"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.