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SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 5)

It’s Day 5 of the Haru Basho and, holy cats, the action in Osaka is really heating up. Yesterday we saw some very high-spirited sumo AND a smattering of controversy! And bizarrely, we start the day with only SIX undefeated rikishi atop the leaderboard—yokozuna Kisenosato, ozeki Terunofuji, sekiwake Takayasu, M3 Takarafuji, M7 Chiyoshoma, and M10 Tochiozan. That’s right, there are four yokozuna in the tournament and only ONE of them is undefeated on Day 5 . . . and it’s the shin-yokozuna. What’s more, two of the other yokozuna already have two losses . . . and Hakuho is one of them!

This, of course, brings us to the big controversy from yesterday—Hakuho’s loss to M1 Ikioi. Anytime Hakuho gives up a kinboshi [gold star award] (for being beaten by a maegashira-ranked opponent) it’s news of some sort, but the way it happened is the big news. First of all, it’s clear that Hakuho is not at full health, and his injured heel is almost certainly the culprit behind the very defensive way he’s fought so far this tournament. Still, if you go back and watch the match you’ll see that the video is pretty clear that Ikioi’s arm touched first, but the judges decided that Hakuho was “dead body” falling, and so they gave the win to Ikioi. There are a number of reasons why this is controversial.

1. Ikioi didn’t happen to fall and Hakuho “hover” for a few extra seconds, that was because of a deliberate move by the Yokozuna. And in many cases, this rationale would have been used to flip the decision and give Hakuho the outright win.

2. The fact of the matter is that they seemed to be falling in sync, and in most cases the judges would have called for a do-over and have the match be fought again. This is what most of the pundits thought was going to happen, ESPECIALLY because Hakuho is a yokozuna (and that often is worth a little extra consideration in such situations).

3. Earlier in the day there was an almost identical situation in the M6 Chiyonokuni vs M8 Okinoumi bout, and the judges made the complete opposite call . . . and in that bout, Chiyonokuni was falling because of Okinoumi’s attack, so definitely WAS “dead body.”

Basically, there are about six very good reasons why the match either should have been re-fought or awarded to Hakuho . . . but after significant deliberation and viewing of the video replay, it still wasn’t

Other items of note from yesterday include Kotoshogiku’s win over Kakuryu, keeping the sekiwake’s hope for double-digit wins (and reinstatement to the rank of ozeki) alive, and handing the yokozuna his first loss of the tournament; Kisenosato continuing to fight his way out of trouble smoothly, confidently, and with yokozuna style; Harumafuji nearly losing for a third day in a row, but managing to pull out a win . . . while also managing to get poked in the eye and give himself an excuse to go kyujo [absent for injury] if he wants (or needs) to; ozeki Terunofuji continuing to look strong, while ozeki Goeido continues to look like a hot mess (losing his third match in a row); sekiwake Takayasu continuing to look like a man with a date with an ozeki promotion, handling komusubi Mitakeumi like a seasoned veteran; and M10 Tochinoshin putting up a valiant fight, but still unable to overcome the leg injury that’s nagging him.

The question is, what do the Gods of Sumo have in store for us today?

INJURY UPDATE: So far this basho has been relatively injury free, with only M8 Kaisei being kyujo [absent because of injury], though word is that he may return to action in the next few days. Unfortunately, today yokozuna Hakuho has withdrawn from the tournament citing a combination of a scrape on the sole of his foot and a pulled thigh muscle as the reason. I have a feeling that this is just the start, and we’ll be seeing a few more injury withdrawals before Week 1 is done.

M11 Daieisho (1–3) vs. M13 Takakeisho (3–1)—This is a classic example of what happens when two “pusher/thruster” type rikishi fight. At the tachi-ai [initial charge] they go all out swinging and slapping with great vigor, but they tend to run out of steam pretty quickly. At that point they lean on each other until one recovers enough energy to start a second assault. (1:36)

M10 Tochiozan (4–0) vs. M7 Chiyoshoma (4–0)—Two of our unbeaten rikishi go head-to-head, meaning that the leaderboard will be at least one name shorter tomorrow. Tochiozan may be ranked lower this tournament, but he spent most of 2016 in sanyaku, while Chiyoshoma spent most of it in Juryo.  (4:10)

M6 Chiyonokuni (3–1) vs. M3 Takarafuji (4–0)—Another match featuring one of our co-leaders. Takarafuji has been looking strong in the same, unflashy way he did in January. He’s got more than enough sumo to beat opponents ranked below him, but not quite enough to regularly challenge the top-rankers. (6:00)

