After years of injuries, the two behemoths Hakuho and Terunofuji both went 14-0 in the July 2021 Nagoya Grand Sumo Wrestling Tournament. The two are both undefeated and multi-time tournament champions, they would face each other in this tournament final. At age 36, after an exciting and quick final match, the Yokozuna Hakuho was able to defeat the younger Terunofuji. Both top sumo wrestlers competing in the final were born in Mongolia. For the past 20 years, the ancient Japanese martial art of sumo wrestling has been dominated by Mongolians.
Sumo wrestling has existed in Japan on record since 712 AD. There are legends and stories of ancient Japanese Shinto Gods engaging in Sumo wrestling. Sumo wrestling techniques would also lead to the development of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and therefore the UFC. Sumo Wrestling holds a place of nearly sacred tradition and was closed to foreigners for most of history. So why has Japan struggled for the past few decades?
Yokozuna Hakuho defeats Terunofuji
The Mongolian sumo wrestler Hakuho, with his most recent tournament victory, now holds the record for most career championships at an amazing 45. Sumo wrestling hosts six grand tournaments (Honbasho) per year. Hakuho recently had to withdrawal from the six previous tournaments due to injury.
“Before the tournament, I never expected to win the championship with a record of no defeats at this age. I’m just relieved.” Hakuho said as he was receiving the Emperor’s Cup, “But with this victory, I am feeling I can fight again.” Hakuho (Height: 192 cm/6’4″, Weight 158 kg/348 lb) finished July’s Honbasho going 15-0.
In that time, the younger Terunofuji would begin to win more tournaments and nearly get a promotion to Yokozuna. Yokozuna is the highest rank a sumo wrestler can achieve. Terunofuji had won a tournament in 2015, but due to injuries would see a series of losses and be demoted to a lower division. Impressively, Terunofuji would make a huge comeback and win three more tournaments, two being in a row. If Terunofuji had remained undefeated and won this fifth tournament over Hakuho, Terunofuji would be nearly guaranteed to become a Yokozuna.
“The reason I lost was that I was not good enough,” Terunofuji (H: 192 cm/6’4″, W: 177 kg/390 lb), the runner-up, continued. “I did all I could. Going forward I want to get better.”
There are many benefits and prestige with becoming a Yokozuna, and it is not an easy task. Currently, in sumo wrestling, there is only one active Yokozuna, and that is Mongolia’s Hakuho. And since 1998 there has only been one Yokozuna who was from Japan.
Japan in Sumo Wrestling
From 2007 to 2015, a competitor from Japan did not win a single sumo wrestling tournament. In that time, there would have been 48 tournaments and nearly all the winners were from Mongolia, with some exceptions to other nations, but none from Japan.
And since 2015 the numbers have begun to improve slightly for Japan. The year 2016 would see Japanese competitors take two tournament victories. And since 2016 to today, there have been 33 tournaments and Japanese competitors have been able to capture 13 victories. However, only one Japanese sumo would be able to get a promotion to Yokozuna.
Kisenosato, a sumo wrestler from Japan, would be able to win two grand tournaments and gain the title Yokozuna. And Kisenosato (H: 188 cm/ 6’2″, W: 177 kg/390 lb) would be the first Japanese-born Yokozuna since 1998. But why such domination from Mongolian competitors in such a prestigious and traditional Japanese sport?
Seeking Rikishis Elsewhere
During the 1970’s and 1980’s, attendance of younger people entering sumo wrestling schools began to fall. Sumo wrestlers live a grueling and hard lifestyle. “A sumo trainee enters a training school, called a stable, as a teenager, living under strict discipline, a harsh schedule of waking, cleaning, cooking, serving, training, eating, and sleeping, where his every moment is controlled by his stable master and the senior wrestlers.” The Diplomat’s Antonio Graceffo wrote in 2020.
And during that same period, the 70’s and 80’s, Japan started to become much wealthier as a nation, and its lowest standard of living became much higher. Opportunities for young people to work in other areas became more viable. “The explanation is largely economic,” The Wall Street Journal wrote in 2016, “By Japanese standards, sumo wrestling isn’t a terribly attractive career path.”
And because of this shift in society, the grueling lifestyle became less appealing, and sumo wrestling recruitment began to look elsewhere.
Sumo recruitment drives began in Hawaii and Samoa. Later these drives would show huge success as Hawaiian Akebono Taro and Samoan Musashimaru Koyo would both reach Yokozuna status in the 1990s. Readers will be familiar with Akebono as he would cross over to K-1 and MMA in the early 2000s. Akebono stands at 203 cm/6’8″ and 233 kg/514 lb and would win 11 championships. Musashimaru stands at 192 cm/6’3″ and 235 kg/518 lb and would win 12 championships.
