Foreign sumo aspirants’ numbers kept in check by stable quota policy

by Hiroyuki Tai

Kyodo

As the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament currently being held in Fukuoka enters its final days, foreign wrestlers have again stolen the spotlight.

Much of the focus of the 15-day event, which began Nov. 13, was on whether yokozuna Asashoryu from Mongolia would win a record seventh straight Emperor’s Cup and whether Bulgarian sekiwake Kotooshu would rack up enough wins to reach the rank of ozeki.

But although there is a steady stream of young athletes from Mongolia, Europe and the former Soviet Union eager to enter the world of sumo, the Japan Sumo Association is adamantly sticking to its policy of allowing only one foreigner per stable and opposes opening the door fully to wrestlers from overseas.

At the 13th world sumo tournament held in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, on Oct. 16, wrestlers from 30 countries and territories took part, and Davaa Batsaikhan, 29, brother of Mongolian maegashira Kyokushuzan, worked hard to tout his countrymen to the sumo association.

“He’s 17 years old, 193 cm tall and weighs 145 kg. His father was a former sekiwake in Mongolian sumo. He wants to be a sumo wrestler. Is there any stable that might accept him?” Batsaikhan asked an association official.

Tsertsvadze Avtandil and Gorgadze Levan, both from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, are also eager to get in the ring. They trained at the Sumo Club at Nihon University in Tokyo for more than a week before the tournament.

The sumo association accepted six Mongolians, including Kyokushuzan, in 1992 but did not take in any foreigners for the next six years. Then the association let two foreigners into each stable until the total number of foreign wrestlers reached 40 in 2002, when it decided on its one-foreigner-per-stable policy.

This year’s fall tournament in Kyushu has 59 wrestlers from 12 countries participating. When the tournament began, only four out of 54 stables had no foreigners on the roster after a Georgian at one stable passed the screening test to become a wrestler on opening day. The remaining four stables have said they have no intention of accepting foreigners. In other words, the quota for foreign wrestlers is effectively full.

There are pros and cons to the current quota system. Hidetoshi Tanaka, chairman of the International Sumo Federation, supports it, claiming: “The door is fully open as there are more than 50 foreign sumo wrestlers. It is not a good thing to accept everybody.”

But some federation officials say the quota runs contrary to the efforts of the federation, which has been trying to make sumo a more popular sport overseas.

Liliana Kaneva, chairman of the Bulgaria Sumo Federation, which discovered Kotooshu, said, “Everyone wants to follow in Kotooshu’s steps. It is better to open the door.”

The vast majority of sumo officials, however, support restricting the entry of foreigners.