Sekiwake Tamawashi (2–2) vs. sekiwake Kotoshogiku (3–1)—Kotoshogiku’s win against Kakuryu yesterday put him back on track to possibly hit double-digit wins and regain his ozeki rank. However, he MUST win ALL his matches against opponents who are equal- or lower-ranked than him . . . and today that’s fellow sekiwake Tamawashi. (6:30)

Komusubi Shodai (2–2) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (4–0)—Another co-leader, and the third sekiwake (something that doesn’t happen very often), Takayasu, has been showing strong, consistent sumo. He’s hoping to get double-digit wins and put himself in a position to make a run at an ozeki promotion in May. Shodai, however, is also a strong, up and coming rikishi who wants to prove he’s got what it takes to compete at the sanyaku ranks. (6:45)

M2 Takanoiwa (1–3) vs. ozeki Terunofuji (4–0)—I’ve been talking a lot about how strong Terunofuji has looked this basho. In fact, he’s looked so good I’ve forgotten to mention that he is kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] this tournament and MUST get kachi-koshi [majority of wins] or next basho he’ll be in the same mess that Kotoshogiku is in this time. Still, he’s unbeaten, one of our co-leaders, and halfway to his needed eight wins, so things are looking good for him. (7:15)

M1 Ikioi (1–3) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (4–0)—Our final co-leader is yokozuna Kisenosato, who is looking very much like the man to beat this tournament. Today he’s facing Ikioi, who got his first win yesterday by besting yokozuna Hakuho and collecting a kinboshi [gold star award for a maegashira-ranked rikishi beating a yokozuna]. He’d certainly like to collect another one today. (8:36)

SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 4)

Here we are on Day 4 of the Haru Basho and things continue to look interesting. Yokozuna Harumafuji lost a second bout, and has looked out of sort every time he’s been on the dohyo. Likewise, ozeki Goeido has started the tournament 1–2 and seems to have gone back to his old ways of plowing straight ahead without really having a plan. Meanwhile, sekiwake Kotoshogiku, who needs to win ten time this basho in order to regain his ozeki rank, lost for the first time yesterday. It was a good loss, to fellow sekiwake Takayasu (who is bucking for an ozeki promotion of his own), but Kotoshogiku can now only allow four more losses for the remainder of the tournament . . . and he’s still got to fight three yokozuna and an ozeki, which basically means he CAN’T have any slip-ups against other sanyaku or upper maegashira opponents.

Since all those permutations are probably a little confusing for the sumo neophyte, this seems like a good day for me to pontificate a little bit about how the upper echelons of the sport are organized.

The top division of professional sumo is called the Makuuchi Division, and it’s made up forty-two rikishi split into three tiers. The main tier are 30 or so maegashira rikishi ranked 1 through 15 or 16 (or even as high as 17 in an era with no yokozuna), paired East and West (with the East being slightly more prestigious). They all function normally for sumo, that is if a rikishi is kachi-kochi [majority of wins] during a given tournament, he will be promoted up in rank, and if he is make-koshi [majority of losses] he will be demoted. Those toward the bottom of the maegashira ranks can get demoted all the way out of the Makuuchi Division into the next lower Juryo Division.

Generally during a basho, a rikishi’s fifteen bouts will come from the twenty competitors ranked within five spots above or below his position (this, of course shifts a bit as a rikishi gets closer to the bottom of the division, when there are diminishingly fewer opponents ranked lower than him).

The middle tier is called the sanyaku, which literally means three upper ranks, and is made of three named ranks—komusubi, sekiwake, and ozeki. Apart from being named, the only real difference between komusubi and sekiwake as compared to the maegashira ranks is that the sanyaku rikishi are not eligible for kinboshi [gold star awards] if they beat a yokozuna in a match. That and the fact that they have a ceiling for promotion. There are only two slots each for komusubi and sekiwake, so even if a rikishi gets kachi-koshi he sometimes will be unable to be promoted unless and until a rikishi currently in that rank gets make-koshi and is demoted and makes room.

