National / History

Former Tongan sumo wrestler still sports the Asahiyama stable sign

by Hiroshi Harada

Kyodo

The Kingdom of Tonga in the South Pacific is home to one of the more unusual stables in sumo, Japan’s traditional national sport.

With no wrestlers, and marked by a large wooden placard reading Asahiyama-beya, the stable is home to Tevita Vaiola Falevai, 60, one of four Tongan men sent to Japan more than 40 years ago by King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV (1918-2006) in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to make sumo Tonga’s second national sport after rugby.

The four, who were among youths who received coaching from the Asahiyama stable during a sumo demonstration in Tonga, flew to Japan and joined the stable in October 1974.

Falevai said he was scared to travel to Japan, imagining a country of sword-carrying samurai, but could not refuse the king’s order.

At the king’s request, the stable gave the four wrestlers ring names suggesting images of Tonga. Falevai was called “Minaminoshima” (southern island), while the others received similarly evocative names.

The four debuted in November 1974, and Minaminoshima was eventually promoted to the third-highest makushita division the following September. The four worked hard in the hope of becoming grand champion yokozuna, Falevai said.

Their promising careers ended when the stable master suddenly died in October 1975.

As the master, who fought under the ring name of Futaseyama, promised the king to take care of the four men, they followed his wife, who said a wrestler called Ryuo would succeed as leader of the stable, according to Falevai.

But after another wrestler, Wakafutase, who was at odds with the former Asahiyama stable master’s wife, became the new leader, the Tongan wrestlers refused to follow him and decided to stay with the old Asahiyama stable, partly because they were not fluent enough in Japanese to understand what was going on, Falevai recalled.

“We were facing one trouble after another during our stay in Japan,” he said. “We thought we’d better return to Tonga.”

The Japan Sumo Association told the Tongans they could only continue fighting under the new stable master.

In light of this, the four decided to return to Tonga. They retired from the ring in October 1976 after a two-year run.

The issue was taken up in the Diet out of concern that it would adversely affect Japan’s relationship with Tonga. The JSA thus sent a delegation to Tonga to explain its account of the problem to King Tupou IV.

Falevai received the old stable’s placard and has since displayed it at the entrance of his birth home on Tongatapu, the main island of Tonga, as proof that he was a sumo wrestler in Japan.

Despite his acrimonious exit from the sport’s professional ranks, Falevai has continued to love sumo. He led the Tongan team at the Junior Sumo World Championships in Tokyo in 2000.

Falevai’s second son, whom he named Minaminoshima Isamu, joined the Musashigawa stable in 2001 and also fought under the ring name of Minaminoshima until his retirement in September 2008.

The Asahiyama stable, meanwhile, closed in January after the New Year tournament, ending its century-old history without a successor.