Yokozuna (横綱) is the highest rank in sumo. The name literally means "horizontal rope" and comes from the most visible symbol of their rank, the rope (綱, tsuna) worn around the waist. The rope is similar to the shimenawa used to mark off sacred areas in Shinto, and like the shimenawa it serves to purify and mark off its content. The rope, which may weigh up to 20 kilograms (44 lb), is not used during the matches themselves, but is worn during the yokozuna's dohyo-iri ring entrance ceremony.
As the sport's biggest stars, yokozuna are in many ways the public face of sumo and the way they conduct themselves is highly scrutinized, as it is seen as reflecting on the image of sumo as a whole. As of January 2022, a total of 73 sumo wrestlers have earned the rank of yokozuna.
The birth of the rank of yokozuna is unclear, and there are two competing legends. According to one, a 9th-century wrestler named Hajikami tied a shimenawa around his waist as a handicap and dared any to touch it, creating sumo as it is now known in the process. According to the other, legendary wrestler Akashi Shiganosuke tied the shimenawa around his waist in 1630 as a sign of respect when visiting the Emperor, and was posthumously awarded the title for the first time. There is little supporting evidence for either theory—in fact, it is not even certain that Akashi actually existed—but it is known that by November 1789, yokozuna starting from the fourth yokozuna Tanikaze Kajinosuke and the fifth yokozuna Onogawa Kisaburo were depicted in ukiyo-e prints as wearing the shimenawa. These two wrestlers were both awarded yokozuna licences by the prominent Yoshida family.
Before the Meiji Era, the title yokozuna was conferred on ozeki who performed sumo in front of the shogun. This privilege was more often determined by a wrestler's patron having sufficient influence rather than purely on the ability and dignity of the wrestler. Thus there are a number of early wrestlers who were, by modern standards, yokozuna in name only. In these early days yokozuna was also not regarded as a separate rank in the listings, but as an ozeki with special dispensation to perform his own ring entering ceremony.
At first, the Yoshida family and a rival family, Gojo, fought for the right to award a wrestler a yokozuna licence. The Yoshida family won this dispute, because the 15th yokozuna Umegatani Totaro I, one of the strongest wrestlers, expressed his wish that he be awarded a licence by the Yoshida family in February 1884, and Gojo licences are no longer recognized officially.
In May 1890, the name yokozuna was written on the banzuke for the first time due to the 16th yokozuna Nishinoumi Kajiro I's insistence that his yokozuna status be recorded. In February 1909, during the reigns of the 19th yokozuna, Hitachiyama Taniemon, and the 20th, Umegatani Totaro II, it was officially recognized as the highest rank. Since the establishment of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council (横綱審議委員会, Yokozuna-shingi-iinkai) on 21 April 1950, wrestlers have been promoted to yokozuna by the Japan Sumo Association. The first yokozuna promoted by the Sumo Association was the 41st yokozuna Chiyonoyama Masanobu.
Criteria for Promotion to Yokozuna
In modern sumo, the qualifications that an ozeki must satisfy to be promoted are that he has enough power, skill and dignity/grace (品格 hinkaku) to qualify. There are no absolute criteria, nor is there a set quota: there have been periods with no wrestlers at yokozuna rank, and there have been periods with as many as four simultaneously.
The power and skill aspects are usually considered with reference to recent tournament performance. The de facto standard is to win two consecutive championships as ozeki or an equivalent performance. In the case where the "equivalent performance" criterion is used the wrestler's record over the previous three tournaments is taken into account with an expectation of at least one tournament victory and two runner-up performances, with none of the three records falling below twelve wins. Thus a consistent high level of performance is required. Winning two tournaments with a poor performance between them is not usually sufficient. The rules are not set in stone and hence in reaching their conclusion the Yokozuna Deliberation Council and Sumo Association can interpret the criteria more leniently or strictly and also take into account other factors, such as total number of tournament victories, the quality of the wins and whether the losses show any serious vulnerabilities.
The issue of hinkaku (dignity and grace) is more contentious, as it is essentially a subjective issue. For example, Hawaiian-born ozeki Konishiki, in particular, was felt by many to be unfairly kept from yokozuna status due to his non-Japanese origin, and many Sumo Association members even openly said that foreigners (gaijin) could never achieve the hinkaku needed to be a yokozuna. In the case of Konishiki, other issues such as his weight were also cited. Other wrestlers have also been held back. For example, Chiyonoyama in the 1950s was not immediately promoted due to his relative youth despite winning consecutive tournaments, although he later achieved the top rank. On the other hand, Futahaguro was given the title of yokozuna in 1986, despite immaturity being cited in opposition to his promotion. After being promoted, he was involved in several misbehaviors that embarrassed the Sumo Association such as hitting one of his tsukebito (manservant or personal assistant) over a trivial matter in a scandal that had six of his seven tsukebito decide to leave him. The promotion again proved to be a fiasco when it was later revealed that he had a heated argument with his stable boss, Tatsunami, and stormed out of the heya, allegedly striking Tatsunami's wife on the way. Futahaguro eventually retired after only one and a half years at the top rank and became the only yokozuna in sumo history ever to retire without having won at least one top division championship.
The debate concerning foreigners having the dignity to be a yokozuna was finally laid to rest on 27 January 1993, when ozeki Akebono was formally promoted to yokozuna after only eight months as an ozeki. Since then, the issue of whether foreigners have the necessary dignity has become a moot point as five of the eight wrestlers to achieve sumo's ultimate rank following Akebono in 1993 were not born in Japan: Musashimaru (United States), Asashoryu (Mongolia), Hakuho (Mongolia), Harumafuji (Mongolia), and Kakuryu (Mongolia).
