- Fantasy Basho
Heya, Heya, It's a Stable: Arashio-beya
As you wait for sumo action to start on Sunday, pick your opening lineup on Fantasizr and read about Arashio-beya in this in-depth look.
Cast your mind back to November 2019. At the Kyushu basho that month, Hakuho won his 43rd yusho with a 14-1 record, only losing to Maegashira #1 East Daieisho on Day Two. Asanoyama made his Sanyaku debut and was on his way to an Ozeki promotion with an 11-4. Takayasu crashed out of the Ozeki ranks and Tochinoshin was unable to return to Ozeki, both thanks to injury withdrawals. And Wakatakakage made his Makuuchi debut.
It certainly was not how he planned it. Wakatakakage won his first 4 matches, but dislocated a joint in his right foot against Terutsuyoshi on Day Four. He had to withdraw at that point, leaving his record in his Makuuchi debut a very strange 4-1-10. That required an immediate return to Juryo, but Wakatakakage was not quite 25, had a solid amateur background, and shot to sekitori status in 7 basho. Clearly, he still had a chance for a decent Makuuchi career ahead of him.
Yet the November 2019 outlook for Wakatakakage’s career probably saw a ceiling of solid Maegashira. He wasn’t extremely young for a debutant, and he had solid but not overwhelming size at 180 cm and 129 kg (5’11” and 284 lbs). Although he was a University wrestler, he had not come with extensive amateur accolades. He had a Sandanme Yusho and Makushita Yusho, but his record in 9 basho in Juryo was 71-64. He was good, not great.
Wakatakakage was most notable for his interesting sumo connections. His maternal grandfather was 1950s Komusubi Wakabayama. Born Atsushi Onami, he is the youngest of three sumo wrestling brothers, alongside Wakatakamoto and Wakamotoharu. The Onami brothers’ shikona come from “The Lesson of the Three Arrows,'' a parable told about the three sons of legendary samurai Mori Motonari. Supposedly, Mori told his sons to break one arrow, then try it with three arrows bundled together. They could not break the bundled arrows. Arashio-oyakata, former Komusubi Oyutaka, thought it was a good way to unify the brothers in their sumo career.
Arashio-beya was not one of the heralded stables in sumo. It was opened by the former Oyutaka in 2002, branching off from Tokitsukaze-beya. The name was previously used by a stable that closed before World War II and only produced one Komusubi. Oyutaka brought just one wrestler, Miyagawa, who would never get above Jonidan. That was a sign of things to come. He had a steady stream of wrestlers coming in, but they would usually stall out before reaching Makushita. It keeps a stable going, but doesn’t bring success. The one notable success Arashio had in his first decade of running a stable was Sokokurai.
Sokokurai had one of the strangest careers in modern sumo. Although ethnically Mongolian, he is a native of Inner Mongolia in China. Trained in Mongolian wrestling, he was recruited by Arashio as a bit of a gamble. He was the first Chinese national to make Sekitori status when he reached Juryo in 2009. (Kiyonohana was a Juryo wrestler in the 1970s who listed his birthplace as Fujian, China. He was actually born in Osaka, but was ethnically Chinese. Sumo birthplaces are not as simple as listing a wrestler’s place of birth.) Sokokurai then made Makuuchi in September 2010.
It was a very strange time to join Sumo’s top division. Sokokurai had gone 8-7 at Juryo #3 in July 2010, a record that can put a wrestler in one of Makuuchi’s final spots. Instead, Sokokurai was vaulted to Maegashira #13, because a large number of wrestlers had recently been punished for illegal gambling. It began in late May of that year, when the magazine Shukun Shincho ran a story saying Ozeki Kotomitsuki was betting on baseball. In Japan, the only sports that are legal to bet on are horse racing and some forms of auto racing. Illegal betting is fairly easy to do, and is almost entirely tied to the Yakuza. Kotomitsuki wasn’t the only wrestler betting on baseball, but he did seem to be the one targeted for extortion by the Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate.
