Kasugao, right, holds up the list of wrestlers for the New Year basho, which began on January 12. (Jiji)

Foreign-Born Sumo Wrestlers Rising to Prominence
January 14, 2003

Sumo, 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.

Crossing Borders
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 tournament.

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 country’s 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 country’s 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 sumo’s 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 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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