Kasugao, right, holds up the list of wrestlers for the New Year basho, which began on January 12. (Jiji)
MAKING IT BIG:
Foreign-Born Sumo Wrestlers Rising to Prominence
January 14, 2003
Japan's national sport by popular acclaim if not by official designation,
is undergoing a wave of internationalization as foreign-born wrestlers
climb the ranks. At the Kyushu basho (tournament)
in November 2002, Mongolian-born ozeki (the
second-highest rank for wrestlers) Asashoryu took the title, the first
time this had been accomplished by someone from that country. As of last
November, 48 of the 692 professional sumo wrestlers in Japan were foreign-born,
meaning that 7% of all the wrestlers grew up overseas.
Every year there are six basho (three in Tokyo
and one each in Osaka, Nagoya, and Kyushu) held during odd-numbered months.
The wrestlers in the top two divisions have one match on each of the tournament's
15 days, and the wrestler who compiles the best record is the champion.
Wrestlers in the lower divisions have seven matches over the course of
The November Kyushu basho was dominated by
foreign-born wrestlers. While Asashoryu took the trophy in the makuuchi
division (upper division), South Korean-born Kasugao defeated Mongolian-born
Asasekiryu for the title in the juryo division
(second division). This was the first time that foreign-born wrestlers
had ever won both the makuuchi and juryo
divisions in the same basho. And in the lower
jonidan class, Mongolian-born Tokitenku finished
first as well.
While Asashoryu hails from outside Japan, he boasts a strong sumo pedigree;
his father was a famous wrestler in the world of Mongolian sumo. His mother
and father both made the trip to Japan to see their son's moment of triumph
as he clinched the title. Dressed in traditional Mongolian garments, they
made their way into the arena, where they were eagerly sought after by
the media for TV interviews following their son's victory. And Asashoryu
himself was given a hero's welcome when he went back to his native Mongolia
following the tournament.
Looking Abroad for Talent
Of the 48 foreign-born sumo wrestlers active in Japan's professional ranks,
the largest number have come from Mongolia (29), followed by Russia (4),
Brazil (3), the United States (3), China (2), South Korea (2), Tonga (2),
Argentina (1), Georgia (1), and the Czech Republic (1). In addition, another
three foreign-born wrestlers will make their debuts in January 2003: Kotooshu
from Bulgaria and Hoshikaze and Arawashi from Mongolia. Kotooshu, who
comes to the ranks of sumo with a background in wrestling, is 202 centimeters
(6 feet 7 inches) tall, the tallest sumo wrestler ever. The two new Mongolian-born
wrestlers will boost their countrys ranks to over 30.
The masters of the various sumo stables where wrestlers are trained scout
for talented young athletes who show potential. But over recent years
they have had a hard time finding enough eager recruits in Japan, partly
because the countrys birthrate has fallen so far, and also because
fewer young Japanese are willing to accept the hard life of a sumo trainee.
Apprentices are typically scouted while they are still in middle school,
and they must be prepared to endure five years or more of rigorous training
before they reach the higher ranks. Stable masters have therefore extended
their search overseas, where they have come across new pools of talent.
They are receiving help from sumos growing global popularity. Amateur
sumo organizations are active in quite a few countries, and world championships
are already being held. And in amateur world championships as in the professional
Japanese sport, the winners are not always Japanese. The internationalization
of sumo, it seems safe to say, is set to continue.
Copyright (c) 2003 Japan
Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese
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