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  • Fantasy Basho

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

Hakuho with stablemates and uchi-deshi Enho and Ishiura

For any oyakata, having a yokozuna is the crowning achievement. A stablemaster not only can celebrate a grand champion in their midst, but he can take the credit for molding and shaping a recruit into one of the sports legends. For Miyagino-oyakata, the former Maegashira Chikubayama, he coached the greatest Yokozuna of them all, Hakuho. And it is that fact that might threaten his stable long-term.

In order to become an oyakata, first a wrestler must take on one of the 105 "kabu," essentially a name that represents an elder position in the Japan Sumo Association. Yokozuna and Ozeki get special treatment, naturally, but long serving Maegashira can usually obtain an elder spot fairly easily. Any aging veteran is on oyakata watch. The dai-Yokozuna is assumed to start his own stable, and the older he gets the louder the discussion becomes.

Hakuho's relationship with his stable is unusual even for a Yokozuna. When the future champion first came to Japan from Mongolia in 2001, he was a scrawny 16 year old kid no one wanted to take on at a stable. However, Monkhbatyn Davaajargal was the son of a national hero. Jigjidiin Monkhbat was an Olympian silver medalist in Freestyle Wrestling at the 1968 games, plus he won six national championships in Mongolian wrestling. That was enough to make Kyokushuzan, the first Mongolian national to reach sumo's top division, to intervene on the kid's behalf. Miyagino stable agreed to take him on.

It wasn't promising for either side. The newly christened Hakuho (it means "White Peng," chosen because he had fair skin and looked superficially like the Yokozuna Taiho) was only 140 pounds with no background in sumo. Miyagino stable had not had a wrestler in Makuuchi in over a decade. Somehow, within a few years both were transformed.

Hakuho went from overmatched and undersized teenager to future star at a rapid pace. In three years, he grew ten centimeters, added 50 kilograms of weight, and shot all the way up to Makuuchi. While he was doing that, stablemates Kobo and Ryuko made the top division. Miyagino sure looked like it was becoming a major player among sumo stables.

Then the coach changed. In August of 2004, former Juryo Kanechika acquired the Miyagino elder name and with it the leadership of the stable. This was weird on a number of levels. First, the former Chikubayama didn't leave the stable, but stayed on as a coach under the elder name "Kumagatani." Even more bizarrely, Kanechika got the oyakata slot by marrying the former stablemaster's daughter and being adopted by his widow. That allowed him to inherit the elder name that until that point ex-Chikubayama had only been borrowing.

Despite that, Chikubayama-now-Kumagatani was still the head coach for the stable and especially Hakuho. Hakuho went from promising youngster to rising star to Yokozuna. By 2010, he was not just sumo's biggest star, but beginning to set records. Also, rumblings began to go around about match fixing in sumo. One of the first ones snared was the then-current Miyagino-oyakata, ex-Kanechika, who was recorded on a phone call planning match-fixing.

Therefore, the former Miyagino oyakata returned to being Miyagino oyakata. The whole time Hakuho kept winning and winning, with his stablemaster at his side. Then a funny thing began to change Miyagino beya. Hakuho got himself some uchi-deshi.

"Uchi-deshi" is a term with widespread use in Japan to mean, basically, a student under a master who works as his attendant and apprentice. In sumo, which has the term "tsukebito" for the lower-ranked wrestler who accompany sekitori, uchi-deshi takes on the very specific meaning of recruits to a stable by a current wrestler. The uchi-deshi are essentially members of their current stable until the wrestler who brought them in starts his own stable. Hakuho has done this with five wrestlers: Yamaguchi, Ishiura, Enho, Toma, and Senho. The first three have all made Makuuchi; the last two only entered sumo in 2019.

This is the most successful batch of non-Hakuho rikishi that Miyagino beya has had in modern times. That's not all down to Hakuho, as the oyakata still runs the stable and he is the one who has coached Hakuho his entire professional career. Still, the Yokozuna's fingerprints are easy to see. Hakuho is a singular wrestler in many ways beyond his win totals. Although blessed with fantastic size and strength, his most exceptional athletic ability is probably his unusual balance. He also uses a range of techniques, often seeming to switch up his game-plan in a match. Ishiura and Enho are not nearly as talented or physically imposing as the great Yokozuna, but they have similar approaches in outwitting their opponents and becoming difficult to dominate.

Hakuho will not destroy Miyagino-beya if he sets up a Hakuho-beya. (Dai-Yokozuna are allowed to establish stables under their shikona.) He is only taking a handful of wrestlers in such a scenario, and he will undoubtedly keep close links to his former stable. He also might not leave Miyagino. The current Miyagino oyakata is 62 this month, and the retirement age for an elder is 65, although exceptions are often made to stay in until 70. Hakuho also cannot become a Sumo Association elder just yet. He is only in the process of becoming a Japanese citizen, something required to take on elder status. That will need to become official before Hakuho's retirement.

Hakuho probably isn't going to retire anytime soon. He is still the favorite for nearly any tournament he enters, and there are a few things he wants to accomplish before retiring. This basho he will become the first Yokozuna with two uchi-deshi as his attendants during the dohyo-iri, with both Ishiura and Enho likely to be in Makuuchi. Next, he wants to be an active Yokozuna when the Olympics come to Tokyo in 2020. He also has his eye on some longevity records. He is already the longest serving Yokozuna by number of basho, but he is just sixteen away (less than three years) from being the longest serving Makuuchi wrestler. There is also talk he'd like to beat Chiyonofuji's mark of oldest Yokozuna by wrestling past age 35.

That can all add up to Miyagino-beya staying on its current track for a few more years. If someone joins the stable, they get both the Yokozuna and the man who helped make the Yokozuna. It's also worth keeping in mind when some young Miyagino hand begins making noise in Makuuchi, especially if he is one of Hakuho's uchi-deshi.

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