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Sumo wrestler Yutaka Hagiwara, popularly known as Kisenosato, becomes the first Japanese-born sumo grand champion in 19 years.
Thirty-year-old Kisenosato claimed victory at the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament and earned the title of “yokozuna,” the highest rank in sumo wrestling. Although a sumo wrestler is usually awarded the title only after two back-to-back wins, both the Yokozuna Deliberation Council and the Japan Sumo Association endorsed Kisenosato for the title despite having only one win. His achievement makes him the first Japanese sumo wrestler to gain yokozuna status since the victory of Wakanohana Masaru in 1998, and the only Japanese sumo wrestler among the four current active yokozuna.
Although Kisenosato had a reputation of losing important matches, he stunned the crowd by defeating formidable opponent Hakuho Sho, a yokozuna from Mongolia. Kisenosato earned his win after 89 rounds of tournament, one of the slowest records attained by a modern sumo wrestler. To celebrate his new status, a promotion ceremony heavily covered by the media took place in a Tokyo hotel instead of the sumo stable where he lives and trains.
Sumo wrestling’s appeal in Japan has been declining over the years due to a number of factors. Competitors from Mongolia, Brazil, Russia, China, and Hawaii are dominating the sport. In addition, other sports such as baseball and soccer are more popular among younger fans. Controversies such as match fixing, gambling ties, and cases of physical abuse among young rookies also caused the sport’s popularity to die down. However, Kisenosato’s elevation to yokozuna status is expected to revive the sport’s popularity.