When late French President Jacques Chirac departed a sumo arena in Osaka in 2005, the crowd gave him a standing ovation, applauding the superfan and chanting “Shiraku, Shiraku!”
For many in Japan, the charismatic statesman will be remembered less for his Iraq War opposition or his support for European unity than his deep and abiding love of the sport of sumo.
He is said to have insisted he learned all he needed to know in life from the ancient sport, and even wondered whether he could have made the grade himself.
“Maybe if I’d started young,” he mused in 1998. “I was tall enough, and as for weight, well you can put that on with time.”
The head of the Japan Sumo Association said he was shocked to hear of Chirac’s death but “deeply grateful” for his love of the sport.
“I am surprised to hear the sudden sad news,” JSA Chairman Hakkaku, a former yokozuna, said in a statement. “I am deeply grateful for his kindness and pray that he rests in peace.”
Mark Schilling, a sumo commentator on NHK, said Chirac stood out among the many foreign dignitaries who attended bouts for his obsession with the sport.
“Famous people did come to see sumo, Prince Charles and Princess Diana came … but for someone like him to actually take an interest, to actually know something about it, was unusual,” he said. “And I think that impressed the sumo world.”
Newspapers offered detailed obituaries on Friday, with the liberal Asahi Shimbun praising his “deep knowledge about Japan’s ancient and medieval literature and arts, which often surprised experts in those areas.”
“His love of Japan was unrivalled and went beyond the level of hobbies,” the daily added.
Chirac’s love of sumo extended back decades, and he was already making trips to Japan in the 1970s, eventually visiting more than 50 times.
“Each journey here is for me a new delight,” Chirac said on a trip in 2005, his first in five years — an absence he described as “intolerable.”
He was so enamoured with the sport that when in office he arranged with French broadcasters to obtain tapes of matches before they went on air.
And the French Embassy in Tokyo had standing orders to dispatch the results of each day’s fights as soon as the session was through.
Chirac helped organize the first sumo tournament in Paris, when he was mayor, bringing wrestlers who rarely practice outside Japan to the French capital in 1986 and then again in 1995.
And his enthusiasm for it led to the creation of the President of the Republic of France Cup, which was presented to winning wrestlers from 2000 until Chirac left office in 2007
“President Chirac has sent gifts to the winning sumo wrestlers and for that we are always grateful,” an association spokesman said during the French leader’s 2005 visit to Osaka, to the delight of fans.
His admiration for the sport was a far cry from the views of his successor Nicolas Sarkozy.
“How can anyone be fascinated by these battles between fat guys with slicked-down ponytails? Sumo wrestling is really not a sport for intellectuals,” he was reported to have said.
But Chirac’s fascination for the sport was unerring — he even named his pet dog Sumo, though he was later forced to send her away after she repeatedly bit him.
“He loved sumo, and … built the foundation of today’s Japan-France friendship,” one Japanese Twitter user wrote. “Thank you President Chirac.”