Just like that, there are no American rikishi left in sumo.
Wakaichiro, the sole remaining wrestler from the United States, called it quits earlier this month, and has returned to Houston.
His retirement, which comes just a few months after that of stablemate and countryman Musashikuni, leaves the U.S. without an active rikishi for the first time in seven years.
Officially, of course, Wakaichiro didn’t count against the foreign quota as he has Japanese nationality through his mother.
Being able to speak the language after having spent at least part of his childhood in this country also helped him blend in.
For his many international fans, however, Ichiro Young (his real name), with his scrappy, heart-on-sleeve style, was Texas through and through and they followed him passionately as he moved up the rankings.
The ending, when it came, was abrupt, and caught many people by surprise as the Musashigawa stable man had just put in his best performance to date, and seemed likely to compete at a career-high rank in March.
In the long term, though, his prospects were less promising given his size and record to date.
Young confirmed as much when I spoke with him just hours after his arrival back in the United States. He didn’t go into great detail, only saying that as he was doing ok and was physically healthy, he figured it was better to quit while ahead.
He also confirmed the suddenness of his departure, saying that his hair cutting ceremony and leaving sumo came within a few days of informing his stablemaster (former yokozuna Musashimaru) that he wanted to retire.
Such a dramatic lifestyle switch happening in such short order would be a lot for anyone to deal with, never mind someone barely old enough to drink.
The Humble native is handling it well though, it seems, and he even has his next job lined up in a completely unrelated field — although he asked me not to reveal his new career path just yet as a lot of things are still up in the air.
Wakaichiro’s departure from ōzumō returns American involvement in the sport to nearly zero, a repeat of the situation it experienced in the decade following the 2003 retirements of Musashimaru and Sentoryu.
But the historical significance of no rikishi from the United States competing in sumo is something that seems to escape many of those online who criticize English-language sites and blogs for focusing on lower-level rikishi like Musashikuni and Wakaichiro.
All that comments along the lines of “people only care about them because they are American” do is highlight the poster’s lack of understanding of sumo history and the United States’ place in it.
The first-ever rikishi to hail from outside Japan’s borders came from the United States.
So too did the first wrestler with foreign nationality and no ties to Japan.
The first foreigner to make the top division. The first foreign komusubi, sekiwake, ozeki and yokozuna, The first foreign Emperor’s Cup winner and stablemaster. Every single one was American.
The Japan Sumo Association’s first two trips to hold sumo events abroad were to the United States. Eventually nine of the first 12 such events took place stateside, with China and Mexico being the only other two countries visited.
Have a guess at which country finished runner-up to Japan in the team competition at the first three World Amateur Sumo Championships, which were all held at the Ryogoku Kokugikan. If you said the U.S. take a bow. Indeed, only once between 1992-99 was the Stars and Stripes not raised over the podium at that tournament.
The very fact that there is an international component to ozumo at all is due to the trailblazing efforts of Americans. Were it not for men like Takamiyama and Konishiki, the idea of a Mongolian or Georgian rikishi might appear as incongruous now as the concept of an Estonian or French gyōji (referee) or yobidashi (ring announcer) still does.
So while Musashikuni and Wakaichiro may not have set the world alight on an individual level, their presence in sumo kept alive links between Japan’s national sport and the foreign nation that has had the biggest impact on it historically.
Musashikuni’s uncle (Musashigawa stablemaster) will of course remain in the JSA for another 17 years, assuming he stays healthy before reaching the mandatory retirement age.
In terms of where the next American rikishi will come from, it appears that Hawaii is once again becoming a center of power in the sport thanks to the efforts of Kena Heffernan.
The Yale graduate and multiple-time national champion has brought a large team of kids to Japan each year for the Hakuho Cup and continues to build on and expand sumo’s presence in the islands.
Unlike in past decades, that growth is also being matched on the U.S. mainland, with new clubs and tournaments popping up with regularity over the past few years thanks to a surge in interest in the sport.
Will America reclaim its position as the country with the most yokozuna after Japan? That seems unlikely given the rate at which strong Mongolians are entering sumo.
It could, however, have several solid top-division regulars if interest in the sport there continues to grow.
Let’s hope for American fans’ sake that it doesn’t take another decade for Wakaichiro’s successor to arrive.
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