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Gilles Furelaud
translated by Jelena Macan
proofread by Moti Dichne

Foreigners in Makuuchi: a chaotic history

Sumo is the traditional sport of Japan, a sport mixed with art and tradition. Because of this, for a long time Sumo was just some folklore for non-Japanese. When Japan opened to the outside world, some foreigners started developing an interest in Sumo. Naturally, certain Oyakata begun to recruit foreigners: perhaps these new wrestlers will bring success to their heya?
So, little by little, some foreigners penetrated the very narrow world of rikishi, increasing in numbers bit by bit. And on one fine day in January 1968, they reached Makuuchi. Since then, only two basho passed without at least one foreigner figuring on the banzuke of the Makuuchi division.

By the beginning of 2004, the foreigners have contributed so much to Sumo that they hold an important place in its present. Too important, say some, who think Sumo should remain Japanese. At the time when, for the second time in Sumo history, the one and only active Yokozuna is not a Japanese, let us review the successive waves of foreigners that visited the world of Sumo, each bringing with it both contributions and problems.

Takamiyama, the predecessor

The first foreign rikishi to reach the Makuuchi division was a Hawaiian, a colossus sporting a 205 kg on 1.92 m frame: Jesse Kuhaulua, better known under the shikona Takamiyama. Even when just taking into consideration his success while active (reaching the rank of Sekiwake and taking a yusho in the Aki basho 1972), he may be considered the one who paved the way.
But his importance can also be measured by the role he still plays: as Azumazeki oyakata, he recruited and shaped numerous foreigners, among them Akebono, the first foreigner to become a Yokozuna.

Konishiki (left), a young Hawaiian recruited by Takamiyama (right)

Takamiyama debuted in Sumo in March of 1964. In January 1968, after 22 basho, he made his Makuuchi debut. He achieved a fine kachi-koshi (9-6) while ranked at Maegashira 9, for which he was awarded the first of his five kanto-sho. Rapidly he settled at the top of the rankings where he would remain for over 10 years. 27 basho in Sanyaku, one yusho. When he retired in May 1984 after a catastrophic result of 2 victories and 13 defeats ranked at Juryo 12 which would have caused him to lose his Sekitori status, he was a great champion that quit the competition and became an Oyakata.

The 1980-1990 period: Hawaiian era

Takamiyama was the first of the Hawaiians, but certainly not the last. The imposing physique of Pacific Islanders supplied more than 30 rikishi in his wake. Not all had his success, but five of them managed to reach the Makuuchi division.
Barely four months after Takamiyama’s retirement, a new phenomenon stormed through the highest Sumo division: Konishiki. 275 kg at the height of his weight curve, he was a monster of power who needed only two years to climb that high after his debut in July of 1982. He imposed his massive oshi-Sumo and in May 1987 was promoted to Ozeki following an impressive series of five basho with over 10 victories. The years 1991 and 1992 certainly mark the apex of his career: he won two of his three yusho, and missed the promotion to Yokozuna by a hair.

If Konishiki was the first foreign Ozeki, it is another Hawaiian that had the honour of becoming the first foreign Yokozuna: Akebono (see MDS n°1 – December 2003). In 1993, as Konishiki went through his final basho as Ozeki, Akebono was accumulating his yusho. It is conceivable that he could have reached the records of the great Yokozuna. Unfortunately for him a new Yokozuna emerged, of the greatest sort: Takanohana. One can only wonder what Akebono’s career total would be like if Takanohana wasn’t there to bar his way…

Akebono finds himself at a turning point in the history of foreigners in Sumo. On the one hand, he seems to prove the success of foreigners in this sport, even representing Sumo to the eyes of the world during the opening ceremony of the Nagano Olympic Games in 1998. But on the other hand, these Hawaiians are intimidating. How can Japanese rikishi hope to rival these beings from another world that cheerfully surpass 200 kg limit?

