Japanese Sumo: In Respect of Domination and Diversity

The 69th yokozuna of Japanese sumo stands 1.93 m (6’4”), tips the scales at almost 160kg and like the yokozunas just before and after him, he isn’t Japanese.

A native Mongolian, 29-year-old Hakuhō Shō in only one hanbasho (tournament) away from tying the record for most Emperor Cup victories in the history of modern sumo wrestling – an accomplishment that has left much of Japan buzzing with anticipation of the champion’s likely reign. 

In a country proud of their traditions and sumo wrestlers, Hakuhō has become the first foreign sumo to transcend ethnic boundaries and limitations, and in doing so has reignited the country’s passion for wrestling.

To understand sumo, you have to dismiss the idea that the sport is nothing more than a shoving match between overweight men. The size of the wrestlers contrasted with the unique, small ring makes accomplishing the ends seem simple to attain. 

They’re not. Simple outcomes can often require extraordinary means and nowhere is that more evident than in sumo wrestling.

Though sumo wrestlers are known to eat vast quantities of chankonabe – a large stew packed with calories – to put on weight, they also train with such regularity, intensity and technique that laymen observers would note that is rivals that of most Olympic-level wrestlers.

In late September Hakuhō invited United World Wrestling to visit his heyō (sumo stable) – in the eastern outskirts of Tokyo. The sumo champion has long sought the guidance of recently elected United World Wrestling bureau member Hideki Tomiyama. The two met when Hakuhō was in high school and first traveled to Japan to seek his dream of becoming a sumo. Hakuhō’s father, 1968 Olympic silver medalist Jigjidiin Mönkhbat, had asked Mr. Tomiyama, a 1984 Olympic champion and later coach with the Japanese Wrestling Federation, to keep an eye on his seen. Mr. Tomiyama accepted.

Hakuhō enters the Miyagino stable from a rear door, and like a great politician the massive wrestler seems to change the energy of the room. Workout partners whom a moment earlier stood idly around the dohyō, a circle made of rice-straw bales 4.55 meters in diameter now shuffle to their stations. Fans, the half-dozen or so fortunate enough to attend the practice, crane their heads from their cross-legged seated position on a stage overlooking the practice area.

It’s 10am and in less than six hours Hakuhō will be taking center stage at the Ryōgoku Kokugikan in Tokyo. But first, like wrestlers across the world and across a spectrum of styles, Hakuhō needs to sharpen his techniques for the night’s matchup and considers his opponent’s offensive maneuvers, initial attacks and most intelligent defenses.

Unlike most Olympic style wrestling tournaments, which take place over the course of one per weight class per day with as many as five matches, sumo wrestling consists of hanbasho’s, which are one match per wrestler per day for 15 days. At the end of those 15 days the wrestler with the most yushō’s (tournament wins) wins the Emperor’s Cup. If wrestlers are tied they hold an immediate playoff in order to crown a single champion.

Hakuhō has won 31 Emperor Cups, which is good enough for second all-time and one win outside the record of 32. He’s also done it while rewriting the record books – with 28 yushōs coming during his 42 appearance as a yokozuna. 

But none of those wins seem to matter to the champion, who finds a spot outside the ring and lays down his towel to stretch. He bends deep forward, opening up his groin and hamstrings. Next, he stands and performs several dozen shiko – the leg raising exercise where sumo wrestlers will balance on one leg while placing the other high in the air. That motion, and of opening up the legs in general is often mimicked by members of the Japanese freestyle wrestling team – an ode to the influence of the wrestling giants.

Hakuhō’s training concludes with some slapping of a teppo – a training pole utilized by sumo wrestlers to improve their open-hand slaps -- then follows up with an incredible and elaborate set of traditions, many influenced by the Japanese-formed religion of Shintoism. The champion takes water and wipes his face of sweat before re-entering the ring. Several tsukebito – lower ranked wrestlers who hold the various items needed to perform these ceremonial necessities -- attend to Hakuhō’s needs.

