"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

299: Nakamura Kankuro
Arizona lover and Kabuki actor
298: Miura Yuichiro
The Man Who Skied Down Everest
297: Iron Chef
Gourmet cuisine battles
296: "Katte wa ikenai"
"Don't buy these products"
295: Oda Yuji
The dancing detective
294: Enoki Takaaki
An artist who acts
293: Glay
Japan's reigning pop princes
292: Akebono
Hawaiian Sumo wrestler
291: Issey Miyake
Fashion designer
290: Murakami Ryu
Radical writer
289: Oshima Nagisa
Movie director
288: Takakura Ken
Crime film actor
287: Miura Kazuyoshi
Soccer player
286: Suzuki Koji
Author of the horror, Ring
285: Tezuka Osamu
God of Comics
284: Yuming
283: Anpanman
Bean-powered superhero
282: Yamaguchi Takashi
Immersed in traditional Japanese music
281: Nasubi
280: Doi Takako
First female Speaker of the House
279: Nakamura Kichiemon
Retiring Kabuki actor
278: Oe Kenzaburo
Nobel prize winning author
277: Kimura Takuya
SMAP member
276: Utada Hikaru
Teenage pop phenomenon
275: Bando Tamasaburo
Kabuki female role impersonator
274: Otomo Katsuhiro
Akira creator
273: Dreams Come True
Premier recording artist
272: Dango San Kyodai
Surprise hit of 1999
271: Banana Yoshimoto
270: Matsuzaka Daisuke
Baseball player
269: Moritaka Chisato
Model and singer
268: Mukai Chiaki
Female astronaut
267: Natto
Traditional Japanese health food
266: Hiroaki Kikuoka
Shamisen player
265: Chikamatsu Monzaemon
Japan's most revered dramatist
264: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Oscar-winning musician
263: Shigeo Nagashima
Japan's Mr Baseball
262: Ayako Totsuka
Pioneer careerwoman
261: Yatsuhashi Kengyo
Koto player
260: Chiyotaikai
Sumo wrestler
259: Pocky
Japanese snack food
258: Itsuki Hiroshi
Enka singer
257: Pocket Monsters
Conquering the world
256: Classified ads
New concept in Japan
255: Chara
Japanese pop star
254: Pink Lady
1970's singing duo
253: Takashi Sorimachi
Japanese heartthrob
252: Ennosuke Ichikawa
Kabuki actor
251: Rie Miyazawa
Model and actress
250: Shazna
Visual-kei band
248.9: Toshiro Mifune
247: Shinji Nojima
Trendy-drama script-writer
246: Juzo Itami
Anti-yakuza director
245: Maneki neko
"Beckoning cats" bring luck
244: Chiyonofuji
The last great sumo champ
243: Johnny's Jimusho
Creating and promoting male stars
242: Hideki "Godzilla" Matsui
Yomiuri Giants center fielder
241: Tora-san
Actor Kiyoshi Atsumi
240: Misia
Female R&B singer
239: Puffy
Female folk-pop singing duo
238: Tetsuya Komuro
Dance music producer
237: Fujio Akatsuka
Manga pioneer
236: Daruma
Caricature of the Bodhidarma
234: Hello Kitty
Japan's reigning idol
233: Haruki Murakami

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