The Sumo Scene / Former Ozeki Asashio’s Death as Sudden, Stunning as His Frenzied Climb Up Ranks

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Then collegiate star Suehiro Nagaoka, center, poses with stablemaster Takasago, right, and Kinki University sumo coach Atsumi Inori after the announcement that he would be joining the stable in December 1977 in Osaka.

When I first heard the news of the death of Suehiro Nagaoka, best known as former ozeki Asashio and later stablemaster Takasago, prior to the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament in November, it brought back fond memories of a whirlwind of excitement that hit the sumo world 45 years ago.

A native of Muroto, Kochi Prefecture, Nagaoka was a standout at Kinki University (now Kindai), winning back-to-back titles at both the collegiate and national amateur championships in 1976-77. His entrance into professional sumo was met with great fanfare.

When it was announced that he had joined the Takasago stable, the buzz quickly started that this might be the second coming of the legendary Wajima, who made history by becoming the first former amateur champion to reach the rank of yokozuna.

It may be hard to imagine now how sumo dominated the news back then, but it used to get far more coverage than it gets these days. Up to the time Nagaoka entered the stable, every move he made was reported in great detail in the newspapers. It was a nonstop hullabaloo.

The frenzy hardly stopped after he began his pro career. As an amateur champion, he was afforded special treatment and allowed to start in the makushita division, the third highest of the six tiers, albeit at the bottom as No. 60.

He showed he was indeed something special by winning the makushita division title in his debut at the 1978 Spring Grand Sumo Tournament. He spent only one more tournament in makushita before earning promotion to juryo, where he remained on a roll and posted double-digit victories in two consecutive tournaments.

And just like that, four tournaments after his debut, he was suddenly in the uppermost makuuchi division.

Not surprisingly, his hair did not keep pace with his rapid ascent up the rankings, and he became a makuuchi wrestler without being able to have his hair tied into the chonmage topknot style. He had also made it while still using his family name, Nagaoka, as his ring name.

At the time, erasers shaped likes sumo wrestlers were all the rage, and the one with short hair sporting an ornamental apron with “Nagaoka” printed on it was particularly popular among elementary school students.

A year after his debut, he was bestowed with the ring name “Asashio” for the 1979 Spring Tournament, a historic moniker within the Takasago stable. (The original kanji character for “shio” would later be changed to another with the same meaning and pronunciation.) Together with his cheerful personality, he became a popular wrestler in both name and reality.

Asashio, however, was unable to break through the wall of such powerful contemporaries as yokozuna Chiyonofuji, and he never reached the sport’s pinnacle.

However, he enjoyed remarkable success against yokozuna Kitanoumi, who was in the waning years of his career, and often got the crowd fired up with a stunning upset.

Asashio was certainly among the most popular wrestlers in the bygone days of the Showa era (1926-1989).

His death at 67 came far too soon.

— Kamimura is a sumo expert.