Japanese wrestlers need to raise their own expectations

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Yokozuna Terunofuji accepts the trophy after the final day of action at the Kyushu Grand Tournament on Nov. 28.

Sumo was put through another topsy-turvy year in 2021 by the coronavirus pandemic. The Spring tournament was held in Tokyo instead of Osaka, and the number of spectators at all tournaments was limited to less than half of venue capacity.

Amid all the fuss, the biggest news of the year must be the retirement of yokozuna Hakuho. Returning to the ring from an extended absence at the Nagoya tournament, Hakuho captured his 45th career title — and with a 15-0 record to boot — to show he was still the elite of the elite. Putting aside his behavior in the ring, he must be recognized for his power alone.

Hakuho was ruled out of the next tournament because a wrestler from the Miyagino Stable was confirmed to have tested positive with the coronavirus. That opened the door for newly promoted yokozuna and fellow Mongolian Terunofuji to step up and grab the Autumn tournament title.

After watching Terunofuji’s performance, Hakuho announced his retirement, as if he were handing over the baton. Rather than coming out of the blue, it seemed like it was an exit planned by the Mongolian contingent.

Terunofuji capped the year with the Kyushu tournament title, in which he won all 15 matches for the first time. As a yokozuna, he took the attack to his opponents in a positive manner, applying pressure from the front.

His previous crude tactic of throwing around opponents with brute force had caused great damage to his knee ligaments, resulting in injuries that sent Terunofuji plunging from ozeki to the jonidan division, the second lowest of the sport’s six tiers. From there, he fought his way out of the hole and now wears the shiny ceremonial rope reserved for yokozuna.

“I don’t want to have a knee injury ever again,” he had said, and that strong determination is being reflected in how he now approaches the sport.

It is a matter of course for rikishi to devote themselves to training. But an important aspect is whether or not they maintain a firm awareness of their ranking and style. That is what many Japanese wrestlers are absolutely lacking.

After suffering an opening-day loss at the Kyushu tournament, ozeki Shodai came back the next day and won handily over Ichinojo. It was what he said after the victory that I found appalling. “I want to get double-digit wins from this point and put on ozeki-like performance,” he said.

Would 10 wins make it ozeki-like? An ozeki’s responsibility is to compete for the championship, and that also shows his worth. It may be not fair to point a finger at just one wrestler, but aiming to become yokozuna is what would make Shodai a genuine ozeki.