2018 -- Looking back on a year of sumo

It's been another year of powerful performances and sell-out crowds in sumo arenas across Japan. A lot of things happened in 2018 both inside and outside of the ring. Let's take look back at how things played out, and also some of the setbacks the sport had to overcome.

Sumo -- Japan's "National Sport"

Before we look at the year's major events, let's take a look at the history of the sport. The origins date back about 1500 years. Sumo was originally a court function, held during festivals to pray for a rich harvest and peace. Today, it's widely recognized as Japan's national sport.

6 grand sumo tournaments are held each year in the country. Each one lasts 15 days. There are 42 wrestlers in the top division, which is called the Makunouchi. In this division, the top rank is Yokozuna, followed by Ozeki, Sekiwake, Komusubi and Maegashira. A wrestler can win a match by either maneuvering his opponent out of the ring, or by forcing his opponent's body to touch the ground -- other than the soles of the feet, of course. The wrestler with the highest number of wins after 15 days becomes the tournament champion and receives the sport's most coveted prize, the Emperor's Cup. Since the 1990s, foreign wrestlers became increasingly stronger and started to win tournaments.


Georgian Tochinoshin on the right captures his first title in the January tournament. He became the third European to win the Emperor’s Cup.

The first tourney of the year is held each January. In 2018, the New Year Tournament turned out to be a surprise for many sumo fans. Entering Day 14, the tournament's sole leader was the Georgian Tochinoshin, who had never won a championship before. He won his match on Day 14 to clinch his first title. For Tochinoshin, it's been a long road to success, because he'd long been hampered with knee injuries. This forced him to sit out four consecutive tournaments. But, he rose from the ashes and fought his way to the top. Tochinoshin became the third European to capture the top division title after Kotooshu from Bulgaria and Baruto from Estonia. In this tournament, Tochinoshin not only won the Emperor's Cup, but also picked up a couple of special prizes; the Outstanding Performance Award and the Technique Prize. Furthermore, Tochinoshin received a special award from his home country of Georgia. The Georgian Ambassador to Japan presented a medal to Tochinoshin at a party in Tokyo. Tochinoshin said that he went through 12 years of hardship since he came to Japan. He said he's grateful to the people of Georgia and Japan for their unwavering support, even when he was demoted after he was injured.


Before the Spring tourney began, wrestler Takanoiwa appeared in front of the media. He spoke for the first time since being assaulted by Yokozuna grand champion Harumafuji in October 2017. The incident left him with head injuries and forced him to sit out 2 tournaments. Harumafuji hit him a number of times with his bare hands and with a karaoke remote control at a bar in Tottori City, western Japan.

Mongolian grand champion Harumafuji on the right announces his retirement to take responsibility for brutally beating up a junior wrestler.

Harumafuji retired from sumo to take responsibility for his misconduct. Takanoiwa had to sit out two tournaments, and because of that he was demoted to the second-tier Juryo division. When he came back to compete in Osaka he had fully recovered from his injuries and he finished the March contest with more wins than losses. It was so nice to see Takanoiwa fighting in top form again.

There was another shock in store for sumo fans before the Spring tourney began.

Japan Sumo Association board members recommended the Egyptian-born wrestler Osunaarashi retire after learning that he had repeatedly drove a car illegally. In February, prosecutors filed a summary indictment against the wrestler on suspicion of driving with no license on 3 occasions during the previous month. He was fined about 4,700 dollars by a court. The Japan Sumo Association bans active wrestlers from driving -- even with a license.

Making things worse... when Osunaarashi reported to the association, he changed his story several times and even claimed that he had not been behind the wheel. Osunaarashi made his debut in the 2012 March tournament, becoming the first man from the African continent and also the first Muslim to debut in professional sumo in Japan. Osunaarashi had always told me that his goal was to make Yokozuna grand champion. I used to think that his dream was within grasp, because he's physically gifted and he had the sheer power to outmuscle most of his foes. It's a shame that his thoughtless behavior outside the ring forced him to give up on his dream.


Yokozuna grand champion Kakuryu is the only multiple championship winner in 2018. He won the March and the May tournament.

In the March tournament held in Osaka, western Japan, Mongolian Yokozuna Kakuryu won his 4th championship. It was his first title since the 2016 November contest. A lot of people had doubts about Kakuryu's ability to win another title, so he was able to prove them wrong big time.


