Ask most people in the west about sumo wrestling and they will probably know that it is Japan’s national sport, with the not-unreasonable assumption that sumo wrestlers are Japanese. However, the truth is somewhat different. In fact, for the last fifteen years or so, sumo champions have come mostly from Mongolia with a smattering of East Europeans thrown in.
The current list of top division wrestlers, or rikishi, includes eight Mongolians, two from Georgia, and one each from Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Egypt, and Russia, along with twenty-seven Japanese. There is even a Canadian lad working his way up through the lower ranks.
Foreigners wishing to pursue a career in sumo are required to adopt a very traditional Japanese lifestyle and speak only Japanese. This imposes a huge intellectual and cultural burden; and yet many of them thrive. So much so that there has been NO Japanese champion for the last sixty tournaments — a ten-year drought. That all ended last night.
Kotoshogiku, a Japanese veteran who has held the second-highest ranking of ozeki for the last 26 tournaments, finally prevailed with a 14-1 record at the January basho, sending the millions of Japanese fans into paroxysms of joy. The news made the front pages of major newspapers and this morning was the lead story on news broadcasts.
Even though Kotoshogiku is not one of the rikishi that I cheer for, I am delighted that a Japanese has finally won. The sport has regained its mass popularity after recovering from the betting and match-fixing scandals of a decade ago, and each day of each basho is regularly sold out. A Japanese champion is a worthy repayment for the fans’ renewed support.