VOX POPULI: Remembering legendary yokozuna Taiho

January 21, 2013

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.

Five days after Japan's defeat in World War II, as Soviet troops were advancing southward in Karafuto (Sakhalin), north of Hokkaido, the last ship for Japanese citizens to flee the island departed.

Bound for Otaru via Wakkanai, both in Hokkaido, the vessel was crammed with 1,500 passengers. Among them were a woman and her three children. The woman became violently seasick, and the family disembarked at Wakkanai. Soon after that, the vessel was torpedoed and sunk on its way to Otaru.

Did the god of sumo intervene to save the family by making the mother seasick? The youngest of the three children, who was a fair-skinned boy, grew up to become yokozuna Taiho, one of the greatest sumo legends.

Taiho, whose real name was Koki Naya, died on Jan. 19. He was 72.

Perhaps it was divine providence, too, that Naya's mother left her native Hokkaido as a young woman and went to Karafuto, where she met a Ukrainian man and bore his children. But the couple separated during the war.

After returning to Hokkaido, the family moved all over the region. As a teenager, Naya worked in physically demanding jobs to help support his family.

He split a huge amount of firewood, fixed roads with a pickax, shoveled gravel, planted saplings in rugged mountains and cut undergrowth with a long-handled scythe that was almost as tall as he was.

This last task required him to plant his feet firmly on the ground and use his whole body to swing the scythe--a set of movements he eventually perfected into his signature sumo technique of "sukuinage" (beltless arm throw).

Taiho's career record of 32 tournament wins has yet to be broken. Because he stood his ground by not being too rigid when his opponents charged, he was described as "jyu" (soft), as opposed to his archrival Kashiwado's "go" (hard).

A different wrestler who used to grapple with both Taiho and Kashiwado recalled, "With Kashiwado, it was like ramming myself against a wall. With Taiho, I felt as if I was being absorbed into the wall." His physical appearance and the way he carried himself made Taiho an exceptionally photogenic wrestler.

At the height of his career, it was said that the three things Japanese children liked best were "Kyojin (the Yomiuri Giants professional baseball team), Taiho and tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette)." But Taiho was not pleased to be lumped together with the Giants.

"If you bring together promising players, it is a matter of course that you win (many) games. But I've got only my own body with which to fight," he said.

In his final years, Taiho often lamented that younger wrestlers lacked personality and didn't train hard enough. "Japan has become too affluent," he was wont to say.

Takanohana, another popular yokozuna, hung up his belt on Jan. 20 exactly 10 years ago. Among the current sumo wrestlers, yokozuna Hakuho fits the same category of photogenic and strong yokozuna. But I wonder whether there will be more after him.

Nowadays, there are fewer wrestlers whom I enjoy just looking at even when they are not in action.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 20

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.
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Taiho, left, fights with Kashiwado in the autumn tournament in Tokyo in September 1961. Taiho won the bout. After the tournament, both of them were promoted from ozeki to yokozuna. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Taiho, left, fights with Kashiwado in the autumn tournament in Tokyo in September 1961. Taiho won the bout. After the tournament, both of them were promoted from ozeki to yokozuna. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • Taiho, left, fights with Kashiwado in the autumn tournament in Tokyo in September 1961. Taiho won the bout. After the tournament, both of them were promoted from ozeki to yokozuna. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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