Several people rushed to conduct CPR after a man collapsed during his speech in the ring.

Another scandal shook the sumo world in April. The sport faced accusations of gender discrimination. Traditionally, women are not allowed to enter the sumo ring. But that custom came under heavy criticism when women entered a ring to help during a medical emergency. During a provincial tour in Kyoto, a mayor of a different city collapsed when he was addressing the crowd from the ring and several women entered the ring to conduct CPR. But a referee repeatedly asked them to get out. The mayor eventually was taken to a hospital and underwent an operation for a brain hemorrhage and his life was saved. The Sumo Association later apologized and said that the announcement was inappropriate.

Here's my take on this taboo. I've been covering the sport for a long time and have spoken to a number of sumo association officials about it, but not a single person has given me a clear answer. They all say "that's the tradition." There have been controversies in the past over this issue. In 2000, a female governor of Osaka wanted to enter the ring and present the trophy to the winner of a grand tournament. But the sumo association refused to allow her to do that. She's made the same request in the following years, but the association's answer has never wavered. In 1978, a female student who advanced to the final rounds in a children's sumo contest was forced to withdraw from the competition. Those matches were to be held in the ring of the sumo association's national stadium and the same rule applied even to girls. These cases sparked controversy in Japan, but nothing has changed.

The problem in Kyoto's case is the individual sumo association officials didn't really know how to respond because they had never been in such a situation before. Of course the proper thing to do was to allow those women to keep conducting CPR. Some people have said that the sumo association's attitude is nothing but gender discrimination. Although there are people who wish to keep sumo traditions intact, the world is becoming less tolerant of any type of discrimination. I think now is as good a time as any for Japan's national sport to rethink its rules and values.


A sold-out crowd was on hand to watch the 18th annual US SUMO OPEN in Long Beach, California on May 12, 2018.

Sumo has many thousands of fans around the world... and a growing number are taking it up as a sport. A major amateur sumo event took place in Los Angeles in May, as a qualifier for the Sumo World Championships in Taiwan in July. I was there to watch the action. The annual US Sumo Open is the biggest event in amateur sumo in the United States. This year's tournament was the 18th -- and it brought together 48 wrestlers from 11 countries. There are three different weight classes -- and also an open weight division. That's always one of the most popular events. The spectators love watching the smaller guys coming through as giant-killers. The fans were up on their feet, cheering on their favorite wrestlers. There are separate weight divisions for the women, too.

NHK World’s Hiro Morita poses for a photograph with the heavyweight gold medalist Roy Sims at the US SUMO OPEN.

The turnout for the event is growing every year. This time, some 4,300 people watched the spectacular bouts. Sumo originated in Japan, but its growing legions of fans are now spreading around the world. The US Sumo Open showed just how far sumo is evolving -- and has become a sport recognized and followed by people all over the world.


The May tournament was held in Tokyo. Heading into the final day, Yokozuna Kakuryu had sole possession of the lead with just 1 loss. On the final day, he needed to beat his rival Yokozuna Hakuho to claim the championship.

Kakuryu defeated Hakuho to walk away with his 5th championship win. Last year had been a very difficult year for Kakuryu as he had a number of injuries. This was the first time he had won two tournaments in a row, so, it was a well-deserved and confidence boosting triumph for the Mongolian Yokozuna.


In the May tournament, Tochinoshin stayed in contention until the last moment by racking up 13 victories. For this amazing feat, he was awarded with the Technique Prize and the Fighting Spirit Prize.

Tochinoshin didn't win the championship, but he was promoted to the second highest rank of Ozeki. He's the first wrestler from Georgia to gain that title.... but it took him a long time to get there. Before becoming Ozeki, he had fought in 60 tournaments since making his top division debut in 2008.


In the July tournament in Nagoya, fans were disappointed to learn that Kakuryu had decided to pull out on the 6th day due to arthritis in his right elbow. Earlier, Yokozuna Hakuho announced his withdrawal from the tournament due to a knee injury, and another Yokozuna Kisenosato had also decided not to compete because of an injury. It was the first time since the 1999 March tournament that 3 Yokozuna grand champions had withdrawn from the competition.


Mitakeumi surprised a lot of people by winning his first top division championship in the July tournament in Nagoya.

