Red-faced, the two sumo wrestlers crashed together, grappling their way around the raised earthen ring until one pushed the other over the side.

This is a typical scene in Japan’s traditional sport — except the loinclothed wrestlers were 11 years old, though each weighed more than many grown men.

“I’m happy, really happy,” said Hisatsugu Sasaki, the victor who even at 135 kg still had the treble voice of a child. “I hope to become a professional sumo wrestler.”

Sasaki and his opponent, Kyuta Kumagai — who weighs 90 kg — are chasing the same dream. They want to turn pro, which at the top ranks, especially the highest rank of yokozuna, can bring fortune and make them household names in Japan.

Success depends on being taken into a sumo stable, where wrestlers live and train together, with some starting as young as their mid-teens.

Sumo wrestlers are revered in Japan, but all aspects of their lives are heavily dictated by centuries of tradition. Occasionally, concerns arise over the weight they gain to compete. Medical studies show sumo wrestlers die younger compared with the general population, although this varies depending on whether they lose weight in retirement.

Kumagai’s coach, Shinichi Taira, said he didn’t really know about the health impact of the weight gain on the youths, though he said Kumagai’s weight is slightly above average for male sumo wrestlers his age.

The national Children’s Sumo Association says around 40,000 children from ages 10 to 12 participate in the sport, but not many plan to become professionals.

Those who do, like Sasaki and Kumagai, work hard.

Kumagai, whose family moved to an area of Tokyo known for sumo wrestling, showed promise from his first appearance in a kindergarten tournament. Sasaki, by contrast, has gained prominence more recently, Taira said.

Kyuta Kumagai looks at photos of former yokozuna after the All-Japan Elementary School Sumo Championship on Dec. 5. | REUTERS
Kyuta Kumagai looks at photos of former yokozuna after the All-Japan Elementary School Sumo Championship on Dec. 5. | REUTERS

Towering over other boys at his Tokyo club, Kumagai trains six days a week in a regime drawn up by his father, a former amateur sumo wrestler, that includes sumo, weightlifting, swimming and track and field — to develop the flexibility and explosiveness needed for sumo.

The routine — which takes place around the regular demands of school — sometimes brings Kumagai to tears, but it’s gleaned results: he claimed the under-10 world championship in 2019.

“It’s fun to beat people older than me,” Kumagai said after a training session in January.

In October, he became the Children’s Sumo Association Grand Champion for his age group, beating Sasaki along the way.

Their rematch on Sunday, at a national grade school tournament, was a key step on the path to the future for both, with Kumagai widely expected to win.

But the competition, consisting of the best from around Japan, was stiff.

“Sasaki? He’s exceptional,” said Taira. “This year the kids were especially big.”

As Kumagai’s parents filmed from the stands, the two boys lunged at each other, then grappled their way around the ring in a hard-fought bout. Sasaki won and went on to claim the championship.

Kumagai’s father, Taisuke, was philosophical.

“He put up a good fight against a very tough rival … It gives us things to work on,” he said.

The young sumo wrestler was already looking ahead.

“I’m really frustrated,” he said. “But there’s another tournament coming up, and I want revenge.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.