On Wednesday afternoon, the Nippon.com office was visited by a sandstorm—a 1.89 meter tall, 146 kilogram sandstorm resplendent in a warm winter kimono, his slicked-back hair fragrant with binzuke abura pomade. We were honored to have Ōsunaarashi (“The Great Sandstorm”), Egypt’s first professional sumō wrestler, stop by the office for a quick visit on his way to a dinner appointment downtown.
We’ve profiled Ōsunaarashi a couple of times since he began his career as the first African-born sumō wrestler to make the big time in Japan. He made his debut at the Osaka basho in March 2012. Since then he has gone from strength to strength, blasting his way up the banzuke rankings to join the elite of the makuuchi after just 10 tournaments.
This was the second fastest promotion to the top rank ever—and the fastest ever by a non-Japanese wrestler, including the great Mongolians who have dominated the sport in recent years. He is now one of the top-ranked wrestlers in the country.
A quick before-and-after comparison shows the effects of two years of the sumō diet. Generous helpings of chanko nabe hotpot and an unforgiving training regimen can do wonders for a man’s physique!
With the promotions come perks—a salary for a start, beginning with the jūryō ranking (ten ryō being the salary paid to wrestlers at this level back in the Edo period). When we first met him, Ōsunaarashi had yet to earn the right to tie his hair back in the distinctive sumō hairstyle, permitted only to wrestlers from the jūryō rank and up.
Perhaps the most significant privileges at this time of year are those relating to clothing: Ōsunaarashi arrived at the office this week wrapped in a thick winter coat, with warm tabi socks and setta (comfortable sandals made from tatami-like woven straw) on his feet. These are all luxuries forbidden to lower-ranking wrestlers, who have to get by in a woolen yukata and go barefoot in wooden geta clogs throughout the winter months.
At the January hatsu basho tournament that ended in Tokyo last week, Ōsunaarashi achieved kachi-koshi (a winning record) in only his second tournament at the top level, chalking up an impressive 9 wins against 6 losses. Among the wrestlers he defeated along the way was Endō, the young Japanese wrestler being widely hyped as Japan’s next great hope. (No Japanese wrestler has won a major tournament since Tochiazuma took the hatsu basho in January 2006.)
After he had finished posing for pictures and signing autographs, we caught up with Ōsunaarashi and spoke to him briefly about his meteoric rise to the upper levels of the sumō pyramid.
Big nerves before his first basho at makuuchi level
“My first tournament in the makuuchi was the Kyūshū basho last November. In the lead-up to the basho I was more nervous than I’ve ever felt before. My mental state wasn’t good. I couldn’t get into my usual frame of mind. I felt I was going to lose before the bouts even started. Everyone I met was asking me, “How’s life at the top?” But deep inside, I knew that my sumō wasn’t really at the makuuchi level yet. When the tournament started, I only won one out of my first five bouts, and I ended the tournament with a losing record—the first time that had ever happened to me.
“So at this recent tournament I made a real effort not to overcomplicate things. I tried not to think too much about the ranking of the wrestlers I was up against, or how I was going to take them on. I tried to relax and enjoy myself again by fighting with my own natural style of sumō. I was really pleased that I managed to get kachi-koshi and finish the tournament with a winning record.”
Rivalry with other wrestlers
“There’s been a lot of hype about Endō and me, and the media have tried to paint us as big rivals. But I’ve never regarded him as a rival. For me, all the wrestlers are the same. My only rival is my own self.”
The pressures of fame
“Since I reached the sekitori rank, I’ve become a well-known figure. I get recognized wherever I go now. It’s a big responsibility. And sometimes it feels like a bit of a restriction as well, I guess.”
Support from home
“My family back home in Egypt have all become total sumō fanatics. At first they didn’t even know the rules. If I lost they didn’t really understand why. But they’re all experts now! They’re all really enthusiastic about what I’m doing, and it’s been great for me to have that support.
“They understand much better now what’s going on. And the same goes for me—I’m still learning too. I’m getting there, step by step!”
We wish Ōsunaarashi all the best as he continues his record-breaking climb up the banzuke rankings.
Translator and editor, Nippon.com. First came to Japan in the late 1980s and has been a regular visitor ever since. After studying Japanese language and literature in England and the United States, joined Japan Echo Inc. in 2009. Has translated novels by Kitakata Kenzō, Hosaka Kazushi, and Seirai Yūichi. In his spare time, he enjoys running, reading, and exploring Tokyo’s izakaya, though not all at the same time.