In 1992, the heads of the Nihon Sumo Kyokai decided on a sudden turn: Oyakata were advised not to look for new foreign recruits. This brought on a sudden stop to the recruitment of foreigners, particularly Hawaiians (who were probably the main target of this measure). The consequence is visible today: after Musashimaru’s retirement last November, there is no Hawaiian left in professional Sumo.

Akebono, executing a yokozuna dohyo-iri during the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Nagano

1992-1998: the doors are closed, but the foreigners are still there

Still, the absence of recruiting doesn’t mean the absence of foreigners in Makuuchi. Talented wrestlers had managed to debut before the doors closed.

Thus Musashimaru became the third foreigner to be promoted to Ozeki, in January 1994. He will go on to become the second foreign Yokozuna. In 1997 there are four “Hawaiians” in Makuuchi: Akebono (Yokozuna), Musashimaru (ozeki), Konishiki (ex-ozeki) and Yamato.
Yamato is the last of the Hawaiians promoted to Makuuchi, and the one that had the least success, with only seven tournaments in the highest division.

3 young recruits : Kyokutenho, Kyokushuzan and Kyokutenzan

These years of scarcity witnessed the slow progress of future Makuuchi foreigners: Kyokushuzan arrived in Makuuchi in September of 1996, Kyokutenho in January of 1998. Sentoryu finally got there in July 2000, after 12 years of perseverance.

In any case, certain foreigners still managed to make their debut at this time, like the Brazilian Azumao in 1994.

In November 1997 Konishiki retired from the ring. Quite soon afterwards he quit the world of Sumo for that of show business.

1998-2002: “yes” to foreigners, but in limited numbers

If the goal of ruling instances of Sumo was to prevent the Hawaiians from invading it, it was fully accomplished in 1998. It was consequently possible to restart the recruitment of foreigners. But this time a clear rule concerning them is established. No more letting the situation get out of hand!

In 1998, the Nihon Sumo Kyokai amends their rules: a total of 40 foreign rikishi are allowed in the Sumo world. Those that have obtained Japanese nationality (as in the case of Akebono and Musashimaru, joined later by Hoshitango), and those who could boast more than 10 years of presence in Sumo (as is the case with Sentoryu) are excluded from that number.

After a period of blockade, the NSK now seemed to realize that the foreigners could contribute something to Sumo without distorting it. The excellent comportment of Akebono and Musashimaru probably had something to do with it. In spite of that, Hawaiians seem to be clearly excluded from the new recruiting…

This period marks the end of Akebono’s career, undermined by injuries, and the apex of Musashimaru’s. With 12 yusho in September 2002 he passed Akebono and became the foreigner with the most yusho titles to his name.

Since 1998: the Mongolian “boom”

This reopening of the gates to foreigners proved to be lucrative for one country in particular: Mongolia. A vast and scarcely populated land, Mongolia’s particularity is that it has a wrestling competition similar to Sumo, the Garuda. Lively, inventive, keen to train, the Mongolian wrestlers quickly imposed themselves as an indubitable value in Sumo.

The best among them so far joined Sumo in January 1999: Asashoryu. With record-breaking speed, the young wrestler born in 1980 soared up the ranks, sweeping aside all opposition, to earn his promotion to Ozeki in July 2002, and then to Yokozuna in January 2003. With his zenshoyusho this January 2004 he already has five titles to his name, and seems to be only at the start of a fantastic career.
And once again there are those who loudly criticise this recruitment of foreigners, regarding with regret the style of Kyokushuzan, which could be described as avoidance of combat, or the escapades of Asashoryu.

There are four Mongolians in Makuuchi now (Asashoryu, Asasekiryu, Kyokutenho, Kyokushuzan), and three more in Juryo (Hakuho, and after this Hatsu basho Ama and Tokitenku). Mongolia is thus the country with the largest number of Sekitori active at the same time (after Japan, of course). This country even has more Sekitori than any Japanese prefecture except one (Aomori)!

This prestige of Mongolia is one of the greatest features of this whole recruiting period, essentially based on Eastern Asia (Mongolia, China, Korea, Siberia).