It’s even tougher to get promoted to ozeki (which loosely translates as “champion”), though there are no limits to the number of rikishi who may hold the title simultaneously. In order to garner an ozeki promotion, a rikishi must win 33 matches over the course of three tournaments. That’s an average of eleven wins per basho—a difficult challenge. Once a rikishi is promoted to ozeki, he only has to maintain kachi-koshi records to stay there (though an ozeki is expected to win ten bouts per tournament to put in a “good showing”). What’s more, an ozeki who has make-koshi is not automatically demoted. In fact, they get one automatic reprieve, and a second chance even if they squander that. The reprieve is designed so that an ozeki who is make-koshi keeps his rank but is said to be kadoban—which means if he gets make-koshi on the following tournament he WILL be demoted. This happened to Kotoshogiku recently. He was make-koshi in November 2016, became kadoban in January 2017 and still went make-koshi, so he has been demoted to sekiwake this tournament. However, as a former ozeki, he gets one more second chance. In this tournament, if he can get 10 or more wins, he will have his ozeki rank reinstated. However, if he fails in this opportunity, he will remain a sekiwake (if he is kachi-koshi) or drop further down the banzuke [ranking sheet] if he is make-koshi and would have to start from scratch to re-earn an ozeki ranking with another 33-win streak.

Very often, yokozuna counted as being part of the sanyaku ranks, but the truth is that they are a tier of their own. Yokozuna are “grand champions” and in order to become one a rikishi must win back-to-back yusho [grand tournament championships] or do something else of equivalent stature. Once a rikishi is promoted to yokozuna, there is no more promotion or demotion—he is there for the rest of his career. But a yokozuna is expected to exemplify the best of what sumo is . . . and they are expected to win eleven or more matches per tournament. Anything less, and they risk being pressured into retirement by the Sumo Association. (In point of fact, the Sumo Association can FORCE a yokozuna to retire, but in a culture where so much emphasis is put on honor and saving face, it rarely comes to that.)

Okay, I’ve stood on my soapbox long enough. Digest that information at your leisure, and apply it to what you’re watching as the tournament goes on. In the meanwhile, let’s look at today’s top matches.

M13 Takakeisho (2–1) vs. Kyokushuho (2–1)—Sometimes two lower ranked rikishi just decide to “bring it,” and you get a glorious match. Honestly, I don’t know a whole lot about either of these rikishi. I’m familiar with their names, but they haven’t done anything consistently good (or bad) enough to stick in my memory. But today’s bout will. (1:23)

Komusubi Mitakeumi (2–1) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (3–0)—After his win yesterday over fellow sekiwake Kostoshogiku, Takayasu has another tough opponent in up-and-comer Mitakeumi. But if Takayasu wants to be an ozeki, he’s going to have to get used to having a schedule that’s filled with the best opponents . . . and he’s going to have regularly beat pretty much EVERYONE. If he can’t do that, then he’s not ready to be an ozeki anyway. (8:20)

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (2–1) vs. yokozuna Kakuryu (3–0)—Kotoshogiku is fighting to get back his ozeki rank, and yesterday’s loss to Takayasu was a stumble along the way. He could do himself a real favor by beating Kakuryu . . . and he has a fair shot at it. The two have fought forty-four times in the past, and the results are nearly even. Meanwhile, Kakuryu may be undefeated this tournament, but he’s looked lackluster the whole way. If he really wants to compete for this yusho, he’s going to have to shake off the doldrums and lay the smack down on a serious opponent like Kotoshogiku. (11:20)

Yokozuna Hakuho (2–1) vs. M1 Ikioi (0–3)—On paper this seems unlikely to be one of the top matches of the day. Ikioi is winless so far this tournament, and he’s only ever beaten Hakuho once. And even though Hakuho has shown his feet of clay lately, he’s still been fighting strong and requiring that his opponents take the initiative if they want to pry a win out of his grip . . . and Ikioi really isn’t the initiative taking type. Still, they don’t award the yusho based on how things look on paper . . . they make you fight the bout. (11:55)

M2 Sokokurai (1–2) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (3–0)—Sokokurai beat a yokozuna yesterday (Harumafuji) and he’d like to do it again AND be the first rikishi to hand Kisenosato a loss at his new yokozuna rank. On the other hand, Kisenosato still is looking calm, collected, and ready to prove what a good idea it was to promote him. (13:30)



Time to take another break from the sumotori and enjoy a more intimate look at day-to-day Japanese life, as seen through the lens of their notoriously incomprehensible television commercials.

* Turtle sour candy . . . no, I have NO idea what’s going on with this one, but I find it irresistable!
* Pogostick Samurai . . . man, do I want that to be live action, not computer enhanced!
* Homemade chocolate for one of the legendary pals . . . no giri-choco for him this Valentine’s Day!
* Tommy Lee Jones travels through time, but comes back for some canned coffee.
* And an anthropomorphic rabbit lady that really makes me inexplicably uncomfortable every time I see her.

SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 3)

It’s already been a pretty exciting and surprising tournament, despite this only being Day 3 of the Haru Basho. And even though more than a few of the big names have already suffered a loss, this still is pretty much ANYBODY’S tournament to win.

