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2015 Haru Pre-basho Report

The off-season in between these two basho has been dominated by a single, surprising topic: Hakuho's scathing remarks aimed at the competency level of the judges regarding his day 13 bout against Kisenosato. Hakuho expressed his concern during his yusho press conference where he stated the following:

"There was one bout that was suspicious. On day 13. Even a child could have figured out that sumo. I really felt hurt after that bout. I expect them to do their job with more urgency than that. They're all former sumo guys, right? They had video to help with the decision. Furthermore, they of all people understand the weight of a rematch. The color of one's skin should have nothing to do with it. If we step on the dohyo and tie our hair into the same top-knot, we both represent the spirit of Japan. It doesn't matter if we have any status or not. We're all the same human beings."

In no time the media jumped on the remarks and demanded an apology from the historic Yokozuna, but Hakuho doubled down and stood behind his remarks refusing to recant them or say that he misspoke. Miyagino-oyakata did officially apologize to the elders within the Sumo Association for his rikishi's remarks following the uproar in the media, and Kitanoumi Rijicho stated that the matter was closed by mid-week after the comments, but Hakuho has refused to apologize, and so ever since the backlash over his stance on the judges' behavior, an icy relationship has developed between the Yokozuna and the media to where he is only offering comments now at formal events.

On February 8th at a charity O-zumo event held at the Ryogoku Kokugikan, Hakuho lazily lost to Jokoryu in his second round bout (he had a bye the first round) knocking him out of the event just like that, and as Hakuho hurried out of the venue, the media hounded him for comment. Hakuho ignored them but did offer an annoyed "Nani?" or 'what do you want from me?' remark as he ducked into his waiting car, and the next morning I counted at least five different news outlets whose main sumo headline was "Nani?" This sniping between the two parties continued up until the release of the banzuke where the media would stalk Hakuho; the Yokozuna would ignore them and refuse comment; and then the media would bash Hakuho with their ensuing headlines the next day.

Hakuho did sit down and speak to the media upon the release of the banzuke, but when asked about his criticism of the judges, he doubled down saying, "I only conveyed the thoughts in my heart." What Hakuho didn't do was offer an apology, and so as I woke up Monday morning to all of the post-banzuke headlines, I was greeted with the general theme of "Hakuho refuses to apologize!" All throughout the pre-basho keiko period, Hakuho has refused to speak to the media after the sessions, and when one of them blurts something out before the keiko session ends, members of the stable will usher the media out of the venue.

I haven't seen such bitterness between a rikishi and the media like this since the controversial Asashoryu was around, and so the real question on my mind is "why is this all happening?" Well, I know why the media is pissed off. It doesn't matter how many yusho Hakuho has achieved; a person from a race perceived as inferior by the Japanese people does not call out the competency of the domestic judges. Furthermore, Hakuho implied that racial differences played a part in the judges' decision against him in his day 13 bout, so to insinuate so openly that there is racial basis going on in sumo opens up a Pandora's Box.

At one point during the the last few weeks, the media actually sought out Yaku Mitsuru for comment, that creepy little fellow who writes manga for a living and can't wait to offer his negative opinions of Mongolian rikishi. His stance is that Hakuho should be suspended for a basho or for at least a few days of the upcoming tournament. Mitsuru has no sway within the Sumo Association, but the media readily seeks out his opinion when they are looking for someone to bash the Mongolians as if tearing them down adds any more credibility to the Japanese rikishi. In the end, Hakuho's remarks were unacceptable in Japanese culture because 1) they implied racism or favoritism towards Japanese rikishi, and 2) they questioned authority. You just don't do that in Japan even if you are right, and so to see Hakuho break the unwritten rules is just galling the media to no end.

The biggest question I have regarding the matter is why did Hakuho say what he did because Hakuho's comments were clearly intentional, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he opened his mouth. Hakuho has largely been celebrated in Japan and treated with proper respect because he always said the right things and never acted out of place. His Japanese is flawless, which is another aspect which has endeared him to the Japanese people. The Japanese appreciate it when foreigners take the time to master their language and their culture, and Hakuho has done exactly that (contrast that to Harumafuji and Kakuryu, for example)

In fact, Hakuho was becoming Japanese to the extent that his interviews were downright boring and contained no substance whatsoever. Every time he stood in front of a mic, I was asleep by the time he uttered the word "nagare." After having lived in Japan for well over a decade, reaching the rank of Yokozuna, and winning 32 yusho, Hakuho knows exactly what to say and what not to say, so there's no question that his remarks were intentional. Beyond that, the fact that Hakuho has yet to apologize even though the media has been demanding it for six weeks now is proof enough that he meant to say what he did, and he wants the comments to stand.

So, the question then becomes...why did he say it? I can think of two plausible reasons for his remarks, and so I'll start with the weaker of the two arguments: Hakuho is looking for a way out of sumo. This argument is weak because Hakuho doesn't have to say such things in order to retire. He can simply state, "My goal all along was to break Taiho's record, and now that I've done it, I want to retire and spend more time with my family." There are other mundane reasons as well he could use in order to hang it up, so why take a shot at the judges on his way out?

The second reason and more plausible cause is that he has so much frustration pent up inside that he finally decided to let off a little steam after safely securing yusho #33. I can directly relate to this frustration, and it's shown for at least the last three years in my comments. I know that my comments always come across as generally negative, but I'm only merely reflecting the action taking place in the ring. There has been little to nothing about which to truly get excited, and if I feel frustrated just commenting on things from the sidelines, can you imagine how some of the Mongolian's must feel? It bugs me to no end that we all have to pretend that Goeido is actually an Ozeki, so can you perceive what it must be like for guys like Hakuho and Harumafuji who have to lose to this guy just to prop him up?

Even before Hakuho made his dubious comments, I talked about how I thought Harumafuji seemed pissed in Janauary and beat up all three of the Ozeki as a result. I think Hakuho harbors those same feelings, and he could have made those comments out of sheer frustration once he reached the historic yusho mark. Regardless of why Hakuho made those comments, they were entirely intentional, and I think in six months or so it will all make more sense. Until then, this fued between Hakuho and the media is getting downright uncomfortable. With that covered, let's examine the banzuke and speculate as to what we can expect in Osaka.

I stated last basho that I thought the banzuke was a true reflection of where each rikishi belonged in the ranks according to their abilities. Then as I explained in my post-basho report, the jo'i rikishi having to sacrifice wins for the Ozeki resulted in just one rikishi securing kachi-koshi from the Sekiwake rank all the way down to the M6 - M8 range. Since you can't promote a guy up after a losing record, all those guys had to go down and rikishi undeserving of the sanyaku have been vaulted back up into it. The result will be an extremely lopsided basho where you have more extremes like guys winning double digits and others winning less than five whereas last basho was pretty even steven all the way down the charts.

We'll start at the top with Yokozuna Hakuho who has just been breezing through his pre-basho keiko workouts. As I've stated repeatedly, I think he's capable of winning at least 88 bouts in a calendar year, and this basho is no different. As for all of this pre-basho hullabaloo with the media, it will not affect Hakuho's sumo in Osaka...unless he chooses to let it. It wouldn't surprise me in the least to see Hakuho drop an early bout and perhaps two in the first week chalking it up to all of these "distractions," but if that happens, it will all be by Hakuho's design. I think the safe bet is to predict a 14-1 effort and the yusho for the Yokozuna, but I think the chance of that happening is only fiddy-fiddy in March. Something tells me that we are in store for some wild and crazy occurrences with Hakuho in Osaka.

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