Friday, January 20, 2012


Friday January 20, 3:15 p.m.

When I had first arrived in Japan for my long tour of duty in 1994, sumo was at the peak of its popularity. The young Hanada brothers, Waka and Taka, had become sibling grand champions, yokozuna in the ring, and superstars outside of it. Takahanada (his name at that time) had even been engaged to actress and It-Girl Rie Miyazawa for a time.

Amazing what can happen in 17 years. Sumo is just coming out from under some major doldrums. A stablemaster and some of his underlings are indicted for beating a fellow apprentice to death a couple of years ago, and last year, a match-fixing scandal brought the entire sport to its knees. Pretty much an annus horribilis. However, there was one bright note in that current and lone grand champion, Hakuho from Mongolia, had that amazing run of wins that made him the greatest champion in the postwar era. Now, although it's still way too early to tell, even NHK is wondering aloud whether change is in the air.

The very first tournament of the year which is taking place in Tokyo's Kokugikan in Ryogoku is coming to a close this weekend, and a not-Hakuho will be getting The Emperor's Cup for clinching the overall win. The fellow in the picture is named Baruto, and he hails from Estonia. He got his sumo name from the fact that he's from a Baltic nation (apparently, the sumo world has a sense of humour). The amiable guy got his very first championship as a rikishi, 3 years after he had gotten promoted to the 2nd-highest rank of ozeki. Pair that fact with Hakuho losing an unbelievable 3 matches this tournament, and I guess breathless journalists can be forgiven for wondering if an era is passing. Still, any more victories like this for Baruto, and ultimate promotion can't be that far away.

I'm sure, though, that there will be many who dream of the day that a native Japanese son will once again take that yokozuna title. But for right now, the sumo world will just be grateful to bring back its pride and popularity.