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Ranks of Foreign-Born Wrestlers Continue to Grow (February 4, 2004)

The Georgian-born wrestler Kokkai faces an opponent. (Jiji)
Hawaiian-born yokozuna Musashimaru stepped down from the ring for the final time at the end of the November 2003 Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament. With Musashimaru's retirement, the line of Hawaiian wrestlers that captivated sumo fans for so long and included such stars as Takamiyama, Konishiki, and Akebono has now come to an end. Just as the Hawaiian wrestlers fade, however, a new force of sumo exponents from Mongolia has come to the fore, the most prominent of which is yokozuna Asashoryu. As sumo gains greater international recognition, wrestlers from countries like Russia and Georgia are also making their presence felt.

A Growing International Presence
Out of the 693 professional sumo wrestlers currently active, 53 - more than ever before - are non-Japanese. Of these, the largest number by far, 35, are from Mongolia. In addition, this year one wrestler each from Georgia and Russia broke into sumo's upper echelons. There are now eight foreign-born wrestlers competing in sumo's highest sekitori class (made up of the makuuchi and juryo divisions), also an all-time high. Besides a hunger to win, what these wrestlers have in common are muscular physiques honed by training in Mongolian sumo or other forms of wrestling.

The first Hawaiian wrestler, Takamiyama (now an oyakata, or sumo stablemaster, under the name Azumazeki), made his sumo debut in 1964 and reached the third-highest sumo rank of sekiwake at the peak of his career. Takamiyama, who was able to blend smoothly into sumo's unique customs and culture, captured the hearts of Japanese fans and paved the way for the Hawaiian wrestlers who followed in his footsteps.

Hawaiian Pioneers
Konishiki, who weighed 300 kilograms and combined strength with a cheerful, fun-loving personality, was popular both inside and outside the sumo ring. Konishiki climbed as high as sumo's second-highest rank of ozeki, but fellow Hawaiians Akebono and Musashimaru subsequently went one step further by attaining sumo's highest rank of yokozuna. These two wrestlers contributed to the internationalization of sumo by consistently challenging for victory at every tournament, even before being promoted to yokozuna. Yokozuna adhere to a strict tradition whereby they must not compile a losing record during a 15-day tournament. Musashimaru finished his career with 12 tournament victories, the most ever by a foreign-born wrestler, and went a record 55 straight tournaments with a winning record, bettering the mark of 50 straight winning records by former Japanese yokozuna Kitanoumi.

Remarkable Mongolian Rise
Konishiki and the other Hawaiian wrestlers were all giants who tipped the scales at over 200 kilograms. The new crop of Mongolian wrestlers, by contrast, are much smaller, most weighing in at less than 140 kilograms. In sumo, sheer size is no substitute for technique. No one personifies this more than yokozuna Asashoryu, who toppled Japanese wrestlers far bigger than himself in spectacular fashion on his way to reaching sumo's pinnacle at the 2003 New Year Grand Sumo Tournament. Asashoryu's success is a matter of great pride for his family and his homeland. In Mongolia, Mongolian sumo, the country's traditional martial art, is flourishing. Asashoryu's father and four brothers comprise a martial arts family of Mongolian sumo wrestlers, and Asashoryu himself was trained by his father from childhood.

There are already five Mongolian wrestlers active in the sekitori divisions, and Hakuho, who was promoted to the juryo division in November, is still only 18 years old. Hakuho's father won a silver medal in wrestling at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and is a former Mongolian sumo grand champion.

Sumo has 82 techniques, which are classified into three groups: pushing and thrusting, pulling, and throwing. The powerfully built Mongolian wrestlers dazzle the eye with their crisply executed throwing techniques and are creating a new trend that favors technique over size.

Georgia, a "martial arts kingdom" that has produced many Olympic medalists in wrestling and judo, is also proving fertile ground for sumo. Georgian wrestler Kokkai (Black Sea) was promoted to the juryo division this spring. At the end of 2002, a sumo ring was opened in Tbilisi, Georgia's capital, sparking a surge of interest in the sport. Kokkai was also trained by his father, a former wrestler, and was a European junior wrestling champion in the 130-kilogram weight class. Young men training at the Tbilisi center are inspired to become the "second Kokkai."

Following on the heels of Kokkai is the Russian-born Roho, who in November became the second European and the first Russian sekitori wrestler. Roho, who hails from the Caucasus, located to the north of Georgia, is also a proven talent who won wrestling's world junior championship at the age of 18. And Kotooshu, a 20-year-old Bulgarian who made his sumo debut in November 2002 and stands 202 centimeters tall, is also gunning for the upper ranks as the first wrestler to use his considerable height as a weapon. He, too, had competitive wrestling experience prior to coming to Japan.

A Hungry Spirit
One reason for the sudden increase of sumo wrestlers from former Soviet states is the collapse of the all-encompassing "state amateur" system that supported athletes in the Soviet era. In the absence of this support, wrestlers have turned to sumo as a path that promises big financial rewards for those who succeed.

In 1992, the establishment of the International Sumo Federation, which brings together the world's numerous amateur sumo organizations, led to an increase in the number of wrestlers who were "borrowed" to make up the numbers at tournaments in the former Soviet Union and Europe, where there tend to be few sumo competitors. This helped to overcome a reluctance on the part of wrestlers to take up sumo.

Most of these foreign wrestlers possess not only talent but a passionate hunger for sumo. Tanaka Hidetoshi, chairman of the International Sumo Federation, said, "The day when half of the makuuchi (the top-ranked 42 wrestlers) are foreign-born is not at all far away." Judging by the success of the recent arrivals from Mongolia and other countries, it is hard to argue with Tanaka's prediction.

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Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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