The Sumo Scene / Appearance of This Era’s ‘white Bear’ Serves as Link to Storied Ozeki of Past

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Hokutenyu, sumo’s original “white bear,” and stablemates celebrate his promotion to ozeki in May 1983.

At the recently completed New Year tournament, one hot topic of discussion outside the ring was the revival of one of the sport’s more unusual names.

The juryo-division wrestler who had been using his family name of Takahashi as his ring name had changed it to Shirokuma. Each time his name was called out, the crowd at Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan would let out a roar.

Shirokuma translates to “white bear,” or more commonly, a polar bear. It is said that stablemaster Nishonoseki (former yokozuna Kisenosato) chose that name because of his disciple’s resemblance to some of the arctic beast’s traits — cuddly looks that mask a deadly and merciless predator within.

When the stablemaster publicly explained his reason for assigning the name, he brought up a great ozeki of the past named Hokutenyu.

A native of Muroran, Hokkaido, Hokutenyu thrived as a junior stablemate of the legendary yokozuna Kita-noumi in what was then the Mihogaseki stable.

With a muscular frame in the 140-kilogram range, expectations were high that he was a future yokozuna in the making. But injuries and illness took their toll, and he never achieved the sport’s ultimate rank.

During his career, Hokutenyu was nicknamed “Hokkai no Shirokuma” (literally, “white bear of the north sea”). In addition to his muscular build and fair skin, he fit the name with his ferocity during matches, having even tossed the Hawaiian man-mountain Konishiki out of the ring.

Hokutenyu held the ozeki rank for 44 tournaments and won two makuuchi-division championships, although, given the high expectations he elicited, some might have considered that somewhat of a letdown. But one thing he said at the press conference to announce his retirement still stands out. His most memorable match, he said, was a win over Takanosato at the 1984 Summer tournament that helped stablemate Kitanoumi win the last of his 24 career titles. To mention without hesitation not his own title but what he did to help a senior stablemate revealed the tenderness and purity of the wrestler’s heart.

Following his retirement, Hokutenyu became a sumo elder and established the Hatachiyama stable. But as he was guiding his young disciples, he suddenly passed away at 45 in 2006.

Kitanoumi died in 2015 at 62 while serving as chairman of the Japan Sumo Association.

As memories fade of the stars who stirred our hearts in the late Showa era (1926-1989), the revival this year of a new “white bear” provides a small link with the glorious past. The history of the sumo world continues in this way.

— Kamimura is a sumo expert.