Then, with little stated outside of a head nod, Hakuhō returns to the ring and takes a starting position. His partners, a small but wildly muscular and athletic youth, take predetermined positions. Hakuhō places his clinched fists on the floor and explodes across the ring making contact with his opponent at full speed -- the only things stopping their drive to the Pacific Ocean being a wall and Hakuhō’s restraint.

The practice continues with more technical practice and several dozen more shikos. Finished for the day, Hakuhō lumbers over to Mr. Tomiyama for whom it’s apparent he keeps a deep respect. The two exchange cordialities before the champion makes his way through a few sponsors until he meets an 8-year-old boy wearing a tee shirt with an artistic impression of his image streaking across the boy’s chest. As the boy approaches Hakuhō he begins to weep and leans his ear into the wrestler’s belly.

Hakuhō rubs the boy’s head as the boy raises a small towel to wipe his eyes, now past puddling and into full emoji-like streams of saline. The towel, like his shirt, printed with the image of Hakuhō low in his stance and ready to attack.

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Hakuho began his life in Ulanbaatar, Mongolia as Mönkhbatyn Davaajargal. In addition to his father Mönkhbat’s success on the Olympic wrestling mats he also won the Mongolian National Naadam six times. The tournament, an annual traditional wrestling tournament dating back to the year 1206 gives men’s ranks similar to the system for sumo in Japan.

By winning more than five Naadams Mönkhbat had earned the highest honor in Mongolian wrestling known in English as the “Undefeatable Giant of the Land” a title, which roughly squares in significance to that of “yokozuna” in Japan. 

Despite his bloodline and father’s fame in Mongolia Davaajargal left home at age 15 and made his way to Tokyo to become a sumo. After bouncing around several weeks the then-slender Hakuhō made his way to the Miyagino stable. There, the young boy’s iridescent milky white skin and lineage lent itself to a descriptive and flattering shikona (Japanese stable name) of Hakuhō which literally means “White Peng” or “White Phoenix.” That name, though given to him more than 14 years ago, was meant to be reminiscent of Taihō, the most successful and beloved sumo wrestler of all time, his name meaning “Great Phoenix.”

The recent influence of Mongolians and foreigners in Japanese sumo has been made more evident to outsiders due to their wild successes, but the cross-cultural appeal of sumo has existed for decades.

Even Taihō the greatest sumo of all-time and largely considered Japanese was born to a Ukrainian father and a Japanese mother.

Still, it’s the modern era that is now being most closely associated with foreign wrestlers. The first of Japan’s megastar Mongolian sumo wrestlers was Asashōryū, the 68th grand yokozuna and the first-ever yokozuna from Mongolia. Previously, two Americans 64th Yokozuna Akebono Tarō, a 230kg wrestler from Hawaii, and 235kg Akebono Tarō from American Somoa had reached the sport’s top rank. 

Neither dominated the sport like Asashōryū or became as popular within their home countries.

Like many traditional wrestling forms around the world, Japanese sumo is closely tied to local culture and sumo takes great lengths to preserve Japanese traditionalism. Wrestlers are to only appear in public while wearing their kimonos, but also in a number of smaller in-the-ring gestures and a code of behavior far more stringent than any code of conduct of professional football or basketball leagues.

The Japanese-centric nature of the sport seems to keep the fans drawn tight to the sport and those who compete – regardless of ethnicity. Mongolians like Hakuhō and Asashōryū (despite setbacks) have shown a great appreciation for the importance of sumo in Japanese culture – a heavier burden since the sport is experiencing an 11-year drought of qualified yokozunas native to Japan. 

The last Japanese wrestler to reach the rank of yokozuna was Musashimaru Kōyō in 1998, who along with Takanohana Kōji were the last to hold the rank in 2003. Since Asashōryū was named a yokozuna each of the three subsequent yokozunas have been Mongolian. In order to help balance the distribution of Japanese and foreign wrestlers no stable can have more than one foreign-born wrestler.

