Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Entering sumo world not something to be taken lightly

by John Gunning

In lifting the Emperor’s Cup last month, Mitakeumi became the fourth Japanese wrestler to win a championship in the past two years.

That’s significant in a sport that had been utterly dominated by foreigners for the previous decade.

However even with the recent success of native-born fighters, non-Japanese wrestlers have still won 11 of the 15 tournaments since Kotoshogiku broke the 10-year drought in January 2016.

Mongolians, of course, have taken the lion’s share of those titles but sumo has also had champions from Bulgaria, Estonia and Georgia in recent years

Men from as far away as Egypt, Russia, the Czech Republic and Brazil have competed in the top division in the same span.

And those are only the better-known wrestlers.

Rikishi have come from a total of 24 different nations and territories, with Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Tonga and Paraguay among the countries to have produced wrestlers.

Georgian Tochinoshin became the third European to win a title when he emerged victorious at this year’s January meet but the first wrestler from that part of the world had a far less glamorous career.

Englishman Nathan Strange, along with many of his fellow citizens, got swept up in sumo-mania when Channel 4 started televising the sport in the 1980s.

Taking his newfound passion a step further, Strange joined sumo in September 1989, making his debut alongside stablemate (and future yokozuna) Musashimaru.

The 17-year-old immediately regretted the decision.

Wholly unprepared for the intensity and violence of sumo life, Strange wanted to quit before even making his tournament debut.

The late sumo commentator Doreen Simmons once told me she took tearful phone calls from the Kent native on an almost nightly basis.

The Briton did stick it out for 10 months, but despite winning 12 of his first 18 fights, he quit immediately following the March 1990 meet.

The Musashigawa stable’s Ichiro Young (currently in the sandanme division) was raised in Houston but isn’t the first wrestler from the Lone Star State.

Philip Smoak, who joined the Taiho stable in May 1981, arrived in Japan wearing cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat and, like Strange, had no real idea what he was getting into. The Texan lasted even less time, heading back to the United States after a mere two months.

The question that immediately springs to mind is just how did all these foreigners, with no aptitude whatsoever for sumo, end up in Japan doing the most Japanese of all activities?

And if you are foreign and an aspiring rikishi nowadays, how can you join professional sumo?

The nationality distinction, of course, has to be made as anyone with Japanese citizenship can join simply by calling or emailing a stable and asking to be taken in. It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance at some of the boys and men currently in the sport to realize virtually no one gets turned away.

For foreigners, though, it’s a lot more complicated.

In the old days, the French Foreign Legion style taking in of anyone who showed up applied to both Japanese and foreigners alike, which led to some of the aforementioned wholly unsuitable people joining sumo.

Both Smoak and Strange got in after writing letters asking to join. Strange sent five to stablemaster Azumazeki before being admitted, while Smoak had to badger Andy Adams for two years before the former “Sumo World” magazine editor used his connections to get the Texan in.

Nowadays, joining sumo is a lot tougher.

For a start, the one-foreigner-per-stable rule means at any given time only a handful of places have a slot open and some of them — the Isenoumi stable for example — don’t accept any foreign or college recruits.

Even stables that are willing to take foreigners are often quite reluctant to do so due to negative experiences in the past or (legitimate) concerns about how well suited young foreigners are for what awaits them.

For Mongolians, the situation is unique. Their sheer numbers, and more importantly previous success, means they have the inside track on any slots that open up.

Hakuho, Terunofuji and many other Mongolian rikishi were able to join the sport thanks to the efforts of compatriots already in sumo.

Regardless of where you are from, however, a personal connection inside the sport that can offer a “Donnie Brasco” style “friend of mine” introduction is in reality a prerequisite.

Having played that role for several rikishi in the past, I know that unless you are 17 or younger with significant amateur success at the junior world championships, your chances of being accepted are slim.

Even if you tick all the boxes it can be a matter of timing or luck.

Both Osunaarashi and Homarefuji (two wrestlers I helped find a place) were turned down by multiple stables.

One stablemaster told both Osunaarashi and myself that the Egyptian was already too old to make it in pro sumo. He was 18 at the time.

Zaza Balashvili from Georgia, who had actually beaten the future Osunaarashi in the 2008 Junior Sumo World Championships, spent a few weeks in Tokyo in 2012 trying to find a slot. He was unsuccessful despite having Tochinoshin lobbying for him and my arranging a week of training in a stable.

For those I help, though, the first stage is always trying to dissuade them.

The sumo lifestyle is far different than what these kids with stars in their eyes imagine it to be.

All say they are not afraid of hard work or tough training but none have considered the idea that the system can be inherently unfair or that their stablemaster or stablemates might not have their best interests at heart.

Understanding the reality of sumo life is often enough to change a potential recruit’s mind. Some, though, won’t be deterred and for those who are determined to join come what may, a way in can usually be found.

Ask those same men a few years later whether they would do it all over again however and you’ll find very few answering in the affirmative.

Getting into sumo usually takes determination, effort and persistence, but even for those who succeed it’s often a case of be careful what you wish for.