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Heya, Heya, It's a Stable: Kataonami-beya

Kataonami oyakata and half his stable

If you were asked to picture a sumo stable, you would probably imagine a raft of young men of ample size training together. They would go from a practice dohyo to a kitchen to their sleeping quarters, living, eating, and doing chores communally. Occasionally, a higher level wrestler will be seen, easy to spot because of the deference being given to him.

That hive of activity does not apply to Kataonami-beya. Kataonami has precisely two wrestlers. Not two sekitori, or two top division wrestlers, just two wrestlers full stop. This is an extraordinarily small, although not unheard of, number. Kagamiya-beya also has just two wrestlers. Nishiiwa and Nishikido stables both have five wrestlers. Most sumo stables are bigger, counting their wrestlers in at least the double digits and sometimes in dozens. Some sumo stables are small. That at least makes the picture section on the heya website easier to manage.

What makes Kataonami especially remarkable for a small stable is that it boasts a Makuuchi wrestler. In fact, Tamawashi is much more than simply a Makuuchi wrestler. He made his Maegashira debut in 2009, and he hasn't been in Juryo since 2013. He is usually lurking around the named Sanyaku ranks and even won a yusho in the January 2019 basho. This makes Kataonami the only stable where half the current wrestlers are yusho winners.

Kataonami and Tamawashi should probably not be held up as models of success, simply because they are such outliers they would be hard to copy. Tamawashi is a Mongolian who came to sumo almost by accident, while visiting his sister in Japan. Blessed with excellent size, the then 20 year old used his connections with Mongolian sumotori to get recruited by Kataonami-oyakata in 2004. His shikona, meaning "Jewel Eagle," keeps with the stable's tradition of beginning each ring name with the character 玉, or tama. It means "ball," but also "jewel," "jade," or "bullet."

Kataonami-beya was bigger then (how could it not be), and run by the former sekiwake Tamanofuji. It also had a history of producing excellent wrestlers, including 51st Yokozuna Tamanoumi. Tamanofuji brought through a number of Makuuchi wrestlers himself, including Tamakasuga, who also reached sekiwake. In 2010, Tamakasuga would take over the Kataonami oyakata name and the running of the stable.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Kataonami began to shrink under ex-Tamakasuga. He recruited Tamakongo in 2014, who has yet to get above Makushita and mostly yo-yos between Makushita and Sandanme. That's better than Tamaisshin, Tamanoryu, and Ishikawa, who all washed out fairly quickly. And that's the full list of rikishi recruited to Kataonami since the current stablemaster has been in charge.

He still had Tamawashi, though. Tamawashi wasn't a future superstar at any point along his development, but he was always a good prospect. He made it to Makushita within a year of joining sumo and without suffering a losing record. He did need over two years to clear the Makushita hurdle, but he did get a yusho at Makushita 32 in Aki 2007. By Aki 2008, he was a Maegashira, having steadily worked his way through Juryo. Although he was immediately sent back down, he also immediately came back up and established himself as a solid Maegashira. Despite three juryo demotions, he kept coming back.

Then, in his 30s, Tamawashi seemed to find a new level. He first hit komusubi in 2015, as a 31 year old. For most of 2017, he was in Sanyaku, seemingly peaking at 33, when most wrestlers are considering retirement. The real surprise came when he achieved 13 wins, by far his best record, in January 2019 and secured a yusho. 34 year olds are not supposed to be making breakthroughs in sumo, a sport that batters its competitors' bodies.

The shape of Tamawashi's career isn't the only thing odd about him. Most Mongolian wrestlers prefer to fight on the mawashi, as that style is similar to the traditional Mongolian wrestling known as bokh. Tamawashi is a pusher-thruster all the way. Even more bizarrely, he is at his best when he lands a nodowa, the hard shove to an opponent's throat. It's a devastating move when done well, and Tamawashi is a master, but it also leaves the wrestler performing it deep inside and vulnerable. Of course, Tamawashi is also notoriously tough, having never missed a match in professional sumo to injury. (This could also explain his not infrequent double-digit loss bashos. He's likely injured and gutting it out.) He is also a notorious practical joker on the regional jungyo tours.

That aggressive ring style and tough personality is at odds with the other thing Tamawashi is known for, baking. He is even known to excitedly discuss sweets with sumo commentators at official events. Presumably a stable that doesn't have to make chankonabe for dozens of people is able to give some kitchen space to a rikishi looking to make cakes and cookies. Being the big dog in a tiny stable has certainly allowed Tamawashi to find his own path.

A rikishi who emerges from a tiny stable isn't doomed to failure. Such a wrestler might even get special advantages from the focused attention from his coaches. But if you do see someone rise from a small heya, he probably needs to be as singular as Tamawashi.

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