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Sibling Rivalry May Ring In a Sumo Revival

Conflict between top-ranked brothers may spur interest in Japanese sport that is wrestling with decline in popularity.

October 24, 1998|VALERIE REITMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — There's a heavyweight battle simmering in Japan's center ring, an anything-but-friendly rivalry between sumo's two most popular stars, Takanohana and Wakanohana--who happen to be brothers.

But brotherly love apparently has degenerated into family feud, inciting a national sumo soap opera with allegations of brainwashing, jealousy and, perhaps most serious, destroying the wa, or harmony, that Japanese hold sacred.

"It's unimaginable," sumo critic Teiji Kojima said. "It's not good to have such trouble outside the sumo ring."

After all, hinkaku--dignity--is a requirement to reach yokozuna, sumo's highest rank. Takanohana, Wakanohana and Hawaiian-born Akebono are the only three active sumo wrestlers to have attained the title of grand champion. The conflict is even more unseemly because the brothers hail from a sumo dynasty: Their uncle was a yokozuna and their father an ozeki, one rank below.

Nevertheless, the sibling rivalry may help spur interest in sumo, one of Japan's most tradition-bound obsessions. In sumo, two wrestlers square off in a circle surrounded by sand, each trying to push the other out of the ring or trip him up so a body part hits the ground.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 25, 1998 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Sumo wrestlers--A photo caption in Saturday's editions of The Times incorrectly identified Japanese sumo wrestling stars Takanohana and Wakanohana. Wakanohana was pictured to the left and Takanohana was in the center of the photo.

The sport's popularity has declined steadily since the early 1990s, when young women followed the wrestlers around as if they were rock stars. Baseball eclipsed sumo in 1995 as Japan's most popular sport, according to a newspaper poll by Yomiuri Shimbun.

Experts cite a variety of reasons for the waning interest, including too many tournaments (six 15-day grand championships a year) and the same wrestlers repeatedly winning. In addition, wrestlers are becoming too fat, winning with sheer girth rather than skill, Kojima said.

Weighing in at 352 pounds, younger brother Takanohana--known as Taka--lately has been getting a rap as the sport's Dennis Rodman. The 26-year-old bad boy of sumo is the sport's undisputed king, with 20 championships; he clinched the latest title last month, ahead of his brother, who is known as Waka.

Once very popular, Taka has seen his reputation deteriorate along with his manners. The slide began a few years ago when he dumped his fiancee and later married a television anchor who was pregnant with his child. He initially denied fathering the infant but later acknowledged paternity.

In a society that still holds fast to Confucian values of respect for elders, Taka is barely speaking to his parents, reporters said. He has criticized his elder brother's fighting style, even refusing to shake Waka's hand at a recent match.

The wrestlers and their families declined to be interviewed.

Japanese tabloids insist that Taka has been brainwashed by his chiropractor, Tashiro Tomita, who has been using acupuncture to try to straighten the wrestler's bones. A spokesman for the chiropractor denies the charge.

Others suggest that Taka is trying to create some independence from his "goldfish bowl" life. The brothers, whose real names are Koji Hanada (Taka) and Masaru Hanada (Waka), turned pro at ages 15 and 17, with Taka completing only junior high school and Waka dropping out of high school.

Meanwhile, Waka has been gaining popularity because he appears more relaxed and level-headed. Nearly 60 pounds lighter than his brother, Waka reached the yokozuna rank in May, more than three years after Taka. That's when the relationship is said to have really unraveled.

The brothers no longer bathe together in the communal tub that holds as many as five massive sumo bodies.

Now, with more eyes than ever on the battle between the grand champions, sumo fans are hoping they'll get to see the pair square off against each other. But because they come from the same stable, as training centers are called, the brothers only wrestle each other if they are tied at the end of a tournament. It happened once, in 1995; Waka won.

Shigeo Ishihara, 68, a retired printer who watched last month's match on television at the Ozeikan noodle shop in Tokyo, cheered for Waka. "I'm angry because Taka is a very shallow human being."

But shop owner Namiko Ozeki, 64, stands by Taka: "Nobody can be strong and attractive at the same time."

Chiaki Kitada of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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