Orchestrating an Ozeki Run
In the summer of 1995, I was a 25 year-old kid working in Fukuoka for the city
government. The 50 year anniversary of the end of World War II was upon us, and
there were several controversies making headlines. In the Western Hemisphere,
the United States Post Office had announced a series of stamps commemorating the
end of the war, and one of the planned stamps was to simply feature a mushroom
cloud. The Japanese people took great offense to this due to the hundreds of
thousands of people who had suffered as a result of the atomic bombs, and the
mushroom cloud stamp was eventually scrapped. Then, in the Eastern hemisphere,
you had aging women from Korea, the Philippines, China, etc. who were demanding
compensation from the Japanese government as reparations for being forced to
work as sex slaves during Japan's occupation of much of Asia prior to and during
the war. Reports had the number of women forced into this situation totaling in
the hundreds of thousands, and while Japan's prime minister did eventually issue
a carefully worded statement, it wasn't really an apology and the government
hasn't compensated the former sex slaves a single yen.
In the midst of this, I remember being asked by several coworkers about the postage stamp and why America would even consider releasing such a stamp. Having never given it any thought beforehand, I speculated in my reply to them that the dropping of the atomic bombs was a major occurrence and led to the end of the war, so they probably used the mushroom cloud to symbolize the end of the war. I realized my mistake less than two seconds later when the stern lecture began about how insensitive it was to the victims of the atomic bombs. I still remember saying that a lot of people died in the war on both sides, but the quick reply was, "yes, but Japan is the only country that has had an atomic bomb dropped on them."
I quickly learned through those types of conversations that World War II in the minds of modern-day Japanese people centers around their being victims of the atomic bomb and little else (just read the history books used in Japanese schools). So when stories appear in the news about comfort women demanding an apology from Japan's government, the reaction of the people is: war is bad. When riots take place in front of Japanese embassies because the Ministry of Education just approved new history text books that once again completely gloss over war atrocities committed by the Japanese military, the reaction of the people is: strive for peace. When Japan's neighbors get upset because the prime minister visits the Yasukuni Shrine to pay his respects to Japan's war dead that happens to include military leaders who inflicted unspeakable terror on the countries they occupied, the reaction of the people is: we were victims of the atomic bombs.
The Japanese people will see what they're programmed to see even if such obvious evidence to the contrary exists all around them. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people victimized by the atomic bomb...Japan embraces it. Hundreds of thousands of innocent women victimized by the Japanese army...Japan dismisses it. And my purpose is not to pass judgment on the Japanese people; rather, it's simply to provide a non-sumo analogy that illustrates how Japanese people will see what they are programmed to see and believe what they are told to believe by the government and mainstream media. It's simply a cultural thing, and I learned quickly that there's no sense in arguing with the Japanese or even questioning them about an ideology entrenched in their culture even if sound contradictions exist to counter such beliefs. Another good example of this I've explained before is gambling, which is illegal in Japan; yet, there are gambling halls (called Pachinko parlors) on nearly every city block. Westerners visiting Japan will laugh at such blatant contradictions, but the Japanese people simply do not process them because that's just the way it is. It's cultural.
So as I scanned the headlines the morning after the Aki basho, I was first taken aback by the sheer number of articles talking about sumo because with no current scandal on our hands, this is probably the highest number of articles I've seen since we started the site. And secondly, I also couldn't help but notice the cultural spin that was being programmed into the minds of the Japanese to explain what had just occurred at the Aki basho and why. Using several headlines from the final two days of the basho, here is the gist of what I saw from various news agencies:
"Kotoshogiku secures Ozeki promotion! First Japanese rikishi in 4 years" Sponichi Annex 9/25
"Kotoshogiku to become Ozeki on the 28th" Jiji Tsushin 9/25
"Hakuho avoids 3rd loss in a row...barely" Daily Sports 9/25
"Kisenosato receives highest marks from Sumo Association 'Fighting Spirit' surveys" Jiji Tsushin 9/25
"Kisenosato, now it's his quest for Ozeki" Sankei Shinbun 9/25
"Aki basho: Ticket sales make comeback due to Kotoshogiku's performance" Sponichi Annex 9/26
"YDC Chairman...'Hakuho's power is fading' " Mainichi Shinbun 9/26
In the midst of those headlines were announcements that Hakuho had won his 20th career yusho and that Takanoyama had announced his engagement to a gal from Chiba, but the pattern was clear to me in that Kotoshogiku's promotion to Ozeki was a done deal, Kisenosato is next in line, and Hakuho is starting to slip. In concert, every news outlet was essentially spinning what occurred on the dohyo that final week in order to justify Kotoshogiku's premature promotion to Ozeki, explain the consecutive losses by Hakuho, and firmly establish Kisenosato as a legitimate Ozeki candidate for Kyushu.
