Kamikazu Hakuho was more than the most decorated sumo wrestler in the world. He was and is a man ahead of his time, beloved and admired by fans across the globe.
I wrote about the Hakuho story back in 2007, and now I have the chance to share the latest development in Hakuho’s remarkable career and life: a surprise departure from sumo.
News of the departure, first reported by both The Nikkan Sports newspaper and an article on Japanese TV, was confirmed by the Japan Sumo Association. Hakuho returned to his home province and has not left Japan since stepping down from the belt in the early 1990s, the association said.
Hakuho, born in 1949, won the globe championship four times and the championship in ten different grand sumo tournaments. He was Japan’s goodwill ambassador to the world’s sumo capitals. He had a red-white-and-blue hat, a collared shirt and a neatly trimmed beard and seemed a perfect embodiment of a sumo mat-based culture.
With his former training partner Takashi Sumin, Hakuho won seven Olympic gold medals for Japanese sumo in singles competition. The sumo itself is descended from a Greek sport called “boda,” which developed over more than 1,000 years and initially involved little more than boxing or wrestling, but has expanded into a much larger range of sports in Japan. The number of sumo grand tournaments is also growing exponentially, and the competition has become more egalitarian.
Hakuho had a scandal at his peak, when he ended a rival’s career by repeatedly lowering the headgear of Takashi in a world championship match. Takashi began what would become a long series of lawsuits against him, and the Japanese TV anime movie “1952” dramatized the incident. But Hakuho refused to budge from his position, saying he was only doing what the rules required.
In 1979, Sumin was killed in a car accident in London. The day before the British Grand Prix, Hakuho marched into the packed field and met Sumin’s family, who were deeply upset. He famously told reporters, “I’m sorry … I will not be able to complete what I had started,” and stopped right in front of them. He dedicated the match to Sumin that weekend.
Sumin had vowed to reclaim the world championship before he died at age 44 in 2008. Hakuho said he expected another championship within 15 years, but Sumin was too young and his time had come. Sumin also seemed to have fallen out of love with the sport, after making small-time appearances in 2008, 2011 and 2012, making appearances on smaller shows and other ceremonial events.
Hakuho left the famed Nippon Budokan for the first time in decades on Oct. 22, 2012. He reportedly announced his retirement at a press conference the following day. The sumo association declined to comment, saying only that “Makai-sama,” Hakuho’s mother, was at the press conference.
Hakuho is believed to have been 72 when he left the sport, according to Nikkan Sports. He was divorced from Sumin’s sister.