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Obituary: Kashiwado

In the last few years, the noble Japanese art of sumo, the national sport par excellence, has become increasingly popular in the West. When the Japanese first heard that Western audiences were going to witness sumo bouts, they were incredulous - just as they were when the first drama troupes of kibuki and noh left for America and Europe. To their great surprise, Westerners were able to appreciate these native displays of artistic and sporting techniques that in Japan were regarded as understandable "only by a Japanese".

I well remember when the first sumo troupe visited Paris, and performed there to very appreciative audiences that included many Japanese. Of course, the whole atmosphere of ritual and feudal authority associated with a true sumo arena was lacking. But some of the ceremonial was observed, with the entrance of the sumotori in the ring, wearing their brilliantly hued heavy aprons under the hanging curtained roof. It is always an impressive sight, a procession of pon- derous gravity. On that occasion, my favourite sumotori, Kirishima, who was fairly slender compared with some of the heavyweights like Konishiki, was dubbed "the Alain Delon of Japan", which I thought was not much of a compliment for that beautiful athlete.

Like many of the best wrestlers, Kashiwado came from one of the northern provinces, Yamagata. His family name was Togashi, and he first appeared in the Bumo ring in 1954, from the Ise no Umi stable. He had endured the severe hardships of apprenticeship and worked hard every day to improve his physique and his fighting spirit that was to make him one of the very beat sumo wrestlers in the history of the sport.

In 1958, he made the first step upwards in the pyramidal structure of sumo status when his name first appeared on the banzuke or list of wrestlers appearing in the basho or contest. He made such good progress, he was elevated in 1960 to the rank of ozeki, and won fight after fight until in October 1961 he acceded to the lofty position of Zokozuna or Grand Champion, a meteoric rise such as has rarely been seen in such a demanding sport with its carefully graded hierarchies and venerable traditions.

For the sport of sumo dates back to almost mythological times, and was mentioned in the Nihon Shoki or "Chronicle of Japan" 's 30 volumes, completed in 720 AD. It is therefore a great achievement to reach the rank of Grand Champion. In the same year, Kashiwado's great rival, Taiho, was also elevated to Grand Champion, and their legendary bouts gave rise to the name hakuho, describing the period in which their fame and popularity grow by leaps and bounds, and thus helped to improve the standing of the sport.

Kashiwado in his long career won 599 times, lost 240 bouts. While he was Grand Champion, he had 407 wins and 107 losses. Altogether, as Zokozuna he won five basho. He retired from the ring, in the middle of a match, during the 1969 July basho, before a shocked but deeply moved audience, many of them in tears.

He then set up his own sumo stable, the Kagamiyama-beya, in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward. He also served as a director of the Japan Sumo Association, heading its referee committee until 1994.

James Kirkup

Togashi Tsuyoshi ("Kashiwado"), sumo wrestler: born Yamagata, Japan 1938; married (two daughters); died Tokyo 8 December 1996.