Monday, October 4, 2010

Chiyotaikai Retirement Ceremony - October 2, 2010

When I first moved to Japan in 1996, I immediately became hooked on sumo. I would go to every tournament in Tokyo and often travel to various out-of-town events as well. The stars of the sport were the two Japanese brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana, while Hawaiians Akebono and Musashimaru were also at the top of their game. Each tournament was exciting and usually went to the last day before a champion could be declared.

But by 2004, all of these great wrestlers had retired and there were no interesting personalities to replace them. I lost a lot of interest and as time passed, sumo was pushed to the periphery of my sports viewing world.

Explaining Sumo

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the sport is how simple the rules are but how complicated the underlying rituals can be. It is beyond the scope of this blog to go into detail on the various traditions but it is safe to say that the sumo world is essentially unchanged since it began over 250 years ago.

I'll try to keep it simple so the rest of the post makes some sense to the uninitiated. In sumo, there are several levels, much like baseball. New rikishi (the Japanese word for a sumo wrestler) begin at the lowest level and work their way up. There are 6 tournaments a year and you move up the ranking by winning a majority of your bouts. The top level is where fame and fortune can be found. It is known as Makunouchi and there are only 42 rikishi out of around 750 total who are good enough to make it here. As an interesting comparison, there are also about 750 MLB players and 68 make the all-star team.

Within the Makunouchi division, there are further ranks. The vast majority are known as Maegashira; these are just the rank and filers who move up or down a few spots for each tournament. Above them are the best of the best, known as Sanyaku, consisting of 4 ranks. The top two levels are Yokozuna (Grand Champion) and Ozeki. Once a rikishi is promoted to Yokozuna, he cannot be demoted; he must retire when his skills deteriorate. There have been 69 Yokozuna in the history of sumo; currently only Mongolian Hakuho represents this rank.

At the top level, there are 15 bouts in a tournament. A rikishi who wins 8 or more will move up while one who loses 8 or more will move down. The rules of each bout are quite simple. At the center of the dohyo (ring), the two rikishi, wearing only a mawashi (stiff belt used to get a grip by the opponent), face each other from a squatting position. They then jump at each other at the same time (tachiai) and begin grappling or pushing. The object is to push your opponent out of the ring or to force him to touch the ground with any part of his body except his foot. Once either happens, the bout is over; many bouts last less than 10 seconds as the advantage gained at the tachiai can quickly be exploited. There are 82 kimarite (winning techniques) that are recognized by the sumo association, however only a small portion are used regularly.

After each tournament, the rankings shift. A rikishi who goes 8-7 will move up 1 or 2 spots, while one who goes 12-3 will see a much larger jump. Getting promoted to Ozeki or Yokozuna requires a decision of a council of elders and is big news when it happens.

Each rikishi belongs to a heya (stable) which is run by a stablemaster, who is a now-retired sumo elder. These heya are located throughout Tokyo though most are near the Kokugikan (see below). It is not uncommon to see the rikishi in their yukata biking around the area. It should be noted that rikishi from the same heya do not fight each other in tournaments.

There's so much more that can be discussed but I'll leave it here for now. The Wikipedia article has a much more detailed explanation which I suggest reading if you are interested.


All three sumo tournaments and most other sumo events in Tokyo take place at the Kokugikan next to Ryogoku station. As you walk from the station, you will notice the colourful banners that are on display at tournament time (above). The venue was opened in 1985 but it is the third sumo arena in Tokyo. There are two levels: the lower level has mat seating which are generally sold in groups of 4 and can be quite tight when you have four big people sitting there; the upper level is chair seating with 3 separate pricing options. Prices are different for each event but generally the mat seats are around ¥11,000 and the chair seats go from ¥2,000-7,000.

The Kokugikan is perfectly symmetrical, with 4 distinct sides: shomen (front), east, west, and mukae (back). It makes a difference where you sit as the shomen view offers the clearest sightlines as the rikishi face that way when entering the dohyo. However, once a bout begins, they move all around the ring so that you can get good pictures from any spot.

The Kokugikan holds 13,000 people and it can get crowded during tournament times. A typical tournament day begins at 9 am and goes to 6 pm but few fans are there from the beginning as it is the very young rikishi who are fighting from that time. That is therefore the best time to go for visitors, as you can sit as close as you want to really appreciate just how difficult the sport is.


