Terunofuji, yokozuna!

I’ll let you into a secret – I have been a follower, a fan even, of sumo for more than two decades. I even have my own black silk mawashi, the loincloth in which they wrestle, a gift from a sympathetic friend. Yes I appreciate the image of me in a mawashi is not for the faint-hearted and I apologise for that.

There is, of course, no sport quite like sumo and to the non-Japanese probably none more bewildering – two fat blokes trying to push each other over, yes? For the vast majority of casual observers these notions represent the limit of their understanding. Images of inflatable costumes at comedy events. The target of contemptuous laughter rather than reflection on a serious and treasured national sport with roots in Shinto and rituals over a thousand years old. Yet to disparage sumo is to deny oneself deep insight into the Japanese lifestyle and psyche. For sumo, with its infinite emphasis on belief, symbolism, ritual and meaning holds up a mirror to Japanese society.

Professional sumo in Japan is organised into six divisions but only the top two – juryo and makunouchi – need concern us. Juryo is like a giant railway station for wrestlers (rikishi) either slipping down the rankings towards retirement or stopping briefly on their road to the top. Everyone is going somewhere – acclamation or oblivion. The top division, makunouchi, consists of 36 wrestlers subdivided into a further five categories – you still paying attention? In ascending order these are maegashira, komosubi, sekiwake and ozeki.

But that’s only four categories I hear you say. Good, you have been paying attention. And yes, there is one further category, the very apex of sumo society – the grand champion or yokozuna. I’ll come to that.

In Japan, that most hierarchical of societies, the banzuke or table of rankings is everything. A measure of one’s worth against one’s fellow wrestler. Yokozunas, East and West, stand at the top of this ranking. Below them, their position determined by their performances on the dohyo, are the remaining wrestlers. The mere champions or ozeki can lose up to a third of their bouts without questions being asked. One of the privileges of achievement. There is a certain degree of fluidity in the ranks up to and including ozeki. It’s a bit like snakes and ladders. Throughout the lower ranks, a winning record or kache koshi (8-7 or better) takes the wrestler up the ranking ladder while a losing record or make koshi has him sliding down that snake. Ozeki are given a little more breathing space. A losing record in the tournament makes the offending champion kadoban (at risk of demotion). An ozeki needs to have a losing record in two successive basho to forego the rank.

Seated high above the everyday comings and goings of the banzuke, yet central to them, the yokozunas are under close scrutiny at all times. You might presume that, if an ozeki gets two shots at retaining their rank, a yokozuna might get three. Yes? Alas no. For a yokozuna there is no such leniency. A yokozuna simply cannot lose. Nor can the be demoted. The only out for yokozunas is retirement, sometimes after not-too-subtle prompting by the Sumo Association. A yokozuna who loses more than two bouts of the fifteen that compose a tournament or basho will often diplomatically acquire an injury mid-basho that necessitates his withdrawal from the tournament. Those that eschew withdrawal and fight on risk resignation. And heaven help the yokozuna who ends a tournament make koshi. It has only happened twice to my knowledge in over a thousand years. Despite these strictures, yokozuna remains the highest aspiration of any sumo wrestler, the definition of their careers.

In many ways, yokozuna is more than a mere ranking on the banzuke. Yokozunas stand apart from the rest of the classification. While the others are wrestlers representing their own stables or beya, yokozunas are essentially gods or kings with a spiritual commitment to the sport itself over their individual beya. Promotion to yokozuna is based not just on performance in the ring, or dohyo (which nonetheless needs to be exemplary), but on their dignity of character and embracing of their position in Japanese culture. Upon promotion, many new yokozunas often spend time at one of Japan’s many Shinto shrines to get them into the right frame of mind to assume the duties of a god. That’s why Japanese wrestlers have a head start. So few yokozunas are foreign but I’ll come to that later. Fewer than one in thousand wrestlers will make it to yokozuna.

Until Wednesday there had only been 72 yokozunas in the history of sumo, more than a millennium long. On Wednesday, the 73rd, Terunofuji, a Mongolian rikishi was chosen. Making a brief appearance for the media, Terunofuji thanked the authorities for their endorsement of him and promised to uphold the historic values of the yokozuna.

Terunofuji’s promotion marks the final step in what has been an unprecedented climb from the depths of the banzuke. But in reality his promotion masks flaws and inconsistencies in the appointment of yokozunas. Many overseas wrestlers feel they have to exceed higher qualifications than their Japanese equivalents in order to be found in possession of hinkaku, that elusive combination of power, skill and dignity upon which putative yokozunas are assessed. Often overseas wrestlers are found wanting in one or more of these nebulous criteria and fail to make yokozuna. Nowhere are the criteria written down. Typically at least two tournament victories without a lapse in performance in between are needed for consideration as yokozuna. Occasionally, for a Japanese wrestler such as Futahagaro, at a time when there were no other yokozunas, the bar was set as low as two runner-up tournaments. He never won a single basho as yokozuna. Or at all. Scalded this by the fallout from the premature promotions of Futahaguro, Onokuni and others, the board has tended to be reticent in its more recent dealings. Terunofuji was given the target of three successive tournament wins or equivalent, a breathtakingly tough and exacting requirement. Nevertheless he won in March and May. On Sunday he finished second only to Hakuho, fulfilling the criteria set out. And on Wednesday he became the 73rd yokozuna. Here’s how.