With the only consistent tournament winner and only reigning yokozuna (grand champion), Asashoryu, on the injured list, the competition is tight among the remaining top wrestlers as they reach the home stretch of the Natsu Basho, which ends on Sunday. (Inconsistent ozeki Tochiazuma, who won the opening tournament in January, also dropped out after a string of losses.)
Two veteran Japanese rikishi, ozeki (champion) Chiyotaikai and sekiwake (junior champion) Miyabiyama, share the lead (at 9-1) with the newly promoted Mongolian ozeki, Hakuho. However, both the Japanese veterans are relying on relatively crude techniques, mostly unrelenting thrusts and slaps, as they try to avoid the clinch. They face each other today, so one of them is going to fall off the lead. Hakuho seems favored to win, and he already has the calm, confident gravitas of a yokozuna (more so than Asashoryu, in my opinion).
Just one loss (at 8-2) behind the leaders are Japanese veteran ozeki Kaio (my favorite among the Japanese contenders), Mongolian “Supermarket of Tricks” Kyokushuzan, and the Estonian phenom Baruto (the “Balt”), Kaido Hoovelson, whose ceremonial apron shows a Viking helmet, and who rose to sumo’s Makuuchi division (the “Majors”) after winning the last Juryo (“Triple A”) division tournament with a perfect 15-0 record.
UPDATE, Day 12: Chiyotaikai lost first to Miyabiyama, and then to Kotomitsuki, dropping off the pace at 9-3; while Miyabiyama defeated the struggling Bulgarian Kotooshu to preserve his one loss at 11-1. So Miyabiyama, a veteran Japanese ozeki, remains neck-and-neck with Hakuho, a rookie Mongolian ozeki, in the home stretch, with the giant newcomer Baruto just one loss behind.
UPDATE, Day 13: All three leaders won. Hakuho (now 12-1) pulled down fellow ozeki Kotooshu (now 6-7), who risks demotion if he doesn’t win the next two bouts. Miyabiyama (now 12-1) shoved out Kyokushuzan (now 9-4). And Baruto (11-2) managed to get both hands on (yokozuna Asashoryu’s stablemate) Asasekiryu’s belt, immobilize him, then lift him up and drop him outside the ring. The rookie has done his homework and is winning respect. You might expect a wrestler of his size to just drive his opponents backward out of the ring, but over 13 days Baruto has won by 10 different techniques, many of them defensive moves where he helps his opponent charge down toward the clay or out of the ring.
UPDATE, Day 14: Well, Miyabiyama quickly ended the Estonian rookie’s dreams of winning the tournament during his makuuchi debut, handing him his 3rd loss. Baruto made the mistake of trying to force Miyabiyama’s head down. All that accomplished was to lower the center of gravity and concentrate the weight of the heaviest rikishi still wrestling. Hakuho and Miyabiyama remain at 13-1 and could face a final playoff if both win or both lose on Day 15, when Hakuho gets his shot at Baruto (11-3) and Miyabiyama faces Asasekiryu (10-4). Even if he doesn’t win the tournament, Miyabiyama is sure to win promotion from sekiwake to ozeki, while the Bulgarian Kotooshu (7-7) risks demotion from ozeki back to sekiwake unless he can defeat fellow ozeki Chiyotaikai (10-4) tomorrow.
UPDATE, Day 15: New ozeki Hakuho wins his first tournament after defeating Miyabiyama in a playoff. Both rikishi finished at 14-1 after Hakuho quickly left Baruto (11-4) prone on the clay and Miyabiyama shoved out Asasekiryu (11-4). Miyabiyama is likely to be the newest ozeki at the Nagoya basho in July. Kotooshu (8-7) barely managed to retain his rank by defeating fellow ozeki Chiyotaikai (10-5). However, the two Mongolian komusubi are likely to lose their ranks: small but scrappy Ama (4-11) and middle-of-the-pack Kyokutenho (5-10). Asasekiryu and Baruto may well replace them.
Twenty years ago, the most prominent foreign rikishi (sumo wrestlers) tended to be from Hawaii, which has a large Japanese-American population and close cultural ties with Japan. More recently, however, most foreign rikishi have hailed from Mongolia (Asashoryu), as well as Bulgaria (Kotooshu), Russia (Rohou) and other former Soviet bloc countries. Frequently appearing in TV interviews, the wrestlers do, of course, make the occasional error — but when they speak, they sound like sumo rikishi, and they express themselves in a manner remarkably similar to their Japanese counterparts [yeah, mumbling and inarticulate in both cases–J.].
This language proficiency, particularly among foreign grapplers from countries with only tenuous historical and cultural ties to Japan, has become a topic of academic study. Dr. Satoshi Miyazaki, a professor at the Graduate School of Japanese Applied Linguistics, Waseda University, began his field work in 1997….
“To learn the language, they don’t need a teacher or a dictionary,” Miyazaki says. “They just learn through osmosis. Foreign rikishi are not here to learn Japanese, but to learn sumo. But by learning sumo they have to learn Japanese. That’s their motivation. Many students who learn in classroom studies don’t know what to do with the language they learn. So it’s a matter of identity.”
And Japundit‘s baseball contributor (and NY Yankees fan) Mike Plugh has two informative posts about ironman Hideki Matsui’s wrist injury: a backgrounder, Godzilla vs. Misfortune, and an update on fan reactions in Japan and the U.S., Feeding the monster.