Le Monde du Sumo
N°20 - february 2007
(Click on the picture to download
the full french issue, with pictures,...)

Thierry Perran
translated by Jelena Macan
proofread by William Raymer

Yusho portraits, reflections of history

Star-studded sky of Kokugikan

Kokugikan and its gallery of hanging portraits (Sanspo)

If some day you have the opportunity to enter the lair of sumo, better known as Kokugikan in Ryogoku quarter of Tokyo, you would only need to lift your gaze to admire the stars. You can see exactly 32 of them, perched high among the rafters of Kokugikan. Each is a painted portrait of a tournament winner. The portraits are 3.17 m high and 2.28 wide and weigh 80 kilos, but the winners receive a miniature for permanent keeping. After their term of use, the original portraits are moved to archives of the Nihon Sumo Kyokai museum.

Asashoryu receiving a miniature of his portrait (@ Atsuo Tsubota)

History through the portraits

The portraits hanging in Kokugikan in 1941 (@ Atsuo Tsubota)

The tradition of yusho winners' portraits started during the Natsu basho of 1909, but when the great Kanto earthquake struck in 1923, it ravaged all of Tokyo causing numerous fires, including the one in Kokugikan. All the original portraits (called yushogaku in Japanese) up to that time disappeared in smoke.

Kokugikan in 1938 (@ Atsuo Tsubota)

Since the Haru basho of 1937, Mainichi Journal financed and presented the portraits. Once more, the Second World War and American bombing of Tokyo in March 1945 got the better of Kokugikan, which burned to the ground. All the original portraits were lost, among them 12 portraits of the legendary yokozuna Futabayama, but at that time Japan had more pressing worries.

Return of the portraits with yokozuna Terukuni (@ Atsuo Tsubota)

It was only during the Haru basho of 1951 that the tradition was revived in a provisional Kokugikan. This time it would no longer be possible to lose these pieces of history forever, since the manner in which they are made has changed. A black-and-white photo of the pose the winner decides to strike is taken. In the end, a painter adds colours, and of course her brush stroke, to the enlarged photo to produce the portrait.

Portrait protocol

Asashoryu in front of his two latest portraits (Mainichi)

On the Saturday before each Tokyo tournament, the press is summoned to see the two latest yusho portraits in the presence of depicted winners. Then the two portraits are hanged on the ceiling of Kokugikan, covered by an electric curtain. It is only after a ceremony which takes place on the first day of the tournament that the curtain is withdrawn, accompanied by crowd applause.

Electric curtain uncovering the last zensho yusho portrait of the great yokozuna Takanohana in Aki basho of 1996 (@ Atsuo Tsubota)

In the old Kokugikan, 36 portraits were exhibited, while the current Kokugikan, in use since 1985, only exhibits 32. Thus in a stroll through Kokugikan one can get a historical overview of the forces whose presence was felt in the last 5 years.

Goodbyes to a glorious era

Removal of the last portrait of Takanohana (Mainichi)

Today, as sumo suffers a drop in popularity, many remember with nostalgia the 1990s, an epoch full of splendour whose emblematic figure was certainly Takanohana, the last active Japanese yokozuna, with his 22 yusho. At the height of Takanohana's domination, Kokugikan was almost an exhibition hall of his glory, peaking in Hatsu basho of 1999 when 17 of 32 exhibited portraits in Kokugikan depicted the yokozuna. So when the last portrait of Takanohana was removed that Saturday, January 6th 2007, a page in history had turned. It signalled the final end of that fever which held the whole Japan breathless, as it watched the brothers Hanada (yokozuna Takanohana and Wakanohana III) battling against the foreigners, in guise of Hawaiians Akebono, Musashimaru and Konishiki. Today the Hawaiians have been replaced by the Mongolians, and the brothers Hanada have been replaced by... no one!!

Takahanada's first yusho in Hatsu basho of 1992 (@ Atsuo Tsubota)

When interviewed about the fact that there is not one of his portraits left in Kokugikan, Takanohana has stated: "Time passes quickly. That is certainly sad. Now I want to quickly develop strong wrestlers. As far as my last portrait is concerned, I am neither moved nor surprised. You know, it had to happen."

The king Takanohana is no more, but the king Asashoryu had succeeded him. Actually, with 19 of his portraits currently hanging in Kokugikan, Asashoryu has already surpassed Takanohana in number of portraits exhibited at the same time, and with the 20th yusho already pocketed, this May the magnificent Mongolian is also assured of equalling the absolute record of 20 portraits, held by Chiyonofuji. That is another record that Asashoryu is certain to break. For him there are not many records left to beat, and he has already fixed a date to improve his series of 35 consecutive victories and 7 consecutive yusho. The Asashoryu-fest is not over yet!

A big thank you to Atsuo Tsubota for his precious archives!

Download Le Monde du Sumo n°20 to get more information on this subject:
Asashoryu's first 16 yusho portraits.
(Understandable without speaking French)