Photo/IllutrationYokozuna Kisenosato performs his "dohyo-iri" (ring-entering) ritual on Jan. 15 at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo. (Satoru Semba)

Why is sumo a "national sport" of Japan, even though this designation is attributed neither to a known individual, nor to any law of the land?

To answer this question, nonfiction author Hidemine Takahashi surmises in "Osumo-san" (Sumo wrestler) that sumo appears to have become a national sport simply because tournaments are held at Kokugikan, which translates literally as "hall of national sport."

When the government was planning to build a permanent sumo arena during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), Shobukan was one of the names considered for this new facility. But the name that was ultimately chosen was Kokugikan, because the official notice of the arena's inauguration contained the phrase "sumo is Japan's 'kokugi' (national sport)."

The rest is history, as they say.

One thought that occurs to me is that had the government stuck to Shobukan, perhaps the Japanese perception of this sport would have been less colored by "nationalism."

And that probably would have saved sumo fans the constant frustration of seeing their "national sport" being dominated entirely by foreign yokozuna grand champions.

I can only imagine the enormity of the pressure endured by Kisenosato as "the first Japanese-born yokozuna since 2003." The tremendous strain he was under showed in his repeated absences from tournaments and his stony demeanor.

Before he could regain his past brilliance, Kisenosato announced his retirement at a news conference on Jan. 16.

I know this is useless, but I want to think back to two years before he was promoted to yokozuna.

What if nobody was clamoring then for the long-awaited birth of a Japanese-born grand champion, and Kisenosato could just have remained an ozeki? And had he not been compelled to keep fighting despite his injuries, perhaps we could have kept seeing his powerful left-thrusting technique for years to come.

Before his final tournament--the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo--Kisenosato reportedly told a wrestler with whom he trained: "When all is said and done, sumo is highly enjoyable. You just don't want to stop."

At the news conference, he said he had "no regrets" regarding his career. But I sensed his real feelings were different.

All I hope for him now is that he simply moves on and becomes a great stablemaster.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Jan. 18

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.