Naturally, rikishi get old and start to lose their skills. At some point they realize it's time to hang up the mawashii. Those who have been in the sumo world for a long time are then given a retirement ceremony, known as the danpatsu-shiki or hair-cutting ceremony. This is because rikishi wear their hair in a stylish top knot when fighting, which requires their hair to be extremely long. That's Chiyotaikai above signing autographs before the ceremony, you can see his topknot in the shape of a gingko leaf here. When they retire, they can return to a normal hair style, and it's only fitting that the final haircut is performed by the supporters, friends, and family of the retiring rikishi.

There is one other element of the retirement process which is the name change. Rikishi choose a shikona (ring name) that has special meaning to them or relates to their heya. For example, Chiyotaikai belongs to Kokonoe-beya, which is run by ex-Yokozuna Chiyonofuji, one of the greatest rikishi of all time. All rikishi in this heya select a shikona that begins with Chiyo in honour of their master, as did Chiyotaikai. The -taikai suffix translates as "big ocean" and I'm not sure why he chose that specifically. Whatever the case, when a rikishi retires, he will usually take another name that is reserved for a sumo elder. In Chiyotaikai's case he is now called Sanoyama-oyakata (coach) and will train rikishi at Kokonoe-beya.


Before I mention him any further, I should offer a brief explanation of Chiyotaikai and why I cheered for him when I started following sumo.

When I moved here and started to go to the tournaments, I wanted to avoid being a front-runner and cheer for the top ranked rikishi. So I started looking at the lesser known guys and found this youngster named Chiyotaikai whose kesho-mawashi (decorative apron worn in ring-entering ceremonies) was a Canadian flag. I found a picture in the middle of this sumo explanation for kids. At the time he was sponsored by a Canadian and so I had no choice but to cheer for Chiyotaikai.

As he moved up the banzuke (ranking list) I followed him closely. He was very strong and rose quickly through the ranks, reaching the Sekiwake level (one below Ozeki) for the January 1999 tournament. I attended the last day of that tournament in Tokyo. Chiyotaikai had a 12-2 record, one win behind Yokozuna Wakanohana. They were scheduled to meet in the penultimate bout of the day. If Chiyotaikai won, they would hold a one-match playoff to decide the tournament title. Chiyotaikai upset Wakanohana in that bout so they met again to decide the championship. Wakanohana was initially awarded the win in that playoff, but the judges had a look at the replay and decided that it was too close to call, so a rematch was ordered. This was the first time in history that a championship playoff went to a rematch. The second time Chiyotaikai was able to push Wakanohana down to claim his first title and with it, Ozeki promotion for the next tournament. It was one of the highlights of my sports viewing life and certainly something I will never forget. It's rare for a team or athlete I support to actually succeed (40 years of Leaf fandom etc) so I was quite happy to see him take his first championship.

After that, Chiyotaikai enjoyed over 10 years at Ozeki including two more tournament championships, but injuries and a lack of technique made it impossible for him to achieve promotion to Yokozuna. Nonetheless, he holds the record for most tournaments spent at Ozeki with 65. He retired during the January, 2010 tournament after losing his first 4 matches as a newly-demoted Sekiwake. It was a great career and he was deserving of a great retirement ceremony.

The Ceremony

Unlike a normal tournament day, the retirement ceremony begins around 11 am and only lasts until 4:30 or so. Saturday's festivities began with a ceremonial song and then ten junior rikishi held a mini-tournament. This was followed by a shokkiri display, which is a comical skit performed by two rikishi to show what is not allowed in sumo (such as kicking, spitting, etc). It is quite funny and the crowd was entertained by the antics.

This is followed by a display of how to create the topknot. A tokoyama (sumo hairdresser) and a rikishi (Takamisakari below) spend a few minutes on the dohyo while the announcer explains the intricate details of how to properly set the topknot before each bout.

Next up was the entrance ceremony for the Juryo rikishi, who are one level below Makuuchi but still are considered to be high enough to enjoy the perks of seniority (meaning they are served by the junior rikishi of their heya). The entrance ceremony is known as the dohyo-iri and is only performed by Makuuchi and Juryo rikishi. First, the rikishi on the east side for that day come out. Led by a gyoji (referee) their names, birthplaces, and heya are announced as they mount the dohyo wearing their kesho-mawashii (below). When they finish, the west rikishi do the same thing. It's very symbolic as after the final rikishi is on the dohyo, they all turn into the ring to face each other, clap to summon the gods, raise their hands to show they have no weapons, and raise their kesho-mawashii to simulate stomping.

One this was completed, we were treated to a few minutes of sumo jinku, or traditional songs that are often about the life of a rikishi. Six junior rikishi shared the dohyo singing and making jokes. It is quite surreal to see these behemoths crooning with such unexpectedly good voices.

