For First Time in Years, Japan Boasts a Sumo Grand Champion…

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The sumo wrestler Kisenosato was hoisted aloft in celebration of his promotion to yokozuna, or grand champion, after a ceremony in Tokyo on Wednesday.

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Toru Hanai/Reuters

HONG KONG — Sports fans in Japan had been living with a harsh reality for years: Sumo wrestling, a quintessential Japanese pastime that is increasingly dominated by foreign stars, lacked a native-born champion of the highest order.

That changed on Wednesday, when Kisenosato became the first Japanese athlete since 1998 to receive the sumo title of yokozuna, or grand champion. Yokozuna, a rare honor, is the highest of the sport’s 10 ranks.

The promotion, by the Japan Sumo Association, was a top news story in the country on Wednesday. At a train station in Ushiku, Kisenosato’s hometown northeast of Tokyo, banners read, “Celebrate the victory.”

“Many Japanese have been awaiting a Japanese yokozuna,” Koichi Hagiuda, deputy chief cabinet secretary for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said at a news conference in Tokyo. “I hope he will do well so that his dignified character and ability are remembered by history.”

Kisenosato, who weighs about 385 pounds, becomes the fourth active yokozuna in professional sumo wrestling. The other three are Mongolian. The last Japanese yokozuna, Takanohana, retired in 2003 after losing a match.

Kisenosato had long been ranked one notch below yokozuna, and critics had wondered if he had the mental toughness to advance. A commentary in The Japan Times last year asked if he was “destined to remain a perennial bridesmaid.”

“Many people have expected too much of him, which must have added huge pressure, and he must have been frustrated with himself,” Shuhei Mainoumi, a sumo analyst in Tokyo, said by telephone.

But after Kisenosato won his first championship title on Sunday, in his 73rd professional tournament, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council recommended that he be promoted.

At a Tokyo hotel on Wednesday, Kisenosato, 30, told officials from the Japan Sumo Association that he had accepted the designation with humility.

“I will devote myself and try not to disgrace the yokozuna name,” he said.

A 2015 survey by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry found that sumo wrestling was the most popular spectator sport in Japan, ahead of baseball, soccer, boxing and golf.

But sumo’s reputation has suffered in recent years because of a series of gambling and match-fixing scandals, and foreign wrestlers, mainly from Eastern Europe and Mongolia, have increasingly dominated its top ranks. Analysts say that Japan has lost its standing because its wrestling techniques are increasingly old-fashioned and because fewer young people are training for competitions.

Over the years, the Japan Sumo Association has sought to curb that trend by restricting the number of foreign wrestlers in each of the country’s 43 training stables — first to two, and later to one. But a 2013 report by the Daiwa Institute of Research, a think tank based in Tokyo, found that even though foreigners accounted for just 7 percent to 8 percent of Japan’s roughly 600 professional wrestlers, they made up 30 percent of the top-ranked ones.

“The number of Japanese wrestlers is not growing, that’s for sure,” Mr. Mainoumi said. “But if Kisenosato does well in upcoming tournaments, sumo might become popular again and attract new young wrestlers. I hope.”

Correction: January 25, 2017 An earlier version of a capsule summary with this article referred incorrectly to the year the last Japanese athlete received the title of yokozuna. It was 1998, not 1995.

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