All four yokozuna won yesterday, and all of them looked pretty solid doing it (though Harumafuji gave us a scare at the edge of the tawara [straw bales that make up the ring]). Ozeki Terunofuji looks as strong and confident as he’s been in fourteen months, and sekiwake Takayasu seems like he’s serious about making a run at a promotion to ozeki (which requires him to get 33 wins over the course of three consecutive tournaments). And sekiwake Kotoshogiku (man, it still feels strange saying that) “only” needs 8 more wins to get his ozeki rank reinstated.

On the other hand, there are a few rikishi who have started slow and really NEED to get themselves in gear before they dig too deep a hole for themselves to recover from. Both M1, both M2, and one of the M3 rikishi—Takekaze, Ikioi, Sokokurai, Takanoiwa, and Shohozan—are winless after two days . . . and they all will be facing the sanyaku rikishi during Week 1. If they don’t manage to pull out an upset victory over the next few days, they’ll face the unpleasant prospect of having to win ALL of their Week 2 matches just to eke out kachi-koshi [majority of wins].

No one has really stood out among the middle- and lower-ranked Maegashira rikishi, though fans are lavishing special attention on newly promoted M12 Ura, as well as their other special favorites, M11 Ishiura, and M5 Endo. But as always, there are always a few really interesting matches in the mix of the lower- and mid-ranked matches, where make-koshi [majority of losses] could mean demotion out of the upper division entirely.

Let’s look at today’s feature matches.

M10 Tochinoshin (0–2) vs. M12 Sadanoumi (0–2)—Tochinoshin is one of my favorite rikishi, but he began this tournament with a badly hurting right leg. I predict he won’t make it all the way through the basho. It’s worth watching today’s match because he at looks at least a little like his healthy self. (3:10)

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (2–0) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (2–0)—It’s odd for such an impactful match-up to happen this early in the tournament, but this is going to be an odd basho all around. Both of these sekiwake are unbeaten so far, and both are aiming for an ozeki promotion (though, admittedly, in very different ways) so they both need to get double-digit wins . . . meaning every match matters, particularly early on. It’s possible that the result of this bout will determine WHICH of them gets his wish. (8:05)

M3 Shohozan (0–2) vs, ozeki Terunofuji (2–0)—Unexpectedly, almost inexplicably, Terunofuji suddenly is looking like his old self—powerful, confident, and strong. The wraps around his knees and arms speak to the troubles he’s had over the past year or so, but on Days 1 and 2 they seem more to draw attention to how healthy he is now. For now, though, I think it’s worth watching Terunofuji’s matches just in case this turns out to be only a temporary revival. (8:45)

M2 Takanoiwa (0–2) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (2–0)—The shin-yokozuna [newly promoted yokozuna] has started the Haru Basho the way he finished the Hatsu Basho in January—calm and dominant. If he keeps this up, he’s going to be very tough to beat, even for the other yokozuna. (11:40)

Yokozuna Harumafuji (1–1) vs. M2 Sokokurai (0–2)—What’s up with Harumafuji? He lost on Day 1 and came a bad foot placement away from losing again on Day 2. This doesn’t seem to be the result of his chronic arm problem . . . it’s like he’s lost his timing and his ring sense. He keeps overextending himself and putting himself into disadvantageous positions despite the fact that he is physically dominating his opponents. If Harumafuji doesn’t get this figured out and corrected quickly, he may be in for a VERY disappointing Haru Basho! (12:25)

SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 2)

It’s Day 2 of the Osaka Basho and already things are in high gear. With four yokozuna, and Hakuho having called them out to try to all have perfect records over the first ten days, I don’t think anyone foresaw yesterday’s performances.

First of all, Hakuho himself losing in the final match against a young up-and-comer is pretty shocking, but Harumafuji ALSO lost, to just-lost-his-ozeki-rank Kotoshogiku. What’s more Kakuryu looked very shaky in his win over Mitakeumi, so the only yokozuna who looked strong and confident was the newly promoted Kisenosato. 

Meanwhile, kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] Terunofuji looked strong in his opening match. Word before the tournament was that he still had both knee and arm injuries that were bothering him, but if he can put in a strong performance it could be just what he needs to get past the struggles he’s faced over the past year.

I have a feeling this is going to be a wild, unpredictable tournament, with a strong pack of dark horses staying in or one-off the lead deep into the second week. If so, there will be a lot of interesting things to discuss here on the blog over the coming fortnight. In the meanwhile, though, let’s look at the Day 2 action.

