Visitors to Japan, encountering sumo for the first time, are often surprised to learn that not only are there rikishi from places as far afield as Georgia, Mongolia and Hawaii, but that foreigners have dominated the sport for the better part of a decade and a half.
Casual fans are of course aware that prior to the current Mongolian hegemony, a trio of Hawaiians (Takamiyama, Konishiki and Akebono) broke down sumo’s barriers and shattered its various glass ceilings.
That’s about it though as far as most people’s knowledge of foreigners in sumo goes.
Indeed, were you to believe half of what is written these days, you’d come away thinking sumo has always been a closed shop that does its utmost to prevent non-Japanese wrestlers from gaining entry into the sport.
Such a notion is of course utter nonsense. Sumo’s foreign links are long-standing, deep and widespread.
A total of 24 countries and territories have been represented so far in professional sumo. Mongolia and the United States, with 62 and 31 respectively, have had the most entrants, but there have been sizeable contingents from places such as Korea and Brazil.
Kaisei is the most recent of the 16 wrestlers to have hailed from the latter country. He is also the Brazilian who has progressed furthest in the sport, reaching the rank of sekiwake.
Kaisei was born Ricardo Sugano, which of course gives away his ancestry.
Descended from Japanese immigrants to Brazil, he, like several others with names such as Nagahama and Kawamura, took up the sport in their native country before coming to Japan to turn professional.
Not all Brazilians in sumo had prior links to their adopted country, however.
Pasquale Boschi, who fought under the name Hakusan, was a third-generation Italian recruited by stablemaster Kimigahama when the latter was on a three-man tour of Brazil in 1976. The stocky Minas Gerais native, who had a judo background, so impressed the former sekiwake with his showing at an amateur sumo tournament that he immediately received an invitation to come to Japan and join the professional ranks.
Brazil isn’t the only South American nation that has been represented in sumo, either. There have also been rikishi from Paraguay and Argentina.
In a nod to their native land, the two competitors from the latter nation were given the ring names Hoshitango and Hoshiandesu.
Hoshi was a common prefix at Michinoku stable in the 1970’s and 1980’s and Tango & Andes need no explanation.
Like the famous trio mentioned at the start of this article, virtually all of the Americans that have joined sumo hailed from Hawaii.
While Japanese links are deep on the islands, most of the rikishi from Hawaii have had Polynesian backgrounds.
There have been a few wrestlers from the continental United States as well. The most famous and successful of those was Sentoryu, whose fighting name was chosen partly because it sounds like his hometown of St. Louis.
That the traditional giving of a shikona (ring name) to reflect a wrestler’s origins is carried over to non-Japanese rikishi is a mark of how much sumo embraces the addition of foreign wrestlers.
Admittedly, some like Hungarian Mausutoo and Bulgarian Kotooshu were given unimaginative names that just translated as “Eastern Europe” and “Europe” respectively, but still, it’s the thought that counts.
Recruits to the ranks aren’t the only foreign involvement in sumo throughout the years.
In the 1970’s the (now-closed) Clark Hatch Fitness Center had links with Miyagino Beya. The stablemaster, former sekiwake Myobudani, had trained there while still an active wrestler, and he maintained close ties with the gym, even occasionally inviting manager Chuck Wilson and some of the members to take part in training sessions at his stable.
Wilson, by the way, went on to become a famous TV tarento (TV personality) in Japan, while the stablemaster left sumo entirely in 1977 to become a Jehovah’s Witness and do missionary work.
Miyagino isn’t the only oyakata (stablemaster) who has been involved with forging links to foreigners in Japan.
Former ozeki Yutakayama traveled to Aomori Prefecture when he was head of Tokitsukaze stable to train members of the U.S. military at Misawa Air Base.
Navy personnel stationed at the base had formed their own sumo club and built a real dohyo (ring) in one of the aircraft hangars. The club trained regularly and had Japanese former university sumo wrestlers as coaches.
A team from the club was even allowed to compete in the East Japan Amateur Championships. If you are wondering why that is impressive, remember that the tournament is held at Yasukuni Shrine.
I competed at the same event back in 2005 and was the only foreign face among hundreds of wrestlers, trainers, fans and staff in the venue.
The idea of an American military team not only competing, but by all accounts receiving warm applause, in that bastion of Japanese nationalism is mind-boggling to most.
It’s par for the course, however. I could spend all day listing examples from personal experience and first-hand accounts, of sumo actively reaching out to the foreign community in Japan both in and outside the ring.
An openness to foreigners is something I’ve seen displayed time and again over my two decades being involved in the sport at both the amateur and professional level.
Contrary to the misleading and ill-informed claims of sumo being inherently racist that are regularly published in Japan and abroad, I can honestly say it is one of the most open and welcoming sports in Japan.