Asashōryū, expressed his understanding of this delicate balance during a CNN interview in 2009,

“This is their sport and I think a Japanese sumo would build more interest in the sport in Japan,” said Asashōryū “Of course, I am Mongolian, but I know that I am a Japanese sumo.”

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On the seventh day of the Tokyo aki basho a new Mongolian looks poised to threaten Hakuhō’s record-seeking final years in the ring.

Ichinojō Takashi, born to nomadic Mongolian farmers as Altankhuyag Ichinnorow, takes the stage. His relative inexperience is evident only in his hair which still isn’t long enough to be wrapped back in the traditional chonmage. The 21-year-old wrestler’s rise to the rank of Sekiwake and the class of makuuchi – the best 42 wrestlers in sumo – has been among the fastest in the history of sumo. This basho is his first as makuuchi.

The fans anticipate Ichinojō’s youth and upon his arrival are breathless with excitement in watching him enter the ring against Ikioi Shōta, an attractive and modestly successful wrestler from Osaka. Kneeling in individual platform arrangements with four seat cushions to each stall, the fans begin snapping photos with cell phones and waving their programs in the air.

Women, some of whom are dressed in traditional tomesode outfits posture for a better look of the Mongolian challenger and Ikioi – one of Japan’s best hopes for making yokozuna, but who hasn’t passed the 11-win mark.

On their start, Ichinojō and Ikioji run full-speed into each other, an approach meant to gather steam and knock the opponent back, but soon their energies stall each other and their tie-up begins to resemble a mixture of judo and wrestling, with over under grips, lifts and pushes added. 

After more than a minute of high-drama the Gyōji (referee) steps in to wipe blood from Ikioji’s face and Ichinojō’s shoulder. The massive impact of their almost-500kg having landed in entirety on Ikioji’s nose.

On the restart the young Japanese wrestler finds an angle at the edge of the mat and whips Ichinojō to his chest. The win, a singularly entertaining 90-seconds, was as much a moment of victory for Japan’s hopes of sumo ascendency as it was for Ikioji the wrestler.

If only for an afternoon.

Ichinojō would finish his first tournament with a 13-2 record in the makuuchi class, including a win over yokozuna Kakuryū Rikisaburō the first victory of a debuting makuuchi over a yokozuna in 41 years. 

Ikioi would the finish the basho with a 10-5 record.

And yet all eyes of the capital city were waiting for Hakuhō. They wanted to see this buildup to history, record the names of massive bodies as they fell in front of the man who will almost certainly become the greatest sumo of all time.

The White Phoenix didn’t disappoint, dispatching of Toyonoshima by an oshidashi in less than ten seconds to win his seventh match of the basho and inch closer to his 31st Emperors Cup.

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Hakuhō would win his 31st Emperor’s Cup and send the Japanese and Mongolian press into a whirlwind of discussions about his legacy, and the possibly impact of newcomer Ichinojō. 

Today, Hakuhō’s place as one of the greatest of all-time seems inevitable, but in 2010 there was less certainty. However, one wrestler did predict Hakuhō’s destiny as the greatest sumo of all-time: Taihō.

“Hakuho is similar to me,” the ailing champion told the Asahi Shimbun two and a half years before his passing. “The number of his tournament wins will exceed mine.”

Though a straightforward recognition of an impending accomplishment, Taihō belied a deep respect for the Mongolian wrestler that transcended ethnicity and geographic borders. According to those around Taihō, the great champion admired the White Phoenix’s effort, skill and honor in the ring.

In passing in 2013, Taihō’s widow sent Hakuhō a gift from her late husband. It was Taihō’s favorite koshi-himo rope only worn during his most important bouts, undoubtedly including his record-setting 32nd Emperor’s Cup.

Hakuhō will wrestle for his 32nd Emperor's Cup November at the Kyūshū basho in Fukuoka.

Keep an eye out for his belt.

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