Hakuhō Rewrites Record Books as Foreign Wrestlers Tighten Grip on Sumō World

Society Culture

With victory at the New Year Tournament in January 2015, Hakuhō reached a total of 33 career sumō championships to take sole possession of the all-time record for tournament wins. The Mongolian wrestler moved ahead of the great yokozuna Taihō, who secured his thirty-second and final championship in 1971. A full house of spectators at the Ryōgoku Sumō Hall in Tokyo greeted Hakuhō’s accomplishment with thunderous applause.

Holding the trophy in his hands, Hakuhō showed his respect for Taihō, who passed away in 2013, saying, “Numerically I have overtaken him, but spiritually he is still ahead.” A tribute to his Japanese wife for her strong support brought further cheers from the crowd.  Among the audience were Hakuhō’s parents, who had traveled from Mongolia to watch him compete.

Wrestlers with Most Championship Wins

  Total Age at final championship
Hakuhō * 33 29
Taihō 32 30
Chiyonofuji 31 35
Asashōryū 25 29
Kitanoumi 24 31
Takanohana 22 28

* Still active, age as of January 2015

Game of Rivals

Sumō has a long history, with origins in ceremonial bouts held at shrines in Edo (now Tokyo) in the late 1600s. The modern sport is administered by the Japan Sumō Association under the jurisdiction of the ministry of sports.

Different eras are associated with the rivalries between the top rikishi of the time. Tochinishiki and Wakanohana I battled for supremacy from the late 1950s, while the 1960s is looked back on as the time of Taihō and Kashiwado. As sumō’s domestic popularity rose, a 1964 tour brought the sport to Hawaii, where the first foreign-born wrestler of the postwar era was scouted. Jesse James Wailani Kuhaulua rose to the third-highest rank of sekiwake under the name Takamiyama. Then in the 1990s the success of the brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana led to a new sumō boom.

Sumō fans are entranced by the furious tussling of two well-matched wrestlers. Due to a chronic lack of new apprentices, however, Japanese wrestlers are no longer rising through the ranks. Fewer young Japanese people have the burning ambition required to set their sights on sumō success. Instead, more and more foreign wrestlers are entering the sport, and it has reached the stage where the loss of the individualistic foreign rikishi would take away half of sumō’s appeal.

Makuuchi (Top Division) Foreign-Born Wrestlers (As of January 2015)

  Rank Country Stable
Hakuhō (29) Yokozuna Mongolia Miyagino
Kakuryū (29) Yokozuna Mongolia Izutsu
Harumafuji (30) Yokozuna Mongolia Isegahama
Aoiyama (28) Sekiwake Bulgaria Kasugano
Ichinojō (21) Sekiwake Mongolia Minato
Tochinoshin (27) Maegashira 1 Georgia Kasugano
Terunofuji (23) Maegashira 2 Mongolia Isegahama
Kaisei (28) Maegashira 5 Brazil Tomozuna
Kyokutenhō (40) Maegashira 7 Mongolia Tomozuna
Tamawashi (30) Maegashira 9 Mongolia Kataonami
Sōkokurai (31) Maegashira 10 China Arashio
Kyokushūhō (26) Maegashira 12 Mongolia Tomozuna
Arawashi (28) Maegashira 12 Mongolia Minezaki
Ōsunaarashi (22) Maegashira 13 Egypt Ōtake
Tokitenkū (35) Maegashira 13 Mongolia Tokitsukaze
Kagamiō (26) Maegashira 15 Mongolia Kagamiyama

Age given in parentheses

Sumō’s International Contingent

More than a third of the 42 wrestlers in the highest makuuchi division are foreign-born, with a total of 16 rikishi originally from outside of Japan at the time of the New Year Tournament in January 2015. All three of the top-ranked yokozuna—Hakuhō, Kakuryū, and Harumafuji—are from Mongolia. And while the three ōzeki are Japanese, Aoiyama (from Bulgaria) and Ichinojō (from Mongolia) have their sights set on promotion from sekiwake into the second-highest rank. Lower down, among the maegashira, there are wrestlers from Georgia, Brazil, China, and Egypt.

Since 1945 there have been 158 foreign wrestlers from 14 countries, according to data from the Japan Sumō Association (as of May 2014). Mongolia has had most rikishi with 55, followed by the United States with 31, Brazil with 16, and China and South Korea with 12 each. Other countries represented are Tonga with 8 wrestlers, Russia with 6, Georgia and the Philippines with 4 each, and Argentina, Britain, Bulgaria, Estonia, and Samoa with 2 each.

Sumō’s Global Potential

Barriers have been raised to slow the inrush of competitors from overseas. An overall limit of 40 foreign wrestlers was abolished in 2002, but at the same time the number allowed per stable was reduced from two to one. In February 2010 the rules were tightened further so each stable could only have one foreign-born wrestler, even if he had become a naturalized Japanese citizen. However, new rules have not forced stables to reduce numbers if they exceeded limits at the time they were set.

Some have complained that many spectators do not want to watch sumō because foreign rikishi are too dominant, and there have even been suggestions of banning them altogether. Comparisons have also been made to the “Wimbledon effect” in British tennis, whereby opening up competition to international athletes has led to a decline in domestic talent. But the sight of wrestlers from all over the world stepping into the ring has certainly done no harm to sumō’s global reputation. Carpers should look to jūdō’s expansion into a world sport, which has made it a fixture in the Summer Olympics.

This is an era of globalization. International athletes in the Japanese sports world are making great contributions to society, and sumō is no exception. Moreover, if the sport can draw overseas tourists to the great spectacles of tournaments in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka, this will increase their understanding of sumō as well as traditional Japanese culture. The appeal of sumō is an important factor in Japan’s goal of becoming a major tourist destination.

Waiting for a Challenger

Hakuhō will turn 30 in March, and there is every reason to believe he will extend his record further. With the wrestler so dominant, the Asahi Shimbun reports him as saying while he was changing for the victory parade, “Sumō is impossible with just one person. Strong wrestlers and rivals make it what it is . . . .” As fans wait eagerly for a wrestler who can test the now matchless yokozuna, it seems even Hakuhō is looking forward to such a challenge.

(Originally written in Japanese by Harada Kazuyoshi of the Nippon.com editorial department and published on February 3, 2015. Banner photo: Hakuhō (right) pulls down Aminishiki to win the bout on the eighth day of the New Year Tournament at the Ryōgoku Sumō Hall in Tokyo on January 18, 2015. © Jiji.)

Mongolia sports sumō Hakuho