Kotomitsuki was forced to retire, while multiple other wrestlers were suspended for one basho as punishment. Makuuchi got completely jumbled, and Sokokurai faced a very odd top division for his debut. Sumo overall was also in a moment of chaos, with various wrestlers and oyakata receiving a range of punishments. The first Arashio-beya wrestler to reach Makuuchi looked like he may not have been quite at Makuuchi quality yet but got fortunate under the circumstances. Luckily for Sokokurai and Arashio-oyakata, Sokokurai went 8-7 in his first basho and became a firm Makuuchi wrestler.
This is more important than it may seem at first. As of the writing of this piece in May 2023, there are 45 active sumo stables. That is not a consistent number, as some stables are dissolved with wrestlers joining another stable and others are created by breaking off from other stables. For the Natsu 2023 Banzuke, just 26 active stables have a Makuuchi wrestler. Stables receive payment for each wrestler based on rank. There is also extra prestige that comes with having a Makuuchi wrestler, which helps with sponsors and recruitment of new wrestlers. Sokokurai making Maegashira was huge for Arashio-beya and Arashio Oyakata.
And then in March 2011 Sokourai was expelled from Sumo. The investigation into baseball betting and yakuza connections inevitably led to questions about corruption in other ways around rikishi’s illicit activities. The answers to those questions uncovered a significant amount of match-fixing. The investigation initially focused on Chiyohakuho and Kasuganishiki, Juryo wrestlers whose phones were taken in the baseball gambling investigation. Their text messages revealed a complex network of wrestlers throwing bouts for each other.
Yaocho, as match-fixing is known in sumo, is one of the biggest concerns for the Sumo Association. Yaocho undermines the fans’ trust in the sport, as well as provides an opportunity for yakuza influence. Match-fixing is also a convenient way for senior wrestlers to control junior wrestlers, a serious danger in such a hierarchical sport. The Japanese government was threatening to remove the Sumo Association’s government affiliation, which comes with tax benefits. The March 2011 basho was canceled outright as the JSA conducted its investigation, and the May 2011 basho was called a “Technical Examination Tournament” and held behind closed doors.
The particular yaocho conspiracy uncovered in 2011 seemed to be a particular mix of contained to select wrestlers and stretched throughout sumo. The leading men, which also ended up including Otake-oyakata, appeared to be able to find the wrestlers at a variety of stables who would be willing to participate in an exchange of thrown matches. Sokokurai was one of a few dozen wrestlers named by the leading conspirators as participating. That meant he was one of about two dozen wrestlers and stablemasters told to retire.
Sokokurai was one of two to protest his innocence and refuse to retire, along with Hoshikaze. The Sumo Association forced him out, and he was banned from his stable. They did agree to pay him his Makuuchi salary for a year. Arashio-oyakata stood by his wrestler although he was punished by the JSA for it, and even kept him as a “consultant.” Sokokurai worked out on his own with a rugby team, tended chickens on a farm, and sued the Sumo Association. When he got his day in court, it was determined that Sokokurai was only implicated by the testimony of the proven-untrustworthy Kasuganishiki. The Sumo Association allowed Sokokurai to return in May 2013.
Sokokurai’s first appearance back on the banzuke was in July 2013, over two years after he was expelled, at Maegashira #15 West. He went 6-9, and despite the fact he was able to come back there was little reason to think he’d return to Makuuchi. He was nearly 29 and hadn’t faced competition for two years. He also never had the kind of dominant background or overwhelming size that suggested he could be a serious contender. Yet he stuck for three basho in Juryo and then served as a Maegashira until 2018. His best performance was a 12-3 Jun-Yusho with a Gino-Sho as a Maegashira #10 in January 2017. That was his only Special Prize, and he got his only kinboshi over Harumafuji in March 2017.
Sokokurai was remarkable for even having a Makuuchi career. He could have left sumo, but instead he fought by asserting his innocence and simply maintaining his position until he got his chance. That is a parallel to his brand of sumo. His most common winning kimarite was the yorikiri, force-out, followed by various throws. He had decent height but not incredible weight for a sumo wrestler. What he did well was get his feet set and maintain a solid inside position. Sokokurai rarely was shoved upward or sent sideways at the tachiai. He also knew how to keep his opponent contained. It’s not a dramatic style, but it can be effective for a rikishi with an athleticism and/or size disadvantage.
