whole sea breams (and invariably the papers the next day are filled with photos of the candidate holding one of the fish aloft by its tail).

Like I said . . . VERY Japanese.

Anyway, now Tochinoshin is officially an ozeki, and there’s a case to be made that he’s the strongest of the current crop. Takayasu has been dealing with recurring shoulder injuries, and although Goeido has been healthy (and even managed to win a yusho last year) he also has been historically inconsistent, ending up kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] at least once or twice a year. In point of fact, both Takayasu and Goeido are going to be kadoban in July, and there’s a very real chance that BOTH of them could end up make-koshi [majority of losses] and get themselves demoted.

Of course, Tochinoshin is also has an uncertain future as an ozeki. He is doing great now, but he’s got two very nasty knee injuries in his past, and he’s always one bad fall away from being hobbled again. Then there’s the matter of his age. He’s 30 years old, making his one of the oldest initial ozeki promotions in modern history—we shouldn’t expect him to hold the rank for years the way Kisenosato and Kotoshogiku did.

On the other hand, with the way things are getting shaken up at the top of the banzuke, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Tochinoshin will continue to challenge for and even win yusho. If he can manage to do that in back to back tournaments, or even win one and finish as runner-up multiple times, he could yet earn a promotion to yokozuna. But I think that’s going to have to happen relatively quickly (in the next 12–16 months) or it’s not going to happen at all.

Still, now is a time for celebrating! Omedetou [congratulations] to ozeki Tochinoshin! I’m really looking forward to seeing him fight in July!

©Mainichi Shimbun, used without permission

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