Frustrating Sumo from the Eastern Europeans
I would say that more often times than not, the sumo of Roho,
Kokkai, and Hakurozan can be described as "frustrating." All three
hail from Eastern Europe, and all three made rapid climbs up the banzuke only to
stall once they neared the Makuuchi jo'i or sanyaku. Why? Roho and his brother,
Hakurozan, boast significant strength, but each seems to fail to capitalize on
that strength opting for too many pull down moves or too much sumo where their
chest isn't up against the chest of their opponents. Kokkai, no weakling, has
also shown flashes of brilliance--hey, he kicked Asashoryu's ass last basho, but
far too often the Georgian looks confused and abandons his style of sumo that
gives him the advantage over his opponents. I submit that the un-polished sumo
exhibited by these guys is a direct result of being brought up in stables where
the proper hazing, bullying, and discipline from senior rikishi did not exist.
Sounds crazy, I know, but let's use Hakurozan as an example. He fights from the Hatachiyama-beya. Ever heard of it before Hakurozan came along? I didn't think so. You look at the current lineup of Hatachiyama-beya rikishi, and it consists of Hakurozan and 10 other rikishi with the highest being Shotenyu ranked at Sandanme 28. Suppose you're Shotenyu, the highest-ranked rikishi in your stable, when they introduce the new guy, a beast from Russia who is already bigger and stronger than you. You're not going to bully him even though it's your right as his senpai because you know full well he'll pass your current rank in a year or so and then turn around and kick your ass in return for all of the unkind treatment. So Hakurozan enters the fray and begins practicing with his stablemates, but there's no one there standing over him with a bamboo sword taking swipes at him when he veers away from sound sumo. There's no one there to practice butsukari-geiko with him and drag him around by the hair or his ears until he collapses in exhaustion. Hakurozan learns the system as he goes and rises through the ranks on sheer ability and size.
Roho hails from the Otake-beya, another stable with the next best being a Sandanme rikishi. Same story. Sure, Roho's original stable master was the great Taiho, but the stable master is in a difficult position. He really needs a senior rikishi to take charge of the keiko sessions and discipline, but there's no one to do it. The stable master can also step in and administer the beatings himself, but he can't risk breaking the relationship with his golden goose. A foreigner like Roho was obviously brought in to get the stable's name on the map and to generate more income by having a high-profile rikishi.
Kokkai comes from a bit more prominent stable that included at the time Hayateumi, but Kokkai was bigger on his first day on the job than Hayateumi was already. Furthermore, can you picture Hayateumi as a stable leader barking out orders to the younger guys and kicking their asses around? I believe at the time, Hayateumi also had more things to worry about like a blown out knee. The majority of rikishi enter the sport as scrawny 15 or 16 year olds who are too young to shave. That translates into easy bully material. Then you have Kokkai come in who is already bigger and stronger than everyone and has facial hair growing back 30 minutes after he shaves. No one is going to push Kokkai around incessantly because they all know that what goes around when Kokkai is new will come around when Kokkai rises above them in the ranks.
My theory is, then, that these huge foreign rikishi, are brought into the sport and rise up the ranks on size and ability, but aren't receiving the discipline that helps them conform to the sumo basics once they reach the big time. Contrast these three guys with Kotooshu, who comes form one of the most well-established stables in the history of the sport, the Sadogatake-beya. Grant it, line all four of these guys up before they enter the sport, and Kotooshu has the height advantage, but I think that Kotooshu's superior yotsu-zumo skills, his ring sense, and his rapid success in the sport is directly related to the training he received at the hands of his senpai as he rose through the ranks. When Kotooshu entered sumo, he had Kotomitsuki, Kotonowaka, Kotoryu, and a recently retired Kotonishiki to train and discipline him. You can't beat that, and now Sadogatake-beya is reaping the rewards.
Switching gears, have you ever watched amateur sumo? It's okay entertainment, but the first thing I always notice is that the tachi-ai are horrible. Sound sumo basics are also frequently substituted by hyper dudes trying to tackle each other rather than basing their attacks from the lower body up. If Japanese rikishi are in the amateur tournaments, they'll usually come out on top as they've received the necessary training and discipline from their school clubs, etc. You know...the whole senpai - kohai thing chock full of bullying, hazing, and discipline. I think amateur sumo is so different from professional sumo in Japan because the amateurs do their thing and then go home. They don't have to cook anyone's meals; they don't go hungry; they don't have to wipe anyone's arse; they don't get dragged around the dohyo by their ears or hair; no bottles are broken over their heads; no bamboo sword strikes on the back of the leg; basically, they don't suffer any abuse. I think all of that is a critical element of the sport that makes the sumo you watch on NHK so high-quality and polished...for the most part. I'm not suggesting that Roho, Hakurozan, and Kokkai are glorified amateurs--far from it. I am suggesting, however, that their lapses in the quality of their sumo is a direct result of insufficient training and discipline when first entering the sport.