With the 2013 July Grand Sumo Tournament in Nagoya set to kick off Sunday, Osunaarashi of Egypt is grabbing the media spotlight as the first pro sumo wrestler from Africa.
But sumo fever is also spreading at Nagoya University, where the sumo club took in three foreign students this year.
With mawashi (belts) around their hips, the three train rigorously at the school three times a week. After Saturday practices, they usually join their 10 Japanese teammates in chowing down some “chanko-nabe,” the sport’s traditional stew.
At a practice on June 22, the entire club was gathered at the sumo arena on the Higashiyama campus for training. A resounding thunk was heard as two students butted heads. The three foreigners fought aggressively as sweat poured down their backs.
“Come on!” the Japanese members yelled in encouragement.
The three, 24-year-old Alexandre Tonitti from Switzerland, and 25-year-olds Moon Young-joon and Min Kyoung-sic from South Korea, came to study at the school’s department of literature as short-term exchange students last fall but decided to try out sumo wrestling as well.
All three had prior martial arts experience. Tonitti knows how to box and the two Koreans practice taekwondo.
According to the club, Nagoya University is the only school in the Tokai region with foreigners in its sumo club. The school has had foreign participants before, but never three at the same time.
“I’m studying Japanese culture. I was interested in sumo and it looked fun,” said Tonitti, who says he has good power.
Moon said he was initially embarrassed to wear a mawashi but has since adjusted.
“I’m used it to now. And I love eating the large bowl of stew,” he said with a smile.
Min, who is enthusiastic about training, often surprises the club at competitions. At an official tournament in June, he won five of his 10 matches.
“I like the traditions found in sumo. I have made Japanese friends, thanks to the club,” Min said.
The three students won’t be taking part in the tournament of the seven former Imperial Universities later this month and are scheduled to return to their home countries in August. But they plan to keep on training until they go.
“Watching them work hard during practice has motivated the Japanese students as well,” said Yuki Migita, a sophomore law major.
As for the Grand Sumo Tournament, the 43 foreign wrestlers on record as of April make up 7 percent of all the pro sumo wrestlers in Japan. Mongolians account for the highest number of non-Japanese with 28, followed by Russia with three.
This section, appearing Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published June 24.