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TOKYO — After 19 years in which the top tier of Japan's national sport has been dominated by foreigners — most recently Mongolians — the Japan Sumo Association on Wednesday promoted one of their own to the sport's highest rank.
A 30-year-old named Kisenosato was made the sport's 72nd yokozuna, or grand champion. And the nation is rejoicing.
Kisenosato, who was born Yutaka Hagiwara in a prefecture just north of Tokyo, accepted the promotion dressed in a traditional black kimono.
“I will devote myself further not to disgrace the name of yokozuna,” he said.
Sumo wrestling was invented in Japan, and involves very large and lightly clad men competing to see who can force the other to step outside the ring or touch the ground with something other than the soles of his feet.
Kisenosato's promotion came after he won his first sumo tournament, on Sunday. It took him 73 tournaments to achieve the honor, making his ascent one of the most glacial in the postwar era.
He is the first native Japanese promoted to the rank of yokozuna since 1998. In the interim, the title has been held by an American Samoan, Musashimaru Koyo, who later became a naturalized Japanese citizen, and four Mongolians.
There are no set criteria for elevating a sumo wrestler from ozeki, the second highest title, to yokozuna. But the Yokozuna Deliberation Council looks at the winner of a tournament, reviews his hinkaku, or dignity and grace, as well as his recent performances, and then make a recommendation to the Sumo Association.
Kienosato promised in a news conference to bring honor to the position.
"I believe yokozuna is a position that is under constant scrutiny and that people will be watching how I carry out my daily life," he said. "In that respect, I feel I need to grow further as a person and strive to become a yokozuna whom people can respect.”
A yokozuna cannot be demoted. If he fails to uphold a majority win during a tournament, the only road left is retirement, something of which Kisenosato is well aware.
“Once you become a yokozuna, you cannot lose," he said. "I have to be even stronger and become a wrestler who never loses."