Sumo legend to get posthumous Japan award

Japan is to give one of its highest honours to a late sumo wrestler who dominated the sport in the 1960s and came to symbolise a golden era when homegrown stars ruled, an official said Friday.

Taiho, whose real name was Koki Naya, died of heart failure in hospital in Tokyo last month. He was 72.

His name is synonymous for many Japanese with the high energy growth and economic excitement of a decade when sumo wrestlers were unconditionally respected as heroes and the sport was untainted by the damaging scandals of recent years.

Top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said the government had decided to grant Taiho the "People's Honour Award", which is given to figures who inspire the nation.

He praised Taiho, a yokozuna, or "grand champion", for "his shining record in the sumo world, including his victories in a record 32 tournaments, which was achieved by his diligence and hard training".

He said the award would be made in recognition of "a national hero that many Japanese admired and loved".

Born on the then Japanese-occupied island of Sakhalin off the Russian far east to a Japanese mother and a Ukrainian father, Naya was raised on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, reportedly in poverty.

After making his debut in 1956, he won his first championship in 1960 and became the youngest wrestler to reach sumo's top rank in 1961 when he was 21 years old.

Sandwiched between the Yomiuri Giant baseball team and a kind of rolled omelette that became a school lunchbox must-have, his name was part of a catchphrase of children's three favourite things: "Kyojin, Taiho, tamagoyaki".

Sumo's popularity has declined in recent years amid scandals including match-fixing, marijuana use, illegal betting by the wrestlers, and the death of an apprentice due to hazing by seniors at their sumo stable.

The sport has been dominated in recent years by foreigners, with the two current yokozuna both being Mongolians.

Wrestling queen Saori Yoshida was given the People's Honour Award last year in recognition of her record 13 straight Olympic and world championship gold medals over 10 years.

She was the 20th recipient of the award, which was previously presented to 19 individuals in the sporting and entertainment worlds and one group -- the national women's football team after their women's World Cup win.