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Second Foreign Wrestler Reaches Highest Rank

August 6, 1999

Hawaiian sumo wrestler Fiamalu Penitani, known by his sumo name of Musashimaru, has gained promotion to the highest rank of yokozuna (grand champion) after winning the May 1999 summer tournament--his second straight victory. The sixty-seventh yokozuna, Musashimaru, 28, becomes the second foreign-born wrestler to achieve the highest rank, following fellow Hawaiian native Akebono.

Slow but Steady Rise
Since his debut in the 1989 autumn tournament, Musashimaru's rise to the top has been anything but meteoric. In fact, he holds record for the slowest ascent ever in sumo history. Musashimaru reached the rank of yokozuna in his eleventh year, after competing in 32 15-day grand tournaments at the sport's second-highest rank of ozeki. Musashimaru's promotion marks the first time that two foreign-born wrestlers have shared sumo's top rank at the same time.

Musashimaru is from the Hawaiian island of Oahu. He entered the Musashigawa beya (training stable) after having conditioned his body as a wrestler and football player and rose smoothly through the ranks. He was promoted to ozeki in 1994, but then his progress came to a standstill. In addition to struggling under the weight of his considerable frame of 191 centimeters (six feet three inches) and 223 kilograms (490 pounds), he has been hampered by a somewhat timid personality and unaggressive style. As a result, many critics predicted that the ozeki would never break through to the highest level.

At the end of 1998, however, Musashimaru gave up drinking and shed close to 10 kilograms (22 pounds). This determined lifestyle change carried over to his performance in the ring, bringing him consecutive victories in the March and May tournaments. With these triumphs, along with his impressive all-time record of 52 straight tournaments without a losing record and his award for 790 consecutive appearances from the time of his debut, he finally gained promotion to yokozuna, realizing his long-held ambition. "Musashimaru has a body resilient to injury and is a steady performer who should be around for a long time," said Kazuo Ichiriki, chairman of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, expressing his high hopes for the wrestler.

Even the giant Musashimaru gets stage fright on formal occasions, however. After the summer tournament, in an official response to news of his promotion, Musashimaru was so nervous that he comically mixed up some important words at one point in his speech. The big wrestler, who took Japanese citizenship in January 1996, apparently was unable to stop shaking.

An Increasingly International Sport
The rank of yokozuna is the apex of the sumo world. The monthly salary for wrestlers of this rank is about 2.74 million yen (23,800 dollars at 115 yen to the dollar)--about 460,000 yen (4,000 dollars) more than that of ozeki wrestlers--and there many other perks. There is also greater pressure to wrestle well, of course, but Musashimaru finished in good form in the July Nagoya tournament, his first as a yokozuna with a 12-3 record.

In addition to Musashimaru, victories at the summer tournament were recorded by Kaishinzan of the United States in the makushita (fourth-lowest) division , Mongolia's Asashoryu in the jonidan division (second lowest), and Kaihakuzan of South Korea in the lowest jonokuchi division. This was the largest number of foreign champions in their respective divisions in a single sumo tournament in history. And with more and more young foreign wrestlers achieving success in the sport of late--there are currently 15 active foreigners from six countries--sumo seems to be on its way to becoming an international sport.

Trends in JapanEdited 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.