On the occasion of the opening of the November Grand Sumo Tournament, here’s an account of the origin of the highest rank, yokozuna, usually translated ‘grand champion’ to distinguish it from the former highest rank, ozeki ‘champion’.
The conventional genealogy of yokozuna begins with Akashi Shiganosuke in the early seventeenth century, but there is no record that such a wrestler ever existed, much less that he was made a yokozuna. Instead, the institution of the yokozuna has its origins in the licenses Yoshida Zenzaemon granted to two wrestlers–Tanikaze Kajinosuke and Onokawa Kisaburo. In November 1789 he authorized each of them to perform a solo ring-entering ceremony while wearing a white rope (the yokozuna) around their waists. This innovation was part. of the efforts by Yoshida and the other leaders of professional sumo in Edo to increase the status of the sport, efforts that culminated with the 1791 sumo performance before Shogun Tokugawa Ienari. [Sumo was previously considered too low-brow for noble tastes.]
Yoshida’s innovation was not immediately adopted as standard practice. In fact, for nearly forty years, no further licenses to perform the solo ring-entering ceremony while wearing the decorative rope were granted. The license was revived in 1828, but by the end of the Tokugawa shogunate only nine such licenses had been awarded. The institutionalization of the practice in the early twentieth century involved a series of innovations beginning in the late nineteenth century and culminating in the official recognition of the yokozuna as the highest rank in sumo.
For a century after Yoshida’s grant to Tanikaze and Onokawa, the highest sumo rank continued to be ozeki [‘champion’]. During this time, the word “yokozuna ” still referred merely to the rope worn by the wrestler licensed to perform a solo ring-entering ceremony. In fact, Tanikaze did not even hold the highest rank of Ozeki in the tournament after which he was awarded the yokozuna license; he was at the second-highest rank of sekiwake. Shiranui Dakuemon, awarded the license in 1840, was subsequently demoted to sekiwake for a tournament.
It was not until May 1890 that the word “yokozuna” appeared in the banzuke (the table of rankings printed before each tournament). Ironically, the motive for printing the term was to placate rather than to reward, and the consequences were entirely unintended. For the first time there were more than two ozeki listed on the banzuke. Two new ozeki had just been promoted, but the two reigning ozeki were left in place. This unprecedented situation was dealt with by writing the two extra names on tabs protruding from the top sides of the printed banzuke. The ozeki with the weakest record in the previous tournament, Nishinoumi, was one of those listed on the tabs. Since he had just been awarded a yokozuna license, he felt slighted and complained to the Sumo Association that a wrestler as honored as he deserved better treatment. To pacify him, the association put the characters for yokozuna next to his name. Once the precedent was established, it became the custom to write these characters alongside the names of ozeki with the license, but there was still no official yokozuna rank.
Shortly after the term “yokozuna” entered the banzuke rankings, a private campaign was started to distinguish ozeki with the yokozuna license from those without it. Jimmaku Kyiigoro had received a license, the ninth issued, in 1867. In 1895, he started a campaign to erect a monument to wrestlers who had been honored with the license. The monument was erected in 1900 without the involvement of the Sumo Association or the Yoshida family (which still claimed sole authority to issue the yokozuna license).
The Sumo Association finally recognized yokozuna as an official rank in 1909, the pivotal year in which the Kokugikan was opened, the referee’s costume was redesigned, and the newspaper Jiji shinpo started regularly designating tournament champions. The Yoshida house, however, which continued to award the yokozuna license, refused to accept the association’s interpretation of the yokozuna as a rank. It was not until 1951 that the Yoshida family finally agreed that the yokozuna was indeed a rank. In short, the lofty status that is now widely perceived as the very symbol of sumo’s “two-thousand-year history” emerged only in the nineteenth century and was finally accepted as an official rank around fifty years ago.
SOURCE: Japanese Sports: A History, by Allen Guttmann and Lee Thompson (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2001), pp. 143-145