Sokokurai retired in March 2020. Somewhat surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly at all, he had taken Japanese citizenship so he could become an elder in the Japanese Sumo Association that he fought against. When he retired, he was in Makushita after a sojourn in Juryo which had a brief demotion to Makushita. He wasn’t likely to make it back to the top division at 35, but the real reason he retired from active sumo was that his oyakata had hit the mandatory retirement age of 65. Sokokurai became the new Arashio-oyakata.
Arashio-beya did have Wakatakakage, the stable’s first sekitori since Sokokurai himself. Although the stable had grown, its prospects weren’t necessarily that bright. Wakatakakage was trying to establish himself in Makuuchi after his injury-caused drop to Juryo. His older brothers didn’t seem like they would make hay. Wakamotoharu had made Juryo, but only after a long time in Makushita. Eldest brother Wakatakamoto was still in Makushita. This was not a stable full of future Maegashira, much less possible Ozeki or Yokozuna.
Yet under the new Arashio-oyakata, multiple stablemembers broke past their apparent ceilings. Wakatakakage was a Maegashira #14 for the basho in July 2020. One year later, he was a Komusubi. He went 5-10, but got back to Sekiwake by the following March. All he did then was win a Yusho in a dramatic playoff against Takayasu after going 12-3. That will be his lasting legacy, as just 75 men have won a championship in the 390 basho since the modern era of sumo began in 1958. Wakatakakage is among the immortals, but he also was a Sekiwake for 7 straight basho. That’s a not insignificant achievement, as it requires keeping a winning record against the very best rikishi for over a year.
This was from a wrestler who somehow seemed to improve as he went up the Banzuke. That almost became a hallmark of Arashio men. Kotokuzan was mostly notable for much of his career as the only rikishi with the given name of Jasper. The half-Filipino, half-Japanese wrestler looked like a Makushita lifer in 2020, with four years in sumo’s third-division at that point. Under the former Sokokurai, he steadily made his way to Juryo and then to Makuuchi in March 2022. He only lasted two basho as a Maegashira, but it’s astonishing he got the rank in the first place.
Wakatakakage’s brother Wakamotoharu made Makuuchi in January 2022 as a 28 year old with a decade in sumo and a sub-.500 career Juryo record. A little over a year later, he has matched his younger brother as a Sekiwake after a career best 11 win performance at his career high rank in March as a Komusubi. That just shouldn’t happen, but it was once again an Arashio-beya rikishi defying expectations. And he could keep building his portfolio.
All these wrestlers resemble their stablemaster in some way. What they all have in common is a tendency to never beat themselves. Wakatakakage is probably the most naturally talented due to a quick-twitch athleticism that allows him an ability to recover from a losing position. He still doesn’t find himself there that often, which seems to be the Arashio fashion. Just like Sokokurai when he competed, Wakatakakage, Wakamotoharu, and Kotokuzan keep their feet, stay inside, and wear down an opponent.
Wakatakakage suffered an injury at the tail end of the March basho, which resulted in a 7-7-1 record and a demotion to Komusubi. After the basho, he had ACL surgery and may be out a year. Wakatakakage’s year plus as a Sekiwake can be seen as a disappointment, since he didn’t get to Ozeki. Yet being a Sekiwake is a remarkable achievement, and Wakatakakage was never an obvious future star as a Maegashira. Arashio-oyakata helped him get there.
The former Sokokurai has helped Wakatakakage achieve this feat as well as guide other stablemembers to unexpected heights. The future is fairly bright, too. Sokokurai has been recruiting well, including fellow Inner Mongolian Daiseizan. Daiseizan is 22 with a 30-5 career record in the lower ranks. And for all the wrestlers who look like they don’t have a shot at Maegashira or above? He’s gotten charges past their apparent ceilings before.