The Sumo Scene / Unique Tradition Is Celebratory Moment Marking Longevity Milestone for Ex-Rikishi

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Japan Sumo Association Chairman Hakkaku, center, performs a ring entrance ceremony on Sept. 2 at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan with a special red rope around his waist during an event to mark him turning 60.

The run-up to the Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament featured a special moment for Hakkaku, the chairman of the Japan Sumo Association (JSA), and it drew 4,000 spectators to Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan on Sept. 2.

The former yokozuna performed a ring entrance ceremony to mark the fact that he had turned 60 years old in June, a longevity milestone known as “kanreki” that is traditionally commemorated in Japan.

For the traditional rope, from which the rank yokozuna gets its name, Hakkaku appeared donning a red one, the color associated with kanreki.

Accompanying him were two of his disciples, sumo elder Kimigahama (former sekiwake Okinoumi) and current makuuchi wrestler Hokutofuji.

Hakkaku, who performed the Unryu-style of the ring entrance, said he was moved to hear the cries of “Hoku-toumi,” his name as a yokozuna during the days when he battled in the ring. “It really hit me,” an emotional Hakkaku said.

These days, we don’t generally refer to someone who is 60 as elderly. But making a big deal out of having lived a long life by reaching the kanreki milestone remains a time-honored tradition in Japan.

Kanreki itself loosely means to complete the cycle of life, according to the Chinese calendar, and signifies returning to the newborn stage. In Japanese, a baby is called an “akachan,” and as “aka” means red, the occasion is marked in society by wearing a red vest.

The sumo world, emulating this tradition, long ago started the custom of having a former yokozuna who turns 60 perform a ring entrance ceremony but wearing a red rope tied around the waist instead of a vest of the same hue.

The 22nd yokozuna Tachiyama is believed to have performed the first kanreki ring entrance ceremony in February 1937.

Since then, such notables as Tochinishiki, Wakanohana I, Taiho, Kitanoumi and Chiyonofuji have participated in the ritual. But because of poor health or other reasons, more than a few former yokozuna have declined the honor.

It is often said that the average life span of a sumo wrestler is shorter than the general male population, the result of the punishment their bodies take during their careers. Since 1961, the JSA’s official retirement age has been 65, but quite a few sumo elders never even made it to kanreki, much less that age.

That said, former rikishi nowadays are living just as long as their general peers, with more and more enjoying good health as they remain active until retirement. The association even instituted a system that allows those who want to continue to work post-retirement to be “re-hired” through the age of 70.

“I prepared my body for this day with a routine of stretching and walking,” Hakkaku said after his ring entrance ceremony went off without a hitch.

He expressed his gratitude that he could approach the day in good health.

— Kamimura is a sumo expert.