Japanese sumo has been in a bit of a funk this century. With the sport dominated by Mongolian yokozuna (“grand champions”) such as Asashoryu, Hakuho and Haramafuji, Japan went 58 tournaments between 2006 and 2016 without producing any tournament winners — despite strict limitations on how many foreigners are even allowed to train. Japan hasn’t produced a yokozuna since Wakanohana earned the rank in 1998, and hasn’t even had a yokozuna active in the sport since Wakanohana’s brother Takanohana retired in 2003.
But that drought has suddenly (and somewhat unexpectedly) ended, as the Japan Sumo Association on Wednesday officially promoted January basho (tournament) winner Kisenosato to the sport’s most prestigious rank — despite this being his first ever-tournament win.from before the January basho, I found hardly anything discussing Kisenosato’s yokozuna chances. Note this is unlike when Goeido and Kotoshogiku won tournaments last year, when virtually all of the media coverage of the next basho was about their yokozuna quests.">1
Kisenosato had previously finished in second place (called “jun-yusho”) a record 12 times without winning a tournament (“yusho”) — though he still has the record for most jun-yusho with only one yusho. Of course, that kind of thing happens when your career coincides with that of Hakuho, a living legend who, while less than a year older than Kisenosato, has won 37 tournaments (and counting). Nine of Kisenosato’s jun-yusho have been as runner-up to the “White Peng.”
While the criteria for promotion to yokozuna aren’t set in stone, the most common catalyst is winning two Grand Tournaments in a row — or some “equivalent” performance.
In this case, Yokozuna Deliberation Council likely considered the fact that Kisenosato had the most total match wins in the six Grand Tournaments of the 2016 season — including four second-place finishes, despite no overall tournament victories. Also, after Hakuho was upset on day 14, Kisenosato had the January tournament wrapped up before the final day, which is considered stronger than a normal tournament win. Then, in his final match against Hakuho, Kisenosato won with a spectacular sukuinage (“beltless arm throw”):
For more on the past and present of sumo, including a deep dive into 250 years of data, see The Sumo Matchup Centuries In The Making.