NIPPONIA No.27 December 15, 2003

Living in Japan
Sumo Gets Him Closer to His Goal
Tsaguria Levan
Written by Takahashi Hidemine
Photos by Akagi Koichi

Sitting around a lunch stew called chanko-nabe. Sumo wrestlers usually eat five or six large bowls of rice with the stew, but Levan can handle no more than two, something he considers a problem that he needs to work on.
"I'm good-looking, don't you think?"
Wearing a mawashi band, Tsaguria Levan looks at himself in the mirror and flashes a hearty smile. He is 22, competing in the world of sumo wrestling. It took him only two years to get to one of the two top divisions, juryo. He is now gaining lots of attention under the name Kokkai (Black Sea).
Levan was born in the Republic of Georgia, in the city of Sukhumi. His father was a Soviet Union wrestling champion, and this may explain the son's powerful physique. A civil war broke out in Georgia soon after it became independent. The conflict and destruction dragged on, forcing the family to escape to the capital, Tbilisi, when he was 12. There he entered the Georgia Sports Academy and began studying wrestling, hoping to compete one day in the Olympics. When he was 18, he did very well in free-style wrestling at a European tournament, placing first in the 130 kg division.
Later, a crisis: "I was told, 'You're too heavy.' You see, they changed the wrestling categories. I weighed 135 kg, and they told me I couldn't compete again unless I dropped down to 120."
Just when his future was looking dark, he learned about sumo wrestling on TV. Sumo wrestlers can be as heavy as they want. Another thing tempting him was that sumo is a professional sport, unlike anything in his country. A scout from Japan happened to come to Georgia looking for new sumo wrestlers, and suggested he sign up. And that is how he decided to go to Japan.
Sumo is well known for its strict hierarchical system. Wrestlers belong to a "stable" (heya) run by an oyakata, who is both the boss and the teacher. Junior wrestlers have to cook and look after the daily needs of the older wrestlers. All of this was new for Levan.
"I had a hard time at first. The food was so different, and I didn't understand the language. But the okami-san (the boss's wife) kindly taught me some Japanese. And I couldn't give up, because I had decided before I came to really make a go of it."
Up on the hard clay platform, the sumo wrestlers grapple and collide, and they have no time to think at the critical moment. A win happens in a split second, unlike ordinary wrestling. In sumo, the aim is to toss the opponent or get him out of the ring. The tough traditional training concentrates on preparing wrestlers for that moment.
"Japan is a land of ancient tradition. Sumo is one such tradition, and it, too, has a Japanese ideal — to try just as hard as you can. Georgia, where I was born, is still young, so it has a lot to learn from other parts of the world."
Levan gets up at 6:30 every day, and trains in the morning. Then he eats a lunch called chanko-nabe, a stew with lots of vegetables and meat to give him more strength and weight. In addition to his traditional training regime, he works out at the local gym in the evening, to build up his muscles. All this training has made him faster on his feet.
He lives with other wrestlers at a "stable" called Oitekaze-beya, in Soka, Saitama Prefecture. When he has time to relax, he likes to listen to Japanese music and watch TV in his room.
"What I like best is to practice hard, work up a sweat and see my muscles grow. I know I can do well, so I just have to do it."
His ambition now? To become a yokozuna (grand champion sumo wrestler). Then his parents, who are rooting for him back home, will be able to see him on TV. He has another dream too — to repay them somehow for looking after him over the years.

During practice sessions in the ring, Levan attacks just as he would during a match. His best techniques are tsuppari (rapid palm thrusts) and dashinage (throwing).

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