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BIG IN JAPAN
Chiyotaikai

Chiyotaikai
"What have we got here?" Those were reported to be the first words of sumo stablemaster Kokonoe when he saw the erstwhile sixteen-year-old recruit. Although possessing an impressive physique, the newcomer had the bleached hair and impudent attitude of a street punk from Japan' rural back streets. Six years later, that same punk was to achieve national stardom as Chiyotaikai, the surprise winner of the 1999 Sumo Hatsu Basho (New Year's tournament), earning himself the promotion from sekiwake to ozeki.

Most sumo observers agree that Chiyotaikai's win was the high point of an otherwise unremarkable tournament. He completed an impressive record of thirteen wins to two losses, which climaxed in a dramatic final day on January 24 - taking on the reigning yokozuna Wakanohana not once, but twice. The first bout ended in a dead heat, with both wrestlers crashing out of the ring at the same time. The judges called for a replay, with Chiyotaikai shocking everyone, most of all himself, by emerging as the victor.

Chiyotaikai was born Yuji Hiroshima in 1976 in Chitose, Hokkaido. After his father's death when Yuji was six years old, he and his mother moved to Oita prefecture in Kyushu. When he was eleven, his mother married again, to a local businessman. What effect these upheavals had on his upbringing we can only guess, but after becoming a teenager Yuji showed no interest in school lessons or examinations. He was introduced to the vices of under-age drinking and smoking, and started hanging out with local gang members. Stealing bicycles and committing other petty crimes made him a known face with the local police. His formidable build and strength - over 170cm and 80kg when he was just eleven - made him a character at school feared by both teachers and students. The tabloids have recently printed stories from this hell-raising time in Chiyotaikai's past, with some doubtlessly exaggerated anecdotes coming to light. One example is when he allegedly took on thirty rival gang members with a baseball bat, and walked away without a scratch.

The young rebel did show an interest in martial arts, however, and showed considerable promise in judo, coming in third in the All-Japan Middle School Judo Championships. At his mother's prompting, he decided to try his luck at Kokonoe's stable lodgings in Fukuoka in 1992. He was accepted, and so began one of the fastest ascensions through the ranks in modern sumo history. He is the first new ozeki since Musashimaru and Takanonami were promoted in 1994.

It's a dramatic success story with a very soothing ending, with perseverance rewarded and family obligations repaid in full. More than this, though, it's a striking reminder to Japan's disenchanted youth that you can buck the school system sometimes - and still come out the winner.


John Paul Catton

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