"When the cats are away the mice will play." So, who took advantage of the situation? The biggest mouse turned out to be Mitakeumi who fights at the third highest rank of Sekiwake. He entered Day 14 with a chance to clinch his first top division title... and he delivered. After receiving the Emperor's Cup for the first time, Mitakeumi said that he'll train even harder with the aim of becoming an Ozeki. Mitakeumi also left Nagoya with the Outstanding Performance Award and the Technique Prize for making the July contest so exciting.


Then, came the September tournament in Tokyo. Yokozuna Hakuho seemed determined to redeem himself in this contest, because he hadn't won a single championship in 2018 up until this point. Hakuho looked solid from opening day and clinched the championship before entering the final day. And then on Day 15 he took care of business once again to finish the tournament with a perfect record of 15 wins.

Hakuho added another feather to his cap when he notched his 1,000th top division match victory during the September tournament.

It was his first championship win of 2018 and his 41st overall. Moreover, Hakuho won his 1,000th top division victory during the contest... a record in sumo history. Afterwards, Hakuho said that it had been a tough year for him, because he had to deal with injuries and his father passed away in April. But with this victory, Hakuho said he can now look ahead. Hakuho has now won at least one championship in each of the past 13 years and he told me that he's proud of the accomplishment.

There were no special prize winners in this tournament. It's the first time this has happened since the 3 prizes were established in 1947.


At the start of the September tournament, fans were focused on two wrestlers; Kisenosato and Mitakeumi. Kisenosato was competing after sitting out 8 tournaments, while Mitakeumi was gunning for Ozeki. Kisenosato finished the contest with 10 wins and 5 losses. That's not good enough to win a championship, but it wasn't a total disaster either. Mitakeumi wasn't able to notch up the required number of wins to make Ozeki this time.


Takanohana announces his retirement from the Japan Sumo Association on September 25, 2018.

Upon completion of the September tournament, sumo fans were rocked by disappointing news. Former Yokozuna grand champion and stablemaster Takanohana submitted his resignation from the Japan Sumo Association amid a dispute. Takanohana and the association had been at odds since Takanohana filed a complaint at the Cabinet Office about the assault on his trainee Takanoiwa by former Yokozuna Harumafuji. Takanohana said the association sent him a letter which concluded that the reasons for submitting the complaint were not based on fact. Both sides failed to come to terms and eventually Takanohana decided that it was time to call it quits. He felt that he just can't trust the sumo association anymore.


Takakeisho on the right celebrates after winning his first Emperor’s Cup in the November tournament.

The 6th and the final tourney of the year took place in Fukuoka, southwestern Japan and it sure went down to the wire. After 14 days, Takakeisho was in a two-way tie for the top spot with Ozeki Takayasu. They each had 2 losses. On the final day, Takakeisho won his match, but Takayasu didn't. As a result, the Emperor's Cup went to Takakeisho, who fights at the fourth highest rank of Komusubi. It's his first tournament title. The top division's youngest wrestler became the first Komusubi to win the Emperor's Cup in 18 years. In January, the 22-year-old go-getter will be gunning for Ozeki. We'll see whether Takakeisho can rise to the occasion.

By the way, just like the July tournament, all 3 Yokozuna grand champions sat on the sidelines with injuries. Needless to say, sumo fans are hoping to see all 3 return to action in good shape in the next contest.


Takanoiwa’s sumo career abruptly ends after it was revealed he had physically assaulted his stablemate.

In early December, Takanoiwa, who was beaten and injured by former Yokozuna Harumafuji last year, announced his retirement. This time, he turned out to be the assailant. The 28-year-old Mongolian attacked his junior stable mate by brutally slapping his face several times. He submitted his resignation to the Japan Sumo Association on December 7th. The sumo association issued new rules in October to stop the violence, because more cases of assault in the sport were reported this year. The sumo governing body said it won't tolerate violence under any circumstances.


We can say that 2018 was a tumultuous year for sumo, with drama both inside and outside the ring. 3 different individuals won the championship for the first time, which suggests that the Yokozuna grand champions are starting to lose steam. We can definitely see a changing of the guards here.

That said, I had a chance to talk to Hakuho during the winter provincial tour in Kumamoto, southwestern Japan in December, and the 41-time champion told me that he's looking forward to take on all comers in the new year. The Mongolian Yokozuna strongly believes he has what it takes to prove that he's still the king of the ring.


In 2019, the focus will be on whether the 3 Yokozuna grand champions can hold the fort or whether more young hopefuls will make their mark.

In any case, grand sumo is set to deliver another exciting year of action.