Monday, 28 January 2013


My obituary of Taiho, the greatest yokozuna in Japanese sumo history, is online in today's Guardian, you can link to it here. It ought to be in the paper paper tomorrow. One of small changes made was adding 'official' to my definition of 'honbasho'...I wrote simply 'real', but should have explained it meant 'real' basho, in the sense of first-rate. It was felt I needed to explain some of the basics of sumo for the readership, whom I guess by now no longer include those who watched on Channel 4 in the 1980s, when Taiho's son-in-law, Takotoriki, was a star player. I also made an error in the piece, which should be corrected; Taiho's 45 match winning streak was indeed surpassed, by Chiyonofuji in 1988, and has been broken since.

Another bit that was left out was a reference I made to the fascinating story of Taiho's birth, and his mixed heritage. Many Japanese references would list him as being born in Hokkaido, and much was made of the string of Hokkaido champions--Taiho followed by Kitanoumi (who became a yokozuna a month younger than Taiho) and Chionofuji. I was curious to see if there was a parallel between Taiho's rivalry with Kashiwado (pictured below left, with Taiho on the left) and the relationship in Japanese baseball between the Yomiuri Giants' stars Sadaharo Oh, the all-time home run champ, and Shigeo Nagashima, who was the Japanese 'Mr. Baseball'. Because Oh was half-Chinese, Nagashima was arguably the more popular, and, as with Taiho, after retirement, it was Nagashima was was first choice to manager the Giants. Of course, when Oh's single-season home run record was threatened by foreign hitters, teams Oh managed were never shy about denying the gai-jin pitches to hit. But I could find no evidence of it, and certainly the overwhelming level of Taiho's popularity would argue against any such bias.

Nowadays with the influx of highly successful sumo wrestlers from America (or Samoa) and Mongolia, these issues are once again crucial to sumo, as is the whole business of gambling and fixing fights. Like boxing in the glory days, fixing scandals have long plagued the Sumo Association, and ties with organised crime always seem to be lurking in the background. That Takotoriki, Taiho's son-in-law, could be implicated in a gambling scandal, even if it was baseball, was enough to force him out of Taiho's sumo school. I used to correspond with the poet and editor Cid Corman (you can read my Guardian obit of him here), who lived in Tokyo and was almost as big a fan of sumo as he was of poetry and baseball, and he would complain about the blatant decline in honesty in the bouts he watched. Supposedly, steps were taken to clean it up. But another sign of sumo's troubled times is the fact that the Nishonoseki stable, which produced Taiho and many other greats, is scheduled to close next month.

It was odd how much more Russian Taiho looked in his old age--the pure Japanese handsomeness of his youth changed somewhat, reflecting the sad tale of his ancestry. His grandchildren are apparently in sumo training, and that was the hope to which he alluded in his final interview--the endurance was something he'd already shown all through his career.


MasterAir said...

Nice article Mike, though I'm not certain about Taiho's undefeated run being the longest. I saw Hakuho in 2010 and believe he had a run into the 50s. Though for a long time he was the only Yokozuna.

Michael Carlson said...

You're right--Chiyonofuji first broke the mark in 1988, and his was broken at least once. It's a little fuzzy when you check various sites, but thanks. It should be corrected soon...