M13 Daishomaru (1–0) vs. M12 Ura (1–0)—Ura had a pretty good start to his Makuuchi Division career yesterday. He’s one of the rikishi that everyone in the sumo world is talking about, so let’s see how he does on Day 2.  (1:05)

M10 Tochinoshin (0–1) vs. M11 Ishiura (0–1) Tochinoshin’s right leg is taped from mid-thigh all the way down to the bottom of his calf, and yesterday he STILL looked like he could barely stand on it. Today he faces Ishiura, who is someone the big Georgian can easily pick up and move around IF he can get his hands on him. That’s easier said than done, because Ishiura is speedy and nimble.  (1:11)

M9 Kotoyuki (1–0) vs. M8 Okinoumi (0–1)—Kotoyuki has been interesting to watch over the last year or so. Whenever he’s ranked in the middle of the banzuke [ranking sheet], as he is now at M9, he seems to put on a pretty dominant performance. But whenever he gets to the top of the banzuke, the more experienced rikishi there generally know how to handle him. His opponent today, M8 Okinoumi, is a rikishi who BELONGS at the top of the banzuke … so it should be interesting to see how they match up today. (1:35)

Sekiwake Kotoshogiku (1–0) vs. M2 Takanoiwa (0–1)—Kotoshogiku had a good start to his campaign to be reinstated as an ozeki with yesterday’s win over yokozuna Harumafuji. He looked as strong and confident as he did in January 2016 when he won the yusho [tournament championship], but then one ALWAYS puts one’s best foot forward when facing a yokozuna. A better test for how strong he’s feeling is today’s match against Takanoiwa, (4:05)

Ozeki Goeido (1–0) vs. sekiwake Takayasu (1–0)—I’m still having a hard time taking Goeido seriously as the “reliable ozeki.” Despite his perfect record in September, he’s only had double-digit wins in one other basho while fighting at this rank. He seems to have all the pieces he needs to be a reliable ozeki, but he only puts them together about 50% of the time . . . and that’s just not good enough. The body is strong, but the spirit is unreliable. On the other hand, his opponent today has put together double digit winning records four times in the last year and seems to be making a real run at a possible promotion to ozeki. The question is, whose spirit will be stronger today? (4:40)

Komusubi Shodai (1–0) vs. yokozuna Kisenosato (1–0)—Kisenosato started off his first basho at sumo’s highest rank with a strong win yesterday, even while his fellow yokozuna struggled (and two of them actually lost) in their matches. His opponent today is Shodai, who beat Hakuho on Day 1 and is certainly on the hunt for another win over a yokozuna to add to his collection. (6:15)

JAPANESE TV ADS: Pink Revolution!

I’ve fallen behind when it comes to posting the collections of bizarre Japanese TV commercials, so I’ll mix them in among the sumo reports (that way, the non-sports-minded have something interesting to see, too)!

* “Young Man” is the Japanese title for The Village People’s disco classic, “Y.M.C.A.” I first discovered this in a Fuji City karaoke bar, and my life has never been the same. May this commercial have the same effect on all of you.
* Robo-Cat makes a surprisingly realistic-yet-effective maneki-neko.
* I don’t generally eat McDonalds, but I want the toys from the Super Mario Happy Set!

SUMO: 2017 Haru Basho (Day 1)

G’day, and welcome to Day 1 of the 2017 Haru Basho . . . the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament, sometimes called the Osaka Basho (because that’s the city where this tournament is held). As I said in yesterday’s post, there’s a lot of drama and expectations swirling around this tournament even before any of the rikishi go head to head. 

An added bit of information on the banzuke [ranking sheet], Brazilian rikishi M8 Kaisei injured himself during practice last week and begins the tournament kyujo [absent due to illness or injury]. His oyakata [stable master] says there’s some chance he may join the tournament mid-week if he’s feeling better . . . but if he’s hurt badly enough to miss Day 1, I think he should just take the whole basho off and get truly healthy.

Also, as you’ll see if you watch the whole video, M10 Tochinoshin is barely able to stand because of his right leg. Much as I was hoping to see him have a strong tournament at this low ranking, I’d rather he pull out before he does himself harm that could send him spiraling out of the division again. 

Other than that, there’s not much to say here on Day 1 other than “Let the games begin!”

