By Shuji Miki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterLooking back at what happened in the world of sumo over the past year, a lot of attention was focused on the three Japan-born ozeki in their quest to reach the sport’s highest rank — yokozuna. I hope Kotoshogiku, Kisenosato and Goeido will achieve this ambitious goal in the coming year.
By the way, it is a lesser-known fact that the title of yokozuna was not devised by the Japan Sumo Association.
The yokozuna system dates back to the Edo period (1603-1867). It was created by a family known as Yoshida-Tsukasake during the years under the rule of Tokugawa Ienari (1773-1841), the 11th shogun. They were a hereditary sumo authority that resided in what is now Kumamoto Prefecture.
The family, which assumed the role of handing sumo’s traditions to the next generation, came up with the idea of what is known as the ring-entering ritual and set its procedure. Performed in front of the shogun, a wrestler — wearing a ceremonial belt fronted with a decorated apron on top of a twisted rope similar to those seen at shinto shrines — lifted each leg high before stomping them on the doyo.
In those days, ozeki was sumo’s highest rank. Yokozuna were inaugurated by presenting ozeki with pure-white tsuna (rope) and giving them the honorary title to divinize the wrestlers. The yokozuna title was clearly printed on a banzuke ranking for the first time in 1909.
The then sumo association used to submit applications to the Yoshida-Tsukasake family when it considered ozeki eligible for promotion to yokozuna. The head of the family and seven pupils then deliberated on each application before deciding whether to issue a license endorsing the promotion.
The Yoshida-Tsukasake-authorized yokozuna licensing system continued until 1951, and thereafter has been the responsibility of the JSA and the yokozuna deliberation council to decide who should be promoted to the highest rank.
During the days of Ienari’s rule, the Tokugawa shogunate promoted austerity. While calling for samurai and commoners living in urban areas to live a simple lifestyle and refrain from lavish spending, it also attempted to reduce discontent in the public. It was around this time the Yoshida-Tsukasake family developed the yokozuna system, which enjoyed great support from townspeople. The title is credited as a factor that helped sumo enter its golden age during the Edo period.
Akashi Shiganosuke is recognized as the first yokozuna and was a legendary figure whose existence is not confirmed by any official documents. Ayakawa is listed as the second yokozuna and Maruyama the third, even though there are no records confirming the two wrestlers were ever endorsed with licenses. Yoshida-Tsukasake included the two wrestlers on the list of overall yokozuna, citing their dignity and competence. The first yokozuna to be issued a license by the family was Tanikaze, recognized as the fourth overall, and Onogawa is listed as the fifth.
The yokozuna tradition continues today, with Hakuho as the 69th, Harumafuji the 70th and Kakuryu the 71st.
I hope readers will continue to enjoy this column next year by looking forward to seeing more wrestlers promoted to sumo’s highest rank.