Becoming a Yokozuna
Elevation to yokozuna rank is a multi-stage process. After a tournament, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, a body of lay people (that is, not former sumo wrestlers) who are appointed by the Japan Sumo Association to provide an independent quality control on yokozuna promotion, meet and discuss the performance of the top-ranked wrestlers. Usually at the instigation of the Japan Sumo Association they can make a recommendation that a particular ozeki-ranked wrestler has the necessary attributes to be promoted. Their recommendation is then passed to the Judging division and then the Board of Directors of the Sumo Association who make the final decision.
If a wrestler is deemed to have met the criteria then he will be visited in his training stable by a member of the Sumo Association Board of Directors who will formally give him the news. In the following days a tsuna or ceremonial rope will then be made in his stable and he will practice the ring entrance ceremony with advice from a previous or current yokozuna. Finally, he will have his inaugural ceremonial ring entry ceremony held at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, which is usually completed within a couple of weeks of the tournament end.
As opposed to all other sumo ranks, a yokozuna cannot be demoted. However, during tournaments, expectations are very high for yokozuna. A yokozuna is expected to win or at least be a serious contender for championships on a regular basis. A yokozuna is expected to retire if he can no longer compete at the peak of the sport or in some cases such as Futahaguro or Harumafuji is deemed to have not upheld the dignity of the rank. Expectations are so high that, even in the course of one tournament, a yokozuna who early on appears to be headed for a losing tournament will feel the pressure to retire; there are many cases of yokozuna dropping out mid-tournament with a real or imagined injury to avoid a make-koshi (a losing record) and the expectation to retire. One of the recent example is the retirement of the 72nd Yokozuna, Kisenosato, who was unable to win majority of the bouts due to an injury in his left arm. These expectations are a large part of the reason that the promotion criteria for yokozuna are so strict in the first place.
In extremely rare instances the Yokozuna Deliberation Council can, with over two-thirds of the members in favor, issue notices to yokozuna whose performance is contrary to what is expected of the rank. These notices are, in increasing level of severity:
- Encouragement (激励, gekirei)
- Warning (注意, chui)
- Recommendation to Retire (引退勧告, intai kankoku)
Notices have been issued three times since the council's inception in 1950:
- January 2010: Recommendation to Retire issued to Asashoryu. The recommendation was issued following allegations that Asashoryu punched and injured an acquaintance in a drunken brawl at a nightclub during the January 2010 tournament. It has been suggested in the media that Asashoryu chose to retire before the Sumo Association could follow through on the council's recommendation.
- November 2018: Encouragement issued to Kisenosato. Kisenosato lost his first five matches in the November 2018 tournament before withdrawing. Prior to that, he had withdrawn (either partially or fully) without a winning record in eight out of ten tournaments as yokozuna. The withdrawals were due in part to injuries suffered at the end of his winning tournament run in March 2017. He eventually retired from the sport after three consecutive defeats in the January 2019 basho.
- November 2020: Warning issued to two yokozuna, Hakuho and Kakuryu. According to the council, both wrestlers did not perform to the level required of the yokozuna rank between November 2019 and November 2020. In that timeframe, Hakuho sufficiently performed three times (yusho in November 2019 and March 2020, plus a 10-win performance in July 2020) while Kakuryu sufficiently performed just once (runner-up in March 2020 with 12 wins). Both of them sat out of the September 2020 and November 2020 tournaments due to injury. The warning to Hakuho and Kakuryu was upheld in March 2021. Kakuryu sat out for two additional tournaments since the warning was first issued, eventually retiring during the March 2021 basho. After sitting out of the January 2021 tournament due to COVID-19, Hakuho won two matches in March before withdrawing when doctors told him that he would require kneecap surgery. The council intended to revisit the issue in July 2021, when Hakuho returned to competition.
Yokozuna Ceremonies and Tradition
The formal birth of the rank from Tanikaze's time appears to have in part come from a desire to let the very best have a separate ring entry ceremony (dohyo-iri) from the remaining top division wrestlers. The dohyo-iri is a ceremonial presentation of all the top division wrestlers which is held before the competitive bouts of the day. The normal ceremony for top division wrestlers is to be introduced and form a circle around the wrestling ring (dohyo) wearing specially decorated heavy silk "aprons", called kesho-mawashi. A brief symbolic "dance" is carried out before filing off to change into their fighting mawashi and prepare for their bouts.
A yokozuna, however, is introduced after the lower ranked wrestlers and is flanked by two other top division wrestler "assistants". The "dewsweeper" or tsuyuharai precedes the yokozuna, while the "sword bearer" or tachimochi follows him into the arena. The sword is a Japanese katana and symbolises the samurai status of the yokozuna. The tachimochi will always be the more highly ranked of the assisting wrestlers. As indicated above, during the ceremony the yokozuna will wear his tsuna around his waist. The ceremonial aprons of all three form a matching set.
Once in the ring the yokozuna takes centre stage and performs a much more complex ritual dance. The dance can take one of two forms, one of which the yokozuna usually chooses when he is first promoted. In addition to the slightly different routine the choice of the yokozuna's ritual can also be determined by the knot used to tie the rope around his waist: the "Unryu" style has only one loop at the back, while the "Shiranui" style has two. The styles are named after 10th yokozuna Unryu Kyukichi and 11th yokozuna Shiranui Koemon of the Edo period, although there is no historical proof that they actually carried out the dances that have been attributed to them. Indeed there are some scholars who believe that in fact the two concerned have had their ring entering rituals mixed up by earlier historians.
When a former yokozuna reaches the age of 60, he usually performs a special ring-entering ceremony known as kanreki dohyo-iri, wearing a red tsuna, in celebration of his longevity. This ceremony first started with the former yokozuna Tachiyama in 1937.
- Terunofuji, the 73rd yokozuna, from Mongolia, promoted July 2021.