Asashoryu, in times when he was still a young promising maegashira rikishi

The XXIst century and the arrival of Caucasians

An outstanding characteristic of current Sumo is the arrival of wrestlers born in the countries of the former “Eastern Block”. While other foreigners (Hawaiians, Mongols, etc.) resemble the Japanese in their general appearance, the arrival of wrestlers with Caucasian physique can’t help but arouse an instinctive first reaction of astonishment. But this is not a completely new phenomenon: there already have been some rare wrestlers with a Caucasian physique (for example the Argentinean Hoshitango), but none of them rose to Makuuchi.

It is above all their sporting past that makes these newcomers so interesting. In fact, these wrestlers in general have a past experience in wrestling (free-style or Greco-roman) or amateur Sumo. So they come with technical habits completely different from those in professional Sumo. When one observes Kokkai, the first among them to arrive in Makuuchi, one cannot avoid noticing his often very low position at the tachi-ai, which resembles that of a wrestler. In spite of this position, Kokkai is remarkably stable.
This wrestling past can also be a handicap. Kokkai has recently stated that he had to unlearn numerous bad habits, as the one of pulling his opponent to himself, a movement to be avoided in Sumo. Roho (still in juryo) seems to take better advantage of his wrestling experience.

The arrival of this new group of wrestlers is a remarkable feature of current-day Sumo. Not by their quantity: there are only eight at the moment (Kokkai in Makuuchi, Roho in Juryo, Kotooshu at the gates of Juryo, Hakurozan in Makushita, Takanoyama, Orora and Amuru in Sandanme, Kazafuzan in Jonokuchi), but by their quality: Kokkai managed a rare 14-1 in juryo in Kyushu basho 2003, Roho managed a doten-yusho in his first basho in juryo, Kotooshu, Takanoyama and Kazafuzan finished at 6-1 in their respective divisions.

The current situation... contrasting

Since 2002, the number of foreigners in Sumo has increased again. In fact this allowed new stars (Roho and Kotooshu for example) to enter Sumo. The explanation? Another change of rules: from then on the number of foreigners is not limited to 40 in total, but to one foreigner per heya. Heya that already have several foreigners have the right to keep them.

Theoretically, this meant that the number of foreigners could increase again, and this is what is happening now. On the other hand there are almost no heya left without foreigners. This is a good sign, because it shows that the oyakata have finally accepted the contribution these rikishi represent. But it also means that soon the doors could become very narrow, entries limited by the retirements of “old” foreigners, not that numerous themselves…

Are foreigners accepted in Sumo today? That is the impression one could get. Still, it must be noted that these rikishi have to adapt, accept the rules and customs of Japanese Sumo, or else leave. It is expected of them to become almost more Japanese than the Japanese themselves. They have problems digesting certain food? Too bad for them, they have to adapt. What is expected of them is to become like Hoshitango for example, who says he feels completely Japanese and that only his appearance isn’t.

The current core of young promising wrestlers is made up of foreigners. Will the top of the rankings be filled with foreigners one day? It is a possibility. But perhaps this influx of foreign stars will also manage to rekindle the callings in young Japanese that are lacking at the moment. One thing is certain: the foreigners bring much to Sumo. Will. Talent. And also diversity, from whirlwinding Kyokushuzan to the quality oshi-zumo of Kokkai. It is impossible not to notice that since Takamiyama’s Makuuchi debut the quality of the best foreigners keeps on improving. Whatever certain grumpy men may say, they are now an essential part of modern Sumo. The absence of Hawaiians is certainly regrettable, but who knows, maybe Musashimaru, now an oyakata, will be able to revive their recruiting?

These pages could be made thanks to, among other, information supplied by the web-site and by Moti Dichne. Without them, we couldn’t have found all the relevant data. Thank you!.

Download $titre n°$num to get more information on this subject:
the 13 foreign rikishi who reached makuuchi and their records.
(Understandable without speaking French)
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