TOKYO — After decades of scandals and humiliation at the hands of Mongolian wrestlers, sumo finally has Japanese grand champion again.
Kisenosato, a 30-year-old, 385-pound wrestler, was promoted Wednesday to the rank of yokozuna, the first time a Japanese competitor has been elevated to the highest tier in sumo in 19 years.
“The position of yokozuna is proof of much hard work and he'll need to continue to work hard and protect the position like hell," Nobuyoshi Hakkaku, chairman of the Japan Sumo Association, told reporters when announcing the promotion.
Japan’s national sport has been in decline in recent years, partly the result of a generational shift towards sports like baseball, partly because of the health issues associated with the heft needed to wrestle, and partly because of the increasing dominance of foreigners.
All three of the current yokozuna, whose ranks Kisenosato now joins, come from Mongolia. Competitors from Brazil, Russia, China and even Hawaii have also been doing well in past years.
So Kisenosato electrified Japan at the weekend when he won the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament, recording 14 wins and only one loss.
Usually, a wrestler is promoted to yokozuna after winning two tournaments, but the Yokozuna Deliberation Council Monday recommended that Kisenosato be elevated to the top rank after only one victory.
The Japan Sumo Association concurred Wednesday, making Kisenosato the first Japanese wrestler to be promoted to grand champion since Wakanohana in 1998.
“Kisenosato to end long drought of Japan-born yokozuna,” a headline in the Asahi newspaper declared. “Hopes are rising that this new Japanese yokozuna will reinvigorate the world of sumo,” a writer said in the Nikkei Asian Review.
Kisenosato had something of a reputation for fragility, failing to come through high-pressure matches on many occasions. But at the tournament on Sunday, something felt different, he said.
“I was not excessively tense and was able to fight while keeping my calm,” he told Japanese reporters. “In addition to my own power, I felt that some different power was working.”
Indeed, Kisenosato has set another record: It took him 89 rounds of tournaments to become yokozuna, the slowest record in modern sumo history. And his victory Sunday came only after two Mongolian yokozuna pulled out of the tournament.
Some worry that Kisenosato has been promoted too quickly or that rules were bent to allow him to reach grand champion status.
“I like Kisenosato. Of course I want to see a Japanese yokozuna! And I believe his stable results in the past six tournaments were wonderful,” Ebizo, a renowned and outspoken kabuki actor, wrote on his blog this week. “But he became yokozuna with only one tournament win. I wonder if this could be an attempt to produce a Japanese yokozuna after such a long time.”
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.