Once-fearsome ozeki rank no longer sport's 'great barrier'

Japan Times -- Oct 15
A strong 13-2 title winning performance in the September tournament was enough to convince the Japan Sumo Association’s judging department to make Shodai the sport’s 251st ozeki.

Although he could still climb one more rank, the Kumamoto native has now reached what was, for much of sumo’s history, the sport’s highest peak.

As many fans know, yokozuna was initially a kind of honorary title — generally bestowed on ozeki with powerful patrons — before officially morphing into sumo’s highest rank only in the early 1900s.

Ozeki, conversely, is a rank that has been around since at least the 1750s and, while no longer preeminent, still holds a special importance in sumo.

In fact, while it’s possible for there to be no yokozuna on the banzuke rankings at any given time, there must always be at least two ozeki.

If, due to retirements, there is only one wrestler at the ozeki rank, then a yokozuna will be designated yokozuna-ozeki and have both positions written above his name on the official ranking sheet — something that occurred for the first time in almost three decades earlier this year.

As well as being of historical importance, ozeki is a rank where one receives many of the same privileges given to yokozuna.

Included among those perks is being allowed to book first-class seats when flying abroad, and use of the Green Car when traveling on the shinkansen.

Those who reach the second-highest rung on sumo’s ladder also receive a significant bump in salary and, unlike the nearly 700 men below them, can enter Ryogoku Kokugikan via an underground parking lot, which frees them of the need to walk through crowds on the way into and out of the arena.

Despite the attractiveness of the ozeki rank for rikishi, and the high regard in which men at the rank are normally held, recent incumbents have arguably failed to maintain the standards expected.

- Japan Times