M12 Sadanoumi vs. M12 Ura—Ura is making his top-division debut. He’s an undersized rikishi who uses speed and a variety of unusual kimarite [winning techniques] to keep everyone guessing. Chances are that the sheer size difference will be more of a problem than he anticipates, but his matches should be marked by interesting moves and lots of energy. (2:45)

M11 Ishiura vs. M10 Tochiozan—Ishiura is the other undersized rikishi who came up to the top division two tournaments ago. He took his opponents by surprise his first tournament, and then they repaid him by completely overpowering him in January. The question is whether he can put together enough clever tricks to stay in the top division for the long haul. Tochiozan, on the other hand had a terrific first half of 2016, spending most of it ranked in sanyaku (the top 4 named ranks), but has been in a slump for the past few basho. He’s hoping to get things turned around against the lesser opponents he’ll be facing at his current rank. (3:15)

M2 Shohozan vs. sekiwake Takayasu—Shohozan is a real bulldog of rikishi—small, muscular, tough, and always moving forward. I don’t particularly like his style, but I have to admire his tenacity. Takayasu has a ton of skill and style, but sometimes he forgets to focus on winning his matches. (He’s from the same stable as shin-yokozuna Kisenosato, whose career has also been dogged by that kind of lack of focus.) Still, Takayasu has looked very good the last few tournaments, and if he can keep himself in the yusho hunt, he may well earn a promotion to ozeki sometime later this year. (8:05)

Sekiwake Sokokurai vs. ozeki Terunofuji—Ternofuji is kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] this basho, so he MUST win at least eight matches. Of course, he’s got FIVE matches against ozeki and yokozuna, so its VERY important that he win as many of his Week 1 matches as possible. Today’s performance could tell us a lot about how healthy he is, and how likely he is to get his kachi-koshi [majority of wins]. (9:05)

1E Takekaze vs. yokozuna Kisenosato—It’s Kisenosato’s debut match as a yokozuna. You may note that he has a big bandage over his left eye. It seems that he suffered a head-butt during practice last week and it opened a pretty big gash (requiring some undisclosed number of stitches). Let’s hope that doesn’t present a problem over the course of this tournament. (10:15)

Yokozuna Harumafuji vs. sekiwake Kotoshogiku—Having suffered make-koshi [majority of losses] while kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] last tournament, Kotoshogiku now must win ten matches this time in order to regain his ozeki status. If he fails to do that, even if he’s kachi-koshi, he will become just another rank-and-file rikishi and would have to put together another impressive winning streak to get re-promoted back up to his old rank. Meanwhile, Harumafuji got subtly chastised by the Sumo Association in January for losing too many matches to low ranked rikishi, and then he had to drop out mid-tournament because of injury. He surely wants to come back and show that he’s still got what it takes to dominate as a yokozuna. (10:45)

Yokozuna Hakuho vs. komusubi Shodai—Hakuho has publicly said that he hopes that all the yokozuna will have perfect records over the course of the first eleven days, throwing down the gauntlet for the others. Of course, that means that he has to perform at the top of his game, too, after looking surprisingly “human” in recent tournaments. Can he dominate the way he used to? And will the other yokozuna follow suit? (12:00)

SUMO: There’s A New Yokozuna In Town

It’s been a surprisingly busy six weeks since the end of January’s hon-basho [grand tournament]. Following his first ever yusho [tournament championship] win and an overall 2016 record that was better than anyone else in the sport of sumo, bar none, the Kyokai [Sumo Association] decided to promote Kisenosato from ozeki to yokozuna. This makes him the first native-Japanese rikishi to be promoted to sumo’s top rank since 1998 . . . and the Haru Basho [Spring Tournament] in Osaka will be the first to see competition from a native-Japanese yokozuna since 2002. 

As is traditional, within a few days of being promoted, Kisenosato did his first dohyo-iri [ring entering ceremony] outdoors in front of a crowd of 18,000 people at Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine. Then, in early February, he made a definitive statement by winning the annual one-day tournament. And throughout the rest of the winter break, he continued to train and (more importantly) was judicious in the number of congratulatory parties and events he attended, hoping to avoid the all too common post-promotion slump.

The Haru Basho doesn’t start until tomorrow, and already there’s enough drama to fill an issue os Soap Opera Digest.

To begin with, can Kisenosato repeat his performance from January and win back-to-back tournaments? (The fact that he didn’t meet that threshold has some sumo purists saying that he doesn’t actually deserve his new promotion . . . though I think they’re nuts.) Can Hakuho bounce back from what was (by his standards) a mediocre performance that had him failing to win a yusho for four straight tournaments (something that had NEVER before happened since he was promoted to yokozuna in 2007)?

