Hakuho’s retirement concludes era of remarkable achievement in ring

Yokozuna Hakuho led the professional sumo world for a long time and set many splendid records. The feats of the great yokozuna, whose epochal career bridged the Heisei era (1989-2019) and the current Reiwa era, deserve a round of applause.

Hakuho has retired from professional sumo. The reason for his retirement was reportedly that the condition of his right knee had worsened. After winning the Nagoya tournament in July without losing a single match, he was forced to be absent from the Autumn tournament in September because some other wrestlers in the stable he belongs to were infected with the novel coronavirus.

Hakuho came to Japan from Mongolia in 2000 at the age of 15, and made his sumo debut in 2001. At first, he was slim, weighing a little more than 60 kilograms. After he was promoted to yokozuna in 2007 with hard training, he continued to pile up the wins with his flexible approach using both power and delicate technique depending on the situation.

He has rewritten the history of professional sumo with achievement after achievement, including 45 grand tournament titles in the makuuchi top division, 84 tournaments at the yokozuna rank and 1,187 career wins. Will there ever be a wrestler who can break these records?

In addition to his preternatural physical ability, these splendid records can surely be chalked up to his attitude of thoroughly practicing basic skills, such as shiko (a foot stomp after coming up out of the crouch) and teppo (flat-handed strikes against a thick pillar or wall), as well as a spirit of inquiry that led him to deeply analyze opponents’ techniques in advance.

When scandals such as gambling on baseball games and match-fixing shook the sumo world, Hakuho continued to support the foundation of professional sumo as its sole yokozuna. Outside the dohyo ring as well, he has been committed to reconstruction in the wake of the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and repeatedly visited the afflicted areas, among other activities.

On the other hand, instances of his behavior that cast doubt on the dignity of yokozuna often caused controversy. He was punished by the Japan Sumo Association for encouraging spectators to join in a sanbonjime, which is a customary rhythmic handclap to celebrate the end of an event, during a ringside interview after winning a tournament, and for failing to halt the violent behavior of one wrestler toward another during a drinking party.

Rough sumo techniques, such as kachiage, or a folded forearm thrust into the opponent’s face on the jump-off, and harite, or the slapping of an opponent’s face, were criticized as “not suitable for yokozuna.”

From now on, Hakuho will instruct younger wrestlers as a master who belongs to the association. Professional sumo is a part of traditional Japanese culture that has been cultivated over a long history. It is hoped that Hakuho will instill in young wrestlers the tradition and spirit of sumo, among other topics, beyond simply teaching them techniques and how to win bouts on the ring.

When Hakuho acquired Japanese nationality two years ago, he said in reference to his eventual retirement, “I think nurturing strong sumo wrestlers is a way of returning the favor.” It is hoped that fans will enjoy watching wrestlers to be raised by Hakuho as their master performing well.

The sumo world will be tested as to whether it will be able to vitalize the sport after the great yokozuna has left the ring. Terunofuji, now the lone yokozuna, won the Autumn tournament, but is already 29 years old. There is an urgent need to nurture promising young wrestlers who will play leading roles in the next generation.

In recent years, it has been difficult to secure young people who want to become sumo wrestlers. Taking the retirement of the great yokozuna as an opportunity, it is necessary to reconsider creating a system to discover and foster young wrestlers.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Oct. 1, 2021.