Akebono told The New York Times in 2013 that sumo was never nationalistic. “When I was wrestling I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m an American, I’m going to go out there, plant my flag in the middle of the ring and take on the Japanese.” The Hawaiian said he was a sumo wrestler first.
Mongolia Dominates Sumo Wrestling
How does a country of merely 3 million people come to dominate a foreign sport? The year 1992 was the first time sumo had looked for recruits in Mongolia. In this country, every boy, starting at age 5, must participate in the Mongolian wrestling style known as Bökh. Mongolian wrestling engages in standing shoving and pulling to try to get the opponent to touch the ground with anything but their foot, to gain victory.
Forty percent of the Mongolian population are still nomadic herders. At age 3, boys are already riding horses, at age 5 they’re wrestling. “Herding and caring for their animals often means wrestling them or carrying them. This physical labor, combined with a Mongolian diet of mostly milk and meat, gives the boys a tremendous edge in wrestling.” The Diplomat writes.
The average wage for a Mongolian is $383 USD a month. Whereas opportunity as a sumo wrestler can earn a person much more, even with the grueling lifestyle. Depending on one’s rank in sumo, a wrestler can earn anywhere from $9,500 USD to $26,500 USD per month and can earn more in tournaments. Sumo wrestling has become a tremendous opportunity for young Mongolian men.
“Most of the guys who come to Japan to take up sumo come from poor families,” Hiroshi Morita, sumo wrestling announcer, said. “So they have a big hungry spirit to succeed and support the family back home.”
To add, it’s not just the pay, but also prestige. A Mongolian sumo wrestling champion can become a national icon. “Sumo retirees who have returned to Mongolia rank among the wealthiest and most successful of the nation’s 3 million citizens.” The Wall Street Journal writes, “They have become business moguls, real-estate developers, and members of parliament.”
Japan’s View of Mongolian Champions
Japan’s ancient sport has now been dominated by foreign champions for decades, and how do the Japanese people view these champions? To gain a perspective, I asked some of the leading media members, and fans, in the sumo wrestling community.
Sumo Soul 相撲魂 responded saying, “I think the idea that many have that Japanese are against non-Japanese wrestlers or yokozuna/grand champions, whether Mongolian or not, is overblown. The average Japanese sumo fan has no real problem with a foreign yokozuna, but it is only natural that they also want to see a Japanese wrestlers ascend to this level as it is a sport that has existed in Japan for over a thousand years.”
Ichiro_SUMO 佐々木一郎 responded saying, “Enthusiastic sumo fans are accepting Mongolian wrestlers. Because they practice very well and speak Japanese. We cannot enjoy Sumo without them. Of course we Japanese want Japanese wrestlers to be strong, too.”
SumoFollower ヘルット responded saying, “Japanese sumo fans have varying views on foreigners in sumo, ranging from “give us back our National Sport” to ‘Mongolians are great, the more the better’. I think most are somewhere in the middle, and love seeing a rikishi from their home prefecture, but appreciate good professionals when they see them.”
A sport in which has ancient and traditional Japanese roots has been taken over largely by foreign champions, and the fans accept them. The sport continues and remains strong. When recruitment was falling within the country, there were participants to fill the gap and continue the Japanese tradition even if they were from Samoa, Hawaii, or Mongolia. Foreign competitors show much respect to the roots. Sumo traditions that link back to Shinto are still observed by all competitors regardless of where they come from.
Sumo, like all martial arts, demands respect and honor from its competitors. This philosophy remains a constant. Sumo is able to continue due to its foreign competitors who practice and respect the honor and tradition of this sport.
Relevant Sumo Wrestling Terms
Rikishi (力士): The most common term for a professional sumo wrestler.
Yokozuna (横綱): The top rank in sumo, usually translated Grand Champion.
Honbasho (本場所): A professional sumo tournament, held six times a year since 1958, where the results affect the wrestlers’ rankings.
Ozeki (大関): The second-highest rank of sumo wrestlers.
Makuuchi (幕内): The top division in sumo.
Jūryō (十両): The second-highest division of sumo wrestlers.
Sanshō (三賞): Three prizes. Special prizes awarded to makuuchi wrestlers for exceptional performance.
Shishō (師匠): A sumo elder in charge of a sumo stable.
Heya (部屋): Stable. The establishment where a wrestler trains, and also lives while he is in the lower divisions.
Zenshō (全勝): A perfect tournament where the wrestler finishes 15–0.
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