Let's first talk about Kotoshogiku's promotion to Ozeki. I was a bit surprised that the media was unanimously declaring his promotion after the day 14 bouts. The basho wasn't even over, and Kotoshogiku was actually tied for the yusho lead, but the majority of headlines were already crying from the rooftops: a new Japanese Ozeki to be born! There was little talk of his yusho chances, and there wasn't a single article speculating whether he had done enough since just 33 wins hasn't been sufficient for promotion in over a decade. Both Miyabiyama and Kotomitsuki finished with 34 wins (Miyabiyama did it twice) and were both denied promotion, so why is Kotoshogiku getting promoted with 33 wins and no questions asked? It's a cultural thing in that Japanese pride cannot stand having a banzuke with no Japanese rikishi gracing the Yokozuna or Ozeki ranks. Under such circumstances, people are far less likely to patronize sumo when the Association can't even produce an elite rikishi in their national sport.
When you go back and look at the events over the last year, I find some interesting coincidences. First, the Sumo Association knew in May 2010 that there was hard evidence that rikishi were participating in bout fixing, and the evidence would have to come out since it was already in the hands of the police and it had to have been known to the media as well. Since the sport was already taking it on the chin due to the gambling scandal (which is how the yaocho evidence was found), sumo couldn't afford to have the bout fixing information leaked as well. That had to wait until things had calmed down.
The Sumo Association knew that the yaocho scandal would be it's worst, but they also knew that Ozeki Kaio could not be allowed to continue if the sport came under close scrutiny for thrown bouts. The problem with having Kaio retire, however, was that would leave sumo with zero Japanese Ozeki or Yokozuna, a circumstance that is unacceptable to Japanese pride, not to mention a huge blow to future ticket sales. When Kotoshogiku and Kisenosato scored double-digit wins from the sanyaku at the Hatsu basho, I think it's possible that the Sumo Association elders recognized a window to get at least one of the two rikishi promoted to replace Kaio, who would soon have no choice but to retire. Takanohana-oyakata made that startling proclamation that I reviewed in my day 13 comments where Kotoshogiku and Kisenosato would be considered as Ozeki candidates pending their performances at the Haru basho. It was crazy news at the time because the two had been in the sanyaku for just one basho, and their 10 and 11 wins respectively wasn't that spectacular.
A week later, though, sumo would go through it's toughest trial yet when information that rikishi were fixing bouts was finally allowed to come out. We know that the Haru basho was cancelled and that the Natsu basho was stripped of it's hon-basho status, but records from the Natsu basho would still be recorded as official results. This was important for two reasons: Kaio needed to surpass Chiyonofuji's all time career mark of 1,045 wins to give the veteran a soft landing in retirement after three tough years of ugly sumo full of yaocho in his behalf. It also gave the chance for Kotoshogiku and Kisenosato to have good basho that could be used as part of their Ozeki runs. Kaio barely made it past Chiyonofuji's record, and then the Ozeki could clearly go no further retiring basically on the spot after reaching 1,046. As for Kotoshogiku, he took full advantage of the consideration he was being given by winning 11 bouts in May, which meant he was a prime candidate for Ozeki in Nagoya.
In Nagoya, it was clear that Yokozuna Hakuho allowed Kotoshogiku to beat him to buoy his cause for Ozeki promotion. Kotoshogiku, however, dropped two late bouts to Wakanosato and Okinoumi leaving him with just 10 wins, and there was no way they could promote him with such low marks. So, the Aki basho banzuke was released with Kaio gone and no Japanese Ozeki ready to take his place. Kotoshogiku needed 12 wins in order to secure promotion, and he made everyone in the Association breathe easy when he jumped out to an 8-0 start. I specifically remember on day 1 calling his bout against Wakanosato yaocho. Wakanosato's fall didn't look right to me, and while I had no reason to suspect yaocho at the time, looking back, I'm quite sure that wasn't the only bout given to the Geeku in week 1. I reported most of that week, and I remember thinking to myself, "when is Kotoshogiku actually going to fight an orthodox bout?". It was a strange week 1, and then he was clearly given those wins over Hakuho and Harumafuji to seal his 12 wins by day 14. That evening, it was already out in the press that Kotoshogiku had secured promotion to Ozeki. No debate or speculation whatsoever. It was a done deal because it was orchestrated long before the basho started.
Another curious event that I commented on early in the year was the timing of the punishment for the former Miyagino-oyakata. During the yaocho scandal, I commented several times that it was interesting the media failed to recall even once that the stable master of an Ozeki actually got caught admitting on tape that he paid 3 million yen for a win over then Yokozuna Asashoryu. The Sumo Association never disputed the validity of that tape because it was true. A Japanese tabloid used that tape as a basis for the magazine to begin publishing a string of articles talking about bout fixing in Japan. The tabloid was sued of course and eventually ended paying a pittance for their "crimes," a fair exchange for the publicity and magazine sales they garnered, but the fact remained: a Yokozuna was involved in a fixed bout with a substantial payout. Yet, after the various civil lawsuits were settled, the media failed to ever bring up the subject again, and I haven't seen it since even when earlier this year everyone was scrutinizing past bouts and demonstrating where yaocho had occurred during the height of the bout fixing scandal. The focus by the media on bout fixing was controlled and stayed on Maegashira and Juryo rikishi for a reason.