With the entertainment over, it was time for some actual sumo to take place. There were 12 Juryo bouts, but it was immediately clear that this was not to be taken seriously. Avoiding injury was the main object and there were few throws. Below is one-time Ozeki Miyabiyama (recently demoted to Juryo for his part in a gambling scandal) after he threw Toyonoshima but this was the exception for today.

All of this took about 90 minutes, and it was now time for the actual hair-cutting ceremony. The dohyo was covered with orange cloth and a single chair was set in the middle. Chiyotaikai was announced and strode to the center to loud applause. There was a brief speech by the president of Kokonoe-beya's koenkai (official fan club for want of a better term, but it's very serious and expensive to join) before the hair began to fall.

At this point, a gyoji with golden scissors mounted the dohyo and stood next to Chiyotaikai. For the next 90 minutes or so, his supporters and fan club members, some famous actors and athletes, and other rikishi were called up. Each took the scissors and snipped a tiny piece of Chiyotaikai's hair. There were 358 people who participated in the ceremony. Below is ex-Ozeki Konishiki, who holds the record for heaviest sumo dude ever at 287 kg (633lbs), although he has slimmed down after recent gastric bypass surgery.

The ceremony proceeded rather slowly, except when a celebrity was announced, when the crowd would ooh and ahh. Some famous names that I recognized were the WBA flyweight champion Daiki Kameda, his father Shiro, ex-Yomiuri Giant Daisuke Motoki, and Nippon Ham Fighters manager Masataka Nishida, whose team had been eliminated from the playoffs the day before.

After the laypeople had taken their turn, it was time for a couple of long-time foes to do the honour. Former Ozeki Tochiazuma was first - he and Chiyotaikai had a long rivalry that defined much of their respective careers. Active rikishi Kaio and Hakuho were also asked to take a snip.

When all that was done, Chiyotaikai's mother was introduced. However, women are not allowed on the dohyo as they are considered "impure" and will ruin the sanctity of the ring. Sumo has a lot of traditions based on the ancient Shinto religion and this is another one. Like all traditions, it's a bit silly when it doesn't change with the times, but for now, don't be standing on the dohyo if you are a woman.

Chiyotaikai's mother is obviously of that persuasion, so to allow her to cut his hair, they moved the chair off the dohyo where she could perform the ceremony without offending the gods of sumo (below).

Finally (and I mean finally - 90 minutes of watching people cut hair is not exciting!) it was Chiyonofuji's turn. The stable master is the last person to cut and so he removes the entire topknot to signify the end of the rikishi's fighting career (below).

Naturally Chiyotaikai shed a few tears during the last stages of the ceremony, but he recovered to give a quick speech thanking his fans for all their support over his 17-year career. Nobuteru Maeda, a famous singer, performed a corny ballad and then the announcer replayed, using his voice only, the 1999 championship that I mentioned earlier. It was extremely well done and most of the people around me were crying by the end of things. As Chiyotaikai left the Dohyo, fans screamed his name one final time; going forward it would be Sanoyama.

The day wasn't over yet (and neither is this post). There was a demonstration of the construction of the yokozuna's belt (tsuna) which is shown below.

After that the Makunouchi rikishi performed their dohyo-iri and then Hakuho did his special Yokozuna dohyo-iri, sporting the tsuna that had been put on him just a few minutes before.

After one final demonstration, this one of the special taiko drums that accompany each day of a tournament, it was time for the Makunouchi bouts. Again the wrestling was clearly of an exhibition variety, so much so that even Hakuho, in the midst of a 62-match win streak in tournament action, lost to fellow Mongolian Harumafuji (below).

And that was it. The fans quickly filed out, with the full day's action taking little more than 6 hours. For me, I chose this event as a symbolic end to my sumo-going days. The sumo organization is old and out-of-touch, and has been embroiled in scandal for the past several years. Worse, the sport is simply not that exciting anymore, so I've decided to stop going. I'll write a separate post on the current situation in sumo in a few days but this post has lasted far too long as it is.

For now, apologies for the long post filled with Japanese terms, but I hope you got some understanding of the intricacies of the world of sumo.




  1. Sean:
    Informative,interesting, well-written and some excellent photos. Dad

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  3. Phoenix gastric bypass surgeon said that "Konishiki retained his ozeki ranking for 39 tournaments over more than six years, but he eventually lost it in November 1993 after two consecutive losing records. However, he continued to compete in the top division as a maegashira for another four years. His weight continued to increase and he became susceptible to belt throws and slap downs by lighter and more agile opponents. " Maybe, this is the reason why he have to loose some weight.