Hakuho said something interesting the other day. Actually, the fact that Hakuho said ANYTHING at all to the press is pretty much news in its own right, but what he said was that his dream was for all four yokozuna to be undefeated when they begin to face each other during the final days of the basho. And given that over the past few years you could pretty well COUNT on Harumafuji or Kakuryu—often both—to stumble and five up a kin-boshi [gold star awarded to a maegashira-ranked rikishi who beats a yokozuna] somewhere in the first week, that IS a lofty dream. But in a time when all the yokozuna are healthy, that sort of performance OUGHT to be standard. It’s just a shame that it’s been so long since we’ve seen it actually HAPPEN.

In the days leading up to Day 1 of the Haru Basho, it seems like all the the yokozuna ARE healthy, and in good mental states. So perhaps Hakuho will get his wish . . . and the rest of us will be treated to some real top-notch sumo.

For the past two years we’ve had banzuke [ranking sheets] that featured four strong rikishi at the rank of ozeki. However, with Kisenosato’s promotion and Kotoshogiku’s demotion (after failing to achieve kachi-koshi [majority of wins] for two tournaments in a row), the Osaka Basho only has two men at sumo’s second-highest rank. One of them is Terunofuji, who has been plagued with injuries so badly that he only seems to be able to make kachi-koshi every other tournament. Indeed, after another terrible performance in January, he is kadoban [threatened with ozeki demotion] again in Osaka, and word is that he’s added a left arm injury to his chronic knee problems.

That leaves Goeido as the only “solid” ozeki in the basho . . . Goeido, who has a long record of narrow kadoban escapes over the past few years, and only TWICE in his three-year ozeki career has managed to get double-digit wins (a mark which generally is considered the baseline for an “acceptable” performance at that rank). Of course, both of those tournaments happened in 2016, including his zensho yusho [perfect record tournament victory] in September. It’s possible he really has turned a corner and will put up more double-digit win tournaments this year . . . but if he doesn’t then we’re apt to be saddled with a very weak class of ozeki for some time to come.

Meanwhile, Kotoshogiku’s demotion means that he’s fighting as a sekiwake this basho. However, if he can manage to get ten or more wins in Osaka, he will have his ozeki status restored (if he doesn’t, though, he’ll have to re-earn the promotion the hard way, just like all the other rank-and-file rikishi). It seems like a dauntingly tough ask of Kotoshogiku, who has been plagued with injuries over the past year. Basically, he must have a perfect record against all maegashira, komusubi, and sekiwake opponents, and THEN still find a way to beat at least one of the ozeki or yokozuna, ALL of whom he will certainly have to fight.

That’s plenty of drama for any tournament . . . and we’ve still only talked about the top nine rikishi on the banzuke! There are two other rikishi—sekiwake Takayasu and komusubi Shodai—who, if they do well this basho could put themselves in position for promotions to the rank of ozeki in May. Meanwhile, there are some strong rikishi who did poorly in January that, if they are healthy and focused, could take advantage of their low banzuke rankings to compete for the yusho in Osaka (the way Ichinojo did in January)—I’m looking at you M10 Tochiozan, M10 Tochinoshin, M12 Sadanoumi, and M14 Myogiryu.

And to top it all off, there’s an exciting young rikishi making his Makeuuchi debut. Ura is an undersized fighter (only 5’6″ and 282 lbs.) who has a reputation for high speed sumo with all kinds of inventive maneuvers. He’ll be M12 this tournament, while Ishiura—a similar rikishi—is ranked at M11, and this means LOTS of very interesting matches in the middle of the banzuke for the whole of the tournament.

The 2017 Haru Basho kicks off tomorrow and runs for the next fifteen days. I’ve got some deadlines and other work on my docket, but I’ll do my best to keep a steady stream of reports and video links posted here on my blog. If you enjoy those, please consider donating to the tip jars of the YouTubers who make that coverage possible—Kintamayama and Taisha Jason.

JAPANESE TV ADS: Crazy Makes The Future!

It’s a new year . . . and time for the first two-week recap of bizarre commercials fresh off Japanese TV! This first 2017 volume includes:

• The perfect motto for 2017, presented by Cup Noodle—”Crazy Makes the Future!” (Just repeat this to yourself whenever you hear breaking news about the Trump administration.)
• Godzilla vs. Soft Bank
• BitFlyer . . . maybe a catalog to purchase things using bitcoin?
• Samurai Surf Team!

SUMO: 2017 Hatsu Basho Senshuraku [Final Day] (Day 15)

It’s senshuraku [the final day] of the 2017 Hatsu Basho! Man, that fortnight went quickly! And here on Day 15 we already know the outcome of the yusho [tournament championship] race. With his win yesterday over M13 Ichinojo, and yokozuna Hakuho’s loss to M10 Takanoiwa, ozeki Kisenosato has guaranteed himself his first ever tournament victory! 