During Japan's biggest holiday, O-Shogatsu (New Years), the Sumo Association finally punished Miyagino-oyakata by stripping him of his right to run a stable. The timing of this news was planned so it would generate as little press as possible, and other than two or three line articles on the wires, the news came and went faster than a Japanese pop singer. I believe the timing of this was extremely significant because the Sumo Association needed an old boy back in the saddle of the Miyagino-beya, the stable to which Hakuho belonged. The Miyagino-oyakata who admitted yaocho was a young, jackass who had no business running a stable. He inherited the stable through an arranged marriage, but was so incompetent and useless that he was merely a figurehead with Hakuho's true mentor, Kumagatani-oyakata, getting the limelight. Once the hapless oyakata was fired from his post and the reins given back to Kumagatani--who then reassumed the Miyagino name--the Sumo Association once again had someone they could trust guiding Hakuho.
Having Hakuho participate in yaocho is risky for sure, but there was no way that Kotoshogiku and Kisenosato could overcome the Yokozuna on their own to secure promotion to Ozeki, and there was no way the Sumo Association could trust the former Miyagino-oyakata to instruct the Yokozuna on what needed to be done and keep his trap shut. So, the current Miyagino-oyakata, who has also been Hakuho's mentor from the start, was conveniently put back in official charge of the Yokozuna prior to these new Ozeki runs, and Hakuho has been clearly cooperating in the ring when facing Kisenosato and Kotoshogiku. I expect this trend to continue, especially if Kisenosato needs wins in Kyushu, and don't forget Kaio's last ever bout against Hakuho in May where the Yokozuna allowed himself to be forced back and out by the Old Gray Mare. Talk about a team player.
My intent with this article is not to drum up some supposed scandal and expose the Sumo Association for allowing fixed bouts to continue. Rather, I am merely pointing out that culturally, there has to be a Japanese rikishi in the Ozeki or Yokozuna ranks, and the Sumo Association will use any means possible to ensure this. Take the rule that allows just one foreign rikishi per stable. Why would such a rule need to be enacted in the first place? The reason is rikishi from Mongolia and Eastern Europe were beginning to dominate relegating the Japanese rikishi to an inferior status. The Sumo Association realized the effect this would have on the psyche of the Japanese people and quickly put a policy in place to curb foreign dominance. Even now, about 20% of the stables no longer carry a foreigner, and I'm sure the trend will continue as surely the matter to shun foreign entry into sumo is being discussed behind closed doors among the elders. Recently, an amateur rikishi from Egypt visited Japan and thoroughly roughed up several Makushita rikishi in keiko. One would think the stables would be clamoring to sign him up, but no one seemed interested except the Otake-beya, a stable that has been ostracized from its Ichimon and has no further enemies to create by embracing another foreigner.
The policy to limit the number of foreign rikishi is working, and you can see that Baruto and Kotooshu have little left in the tank. They should retire in the next two years, and Hakuho's retirement will not be far behind. The landscape is definitely shifting, and in three or four years, Japan will once again be dominating sumo, which will clear the way for the sport's next--dare I say it--Japanese Yokozuna. Until that happens, however, the Sumo Association needs a quick fix now to let the people know that hope is not lost and that Japanese rikishi can still obtain the elite ranks in the sport. Kotoshogiku is Ozeki material, but the Geeku's body of work the last three basho has been the lamest in the history of the sport for one promoted to this elite rank.
I find it comical that such obvious yaocho involving a dai-Yokozuna continues to take place in prominent matches directly on the heels of a bout-fixing scandal, but then again, I think with a Western mindset. I also know this kind of talk makes many sumo fans uncomfortable because they want to believe that the sport is pure, the way it's sold in the media. But just because the Japanese media and fans at large don't question or report it for reasons previously explained, it doesn't mean that it's not happening. Yaocho is alive and well, and this latest promotion to Ozeki is a perfect example of how integral bout fixing is in sumo.
As for Kotoshogiku, he was all smiles after officially receiving the news that he had been promoted, but now he's got to assume the burden of the Ozeki rank without having achieved it all his own. And you will see the effects of that starting with the Kyushu basho since in reality, Kotoshogiku is a 9-10 win guy basho in and basho out. But the important thing is that order has partially been restored to the banzuke, and now it's just a waiting game for the current foreigners to retire, and the future of Japan to rise back up and take their proper places among the ranks of the elite.