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As I See It: Former yokozuna Chiyonofuji pursued his own path, even under fire

A portrait of former yokozuna Chiyonofuji is seen at Kokonoe Stable in Tokyo's Sumida Ward, on Aug. 6, 2016. (Mainichi)

Among all brilliant sumo wrestlers then and now, when it comes to top-ranked yokozuna, I first and foremost name former yokozuna Chiyonofuji. I believe people in my generation of around 40 would probably do the same.

Chiyonofuji's reign -- from the time he was promoted to yokozuna after the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament in July 1981, to when he retired during the summer tournament of May 1991 -- almost overlaps my elementary school and junior high school days.

The televised sight of Chiyonofuji wildly throwing larger opponents during bouts, with his fearless look and slender but muscle-bound frame, impressed even someone like me who wasn't particularly interested in professional sumo back then.

Chiyonofuji, later known as stablemaster Kokonoe, passed away on July 31 this year. After covering his wake on Aug. 6, I offered incense for him. Inside his portrait frame was a picture of him in a suit, with a gentle smile. He was the hero of an era when his great performances were broadcast on TV. When I became a sumo writer for the Mainichi Shimbun, I was most thrilled to meet Chiyonofuji compared to other wrestlers. He was also the hardest to approach. Upon hearing his obituary, I felt not so much sadness or loneliness as I felt like my youth had also drawn to a close.

Stablemaster Kokonoe was a formidable man with his penetrating look. Whenever I visited him to ask questions, he would say, "I have nothing to tell you," and "Come again after you study more." I was completely let down just by these words. Nonetheless, I gradually grew accustomed to his posture, and when I dared to ask him more questions, he would eventually open up and answer my questions. There was this one time he told me, "I don't have time for this," but our conversation went on and on, until he laughed and said, "I'm sure your article will make the headlines as I gave you so much information."

When one of his disciples was set to perform a bow-twirling ceremony on the sumo ring, or "yumitori" in Japanese, stablemaster Kokonoe said to me, "That's cool, isn't it?" He was so excited about his disciple's moment of glory that he showed his sweet side under his usually formidable persona.

As a stablemaster, he managed to produce 13 wrestlers in the top two divisions. What helped him give adequate instructions to younger wrestlers was his own experience of racking his brain to figure out how to better beat grapplers larger than him. Furthermore, he was recently exchanging notebooks with his disciples to give them emotional support. "Great players don't make great managers," they say, but this wasn't true for Chiyonofuji.

His career saw yet another culmination when he was granted the People's Honor Award, though his distinguished accomplishments both as a wrestler and a stablemaster didn't take him to the top position at the Japan Sumo Association (JSA). He was elected a director of the association in 2008 and was later appointed the head of a business section -- the No. 2 post in the association -- in 2012. The move seemed to have paved the way for him to eventually assume the chairmanship, but he lost in the JSA trustee election two years later. "This is attributable to my lack of virtue," he commented.

Stablemaster Kokonoe was a leader type of person who was affectionately called "master" by those around him. At the same time, some criticized him for not "being able to bow to others." Subtle hostilities that accumulated among other stablemasters, due in part to his somewhat high-handed approach, were apparently behind his failure to clinch the JSA chairmanship.

During his grappler days, a hard-nosed Chiyonofuji devoted himself to relentless exercise, visiting other stables for practice and inflicting grueling training on others. "I can't remember how many times I was defeated by him," said one stablemaster, recalling the hard training he endured. Chiyonofuji surely couldn't afford to be beaten by junior wrestlers, but not all of them appreciated his stern approach.

Though relatively unpopular within the JSA, Chiyonofuji showed off his sturdy physique during a ring entering ceremony celebrating his longevity at the end of May 2015, shortly before his 60th birthday. He was absent from the Nagoya tournament in July that year, and revealed his illness during the September tourney.

Undaunted, he continued giving instructions to his disciples and returned to his post of watching out for grapplers who intentionally lack fighting spirit during bouts. He had also shown eagerness to run in the JSA trustee election once again in January this year.

After his demise, his former mentor and former yokozuna, Kitanofuji Katsuaki, and Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj, formerly known as yokozuna Asashoryu, paid their respects at the Kokonoe stable in Tokyo's Sumida Ward. They were joined by JSA Chairman Hakkaku (former yokozuna Hokutoumi) and other JSA executives, as well as Yokozuna Hakuho who had just wrapped up a tour in the city of Fukui, and stablemaster Takanohana, a former yokozuna who serves as head of the JSA's tour section. Stablemaster Musashigawa (former yokozuna Musashimaru) also showed up and said, "Stablemaster Kokonoe was telling me he was tired and things were physically tough for him (during the Nagoya tourney). I was surprised because he wasn't the kind of person who would make such complaints."

A host of former yokozuna made hasty condolence visits to the Kokonoe stable one after another apparently because they have shared the same struggle of maintaining the top-notch position, the highest honor in the sumo world that also forces one to give up the sport after poor performances. They probably sympathized with Chiyonofuji in that he pursued his own path even if he drew fire at times.

Today, attention is focused on whether Kisenosato will make it to the yokozuna rank. Chiyonofuji once had a rivalry with Kisenosato's former mentor, former yokozuna Takanosato, and had commented about Kisenosato, saying, "He should practice more, to the point he goes out to Hakuho's stable to ask for training." I honestly wanted to see how Chiyonofuji would have spurred Kisenosato to reach the top title, and whether his advice would have proved fruitful. (By Hironobu Murakoso, Sports News Department)

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