It was a very long time coming. This is Kisenosato’s 73rd tournament in the Makuuchi division, and his 31st as an ozeki. For the past three years he has been the second winningest rikishi in the upper division, behind only yokozuna Hakuho (and beating out both yokozuna Harumafuji and yokozuna Kakuryu). In 2016 he finished in second place (one win behind the yusho winner) in four out of six basho, and won more overall matches than anyone else. He has been performing yokozuna-level sumo for at least the past two years, but his inability to win a tournament has kept him from being awarded that promotion. 

In order to be promoted to sumo’s highest rank, a rikishi must win back-to-back yusho, or do something deemed by the Yokozuna Deliberation Council to be of equivalent merit. I think that just about everyone watching sumo for the past two years would say that Kisenosato has met that bar . . . but that never having won a yusho was a shortcoming that couldn’t be overlooked. It’s entirely possible that if he can finish a strong second in Osaka this coming March, that it will be good enough to get him the nod.

It’s even possible that the YDC will give him the promotion after THIS basho if he beats Hakuho convincingly enough today (though I bet they’ll announce it ahead of time, if this is their intention). [EDIT: In fact, no decision was made today (despite what it says on the video). According to the Japan Times, the YDC will meet on Monday, and the Nihon Sumo Kyokai [Japan Sumo Association] will have an extraordinary meeting on Wednesday to make an official ruling on the matter of Kisenosato’s possible promotion.]

M10 Takanoiwa (11–3) vs. M10 Sokokurai (11–3)—Two rikishi who stayed in the yusho hunt up until the end, and one of whom is guaranteed to be at least tied for second place. Both rikishi were awarded special prizes for their performances this basho. Sokokurai was given a Gino-sho [Technique Prize] for all of the novel kimarite [winning techniques] he used in his successful campaign. Meanwhile, Takanoiwa received a Shukun-sho [Outstanding Performance Prize] particularly on the merit of his win over yokozuna Hakuho on Day 14. (2:20)

M9 Kaisei (7–7) vs. M13 Gagamaru (5–9) (3:50)
M8 Hokutofuji (8–6) vs. M14 Chiyoo (7–7) (4:15)
M6 Chiyoshoma (7–7) vs. M15 Sadanoumi (7–7) (5:10)
M14 Chiyootori (6–8) vs. M5 Yoshikaze (7–7) (5:40)
These are the matches that include rikishi who currently sit at 7–7 and are fighting for their kachi-koshi [majority of wins]. These are always the most hard-fought bouts on senshuraku. The saddest pairing is Chiyoshoma vs. Sadanoumi where they BOTH are 7–7, so one of them will definitely end up make-koshi [majority of losses].

M8 Chiyonokuni (9–5) vs. M1 Mitakeumi (10–4) (8:10)
Komusubi Takayasu (10–4) vs. M4 Endo (7–7) (9:25)
These matches both feature rikishi who are expected to make a run at an ozeki promotion in 2017—Mitakeumi and Takayasu—not to mention the fact that Endo is the last of the 7–7 rikishi. Both of the 10–4 rikishi need one more win to take the first reliable step on that track. Also, these two both were awarded special prizes for their performance in the Hatsu Basho. Mitakeumi was given a Gino-sho [Technique Prize]—he’s a young rikishi who seems to learn new lessons and techniques each day, and immediately apply them to his sumo. Takayasu, on the other hand, was awarded a Kanto-Sho [Fighting Spirit Prize] which certainly came from the fact that in this basho he beat three ozeki (Terunofuji, Goeido, and Kotoshogiku) and two yokozuna (Harumafuji and Hakuho).

Ozeki Terunofuji (4–10) vs. ozeki Kotoshogiku (4–10)—There is nothing of great merit about this match, other than it may be the last time we see Kotoshogiku as an ozeki . . . and if he decides to retire, it may be the last time we see him at all. (11:35)

Yokozua Hakuho (11–3) vs. ozeki Kisenosato (13–1)—This is it. Kisenosato has sewn up the yusho, but so far he’s done it without having to face any of the toughest opponents (thanks to injuries and withdrawals). If he loses his only match against a yokozuna, there will be whisperings about this being a “weak” yusho. On the other hand, Hakuho is embarrassed by this being the fourth basho in a row that he hasn’t been able to win (something that has never happened since he became a yokozuna) and by the number of kinboshi [gold stars for a rank-and-file rikishi beating a yokozuna]. Showing dominance over the yusho winner would be a salve to his singed pride. (12:11)