On the final day of the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament, Yokozuna (Grand Champion) Hakuho defeated fellow Mongolian rival Kakuryu to take the championship with a record of 14 wins and one defeat. The win marked his 32nd tournament victory, tying him for the all-time lead with the late Taiho, who retired in May 1971.

Invited to address the TV audience in the awards ceremony that followed, Hakuho first spoke to his parents and fellow countrymen in the Mongolian language. Then switching to Japanese, reports Shukan Post (Dec 12), he remarked that his results came about “as recognition by the gods of sumo of his having embraced the spirit of Japan,” and praised the spirit of Toshimichi Okubo, one of the important nobles of the Meiji Era, whose policies helped Japanese to protect their traditional culture. Then he said, “Concerning this, I am grateful to his majesty, the Emperor.”

But all this lavish praise, suggests Shukan Post (Dec 12),  may carry an ulterior motive.

“Hakuho is seeking to became a stablemaster while keeping his Mongolian nationality,” a person with close ties to the sumo world tells the magazine.

Under the Japan’s Sumo Association’s current system, a grappler must obtain one of a limited number of “toshiyori” shares in that entitle him to operate a stable, serve as a judge and so on. The number of shares are fixed, and the by-laws limit share ownership to Japanese citizens, with no exceptions.

In the past, when foreigners seldom attained high rankings in the sport, this rule was never an issue. But then came former Sekiwake (junior champion) Takamiyama (the former Jesse Kuhaulua of Hawaii), who operated Azumazeki Stable until his retirement in 2009. Another Yokozuna, Musashimaru, who had been born in American Samoa, took Japanese nationality and last year inherited the position of master of Musashigawa Stable. More recently, retired Ozeki (Champion) Kotooshu of Bulgaria became a Japanese citizen and was allowed to become a provisional sumo coach under a special dispensation in recognition of his outstanding record.

Hakuho is married to a Japanese woman, and has expressed the desire to remain in Japan and operate his own stable after retirement. It was assumed he would follow his foreign predecessors and obtain Japanese nationality. But his apparent change of heart came as a surprise, leading Shinji Hattori, Chairman of the Shonan Bank and a member of Hakuho’s support group, to sigh, “Hakuho has completely changed. Recently when he reaches out to accept the ‘kensho’ (cash prizes handed to the wrestler after winning a bout), he does it in a sloppy manner not befitting the dignity of his yokozuna rank…I’m worried about him.”

“Now that Hakuho’s on the verge of surpassing Taiho’s record, perhaps because he knows he’s the strongest, he’s becoming something of a ‘tengu’ (self-conceited person),” another backer, hospital director Kozo Tamba, was quoted as saying. “He doesn’t accept helpful suggestions and I’ve heard he disregards Miyagino oyakata, his stablemaster, who only reached the rank of maegashira (rank and file) during his own career. He can’t control Hakuho any more.”

The writer suggests one possible explanation for Hakuho’s change in attitude may be due to the autumn 2013 Grand Tournament, when fans issued “Banzai!” cheers for arch-rival Osaki Kisenosato. In Hakuho’s view, this showed “rokotsu na sabetsu” (undisguised bias) against him on the part of Japanese fans.

“Last summer, before his wife’s pregnancy could be announced by his support group, a sports newspaper jumped the gun and reported that she was expecting,” a reporter reveals. “After that, he showed a hostile attitude toward reporters, and brushed off their questions. He even stuck out his tongue at one reporter. The atmosphere around him’s become tense.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that confrontations with Japanese may also reinforce Hakuho’s identity as a Mongolian. And he’s also under pressure from the Mongolian side.

“His father is revered as a hero for being the first citizen of that country to take an Olympic medal, which he won in wrestling at the Mexico City Olympiad in 1968, and Hakuho may feel concern over the possible backlash of his naturalizing as a Japanese,” a sumo journalist tells the magazine.

Now-retired Mongolian wrestler Kyokushuzan, a respected “sempai” (senior), believes that having Hakuho as a stablemaster would become a “huge asset” to the sumo world. “Yes, sumo’s rules should be followed,” he concedes. “But I think the time is coming when the sumo world must consider what will be most advantageous for itself.”