Dawning of a Sumō Success Story: Reflections on the Sport’s Pioneering Group of Mongolian WrestlersSports
The retirement of sumō grand champion Hakuhō in September 2021 felt like the end of an era. The Mongolia-born yokozuna had been an indomitable force in the sport for over a decade, rewriting the record books with an astounding 45 titles and long list of other accomplishments.
His retirement ceremony at the Ryōgoku Kokugikan Hall, the site of many of his triumphs, on January 28 this year was a suitably spectacular affair attended by notable names in politics, business, and entertainment, and featuring a performance by acclaimed kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjūrō XIII. “It’s like I’ve lost a part of myself,” Hakuhō said through tears, describing his former stablemaster Miyagino snipping the last strands of his topknot, formally marking his transition from rikishi to coach. Looking on, I found myself caught up in the emotion.
The last twenty plus years have been an age of Mongolian dominance in sumō, led by grand champions Asashōryū and Hakuhō. Starting with the former’s inaugural title at the 2002 Kyūshū Tournament, eight Mongolian rikishi have claimed a total of 96 championships—an astounding 80% of all tourneys. There is no telling if the country will produce another yokozuna of the caliber of Asashōryū or Hakuhō. But looking at the rankings of the spring tournament, there were 8 Mongolian rikishi among the 40 wrestlers competing in the top makuuchi division. Among these were grand champion Terunofuji and sekiwake Hōshōryū and Kiribayama, whose promotions to the second-highest rank of ōzeki are just a matter of time.
Thinking back to March 1992, I cannot help but imagine how the sumō landscape would look very different today if not for a pioneering group of Mongolian prospects. Their enchanting story, including a daring escape from their stable, planted the seeds for the later wave of Mongolian rikishi.
Pride of a Nation
Sumō’s spring tournament, held each March in Osaka, serves as a testing ground for aspiring rikishi. In 1992, the tourney drew 160 prospects, ranging in age from junior high students to recent college graduates. Among the record 151 candidates who succeeded in their bid for a spot in a sumō stable were six youths from Mongolia.
At the time, a great rivalry was emerging involving Hawaiian-born wrestlers Konishiki, Akebono, and Musashimaru and the Japanese brothers Wakanohana and Takanohana that would dominate sumō into the early 2000s. Takanohana, who like most in the group would rise to yokozuna, was coming off his first championship at the New Year tournament that saw him at 19 years and 5 months become the youngest title winner ever.
Meanwhile, Mongolia was starting to emerge from the shadow of the crumbling Soviet Union. It had undergone a peaceful democratic revolution in 1990, with the government officially dropping “People’s Republic” from the country’s name two years later. Around this time, Ueda Takumi, a member of the Japan Socialist Party (now called the Social Democratic Party) serving in the lower house of the Diet, began laying the groundwork for Mongolian wrestlers to come to Japan. The impetus for this came during a trip to Mongolia in 1991 when members of an association promoting traditional Mongolian wrestling approached Ueda with the idea.
The Mongolian wrestling tradition runs long and deep, being revered alongside archery and horse riding as one of the three “manly sports” practiced since ancient times by nomadic herders. Confident that Mongolian wrestlers could bolster the competitive level of sumō, Ueda in February 1992 invited former ōzeki Asahikuni, head of the Ōshima stable, on a scouting trip to Ulaanbaatar.
During the visit, Asahikuni sent out a general call for wrestlers, placing ads on television, radio, and in newspapers. Mongolia is a haven for wrestling, and to avoid drawing established names, he set the age limit at 18 years old in hopes of attracting up-and-coming talent.
The campaign was a success, drawing over 150 contenders. Asahikuni organized a tournament to winnow down the group, eventually selecting six finalists to join the Ōshima stable. Known in Japan by their shikona (ring names), they were Kyokushūzan, Kyokutenhō, Kyokuranzan (later Kyokutenzan), Asahitaka, Kyokusetsuzan, and Kyokujishi.
I interviewed the sextet shortly after their arrival in Japan. Things did not go as I hoped, though, as I struggled to comprehend the Japanese of the Mongol interpreter hired for the interview. I still remember the looks of concern from the six wrestlers as they watched me go around and around with the interpreter trying to make sense of their answers. I wrote my article as best I could, but it turned out that things were not as rosy as appeared.
In August 1992, less than half a year after landing in Japan, all but Kyokutenzan snuck out of their stable at night and fled to the Mongolian embassy in Tokyo’s Shibuya, where they requested to be sent home. Asahikuni and his wife rushed to the embassy, but only succeeded in persuading Kyokushūzan and Asahitaka to stay in Japan. The remaining three, Kyokutenhō, Kyokujishi, and Kyokusetsuzan, returned to Mongolia.
Shortly after the incident, Asahikuni flew to Ulaanbaatar in the hope of convincing the trio to give sumō another try. He managed to win Kyokutenhō to his side, but the two other wrestlers remained. The group, now down to four, soon suffered the departure of Asahitaka, who struggling with injuries and the strictures of life as a rikishi threw in the towel and headed home in September 1993. The remaining three rikishi—Kyokushūzan, Kyokutenhō, and Kyokutenzan—would go on to make names for themselves in the ring.
The affair was not the first involving groups of foreign-born wrestlers. In 1976, six Tongans were forced to quit after they refused to support the new head of their stable following the death of the stable master who had recruited them. In response to the tumult over the Mongolian wrestlers, the Japan Sumō Association, the sport’s governing body, barred stables from accepting foreign wrestlers. The JSA eventually lifted the moratorium in 1998, but continues to enforce a limit of one foreign-born rikishi per stable.
Following my first disastrous interview with the Mongolian wrestlers, I remained eager to know what was going through their minds in those early days. I eventually sat down again with Kyokushūzan and Kyokutenhō to ask about their early impressions of Japan. They had both broken into sumō’s upper divisions by that time and were able to look back in warm retrospect. Below is an excerpt from my notes.
Kyokushūzan Mongolia was still a socialist country at the time and I grew up hearing that the Soviet Union and North Korea were the good guys and that Japan, South Korea, and the United States were not to be trusted. My school teacher also taught us that Japan still had ninja and samurai walking around. [Laughs]
Kyokutenhō Capitalism had just started to make inroads in Mongolia, and I remember watching a television program on Japan that showed streets aglow with neon lights. This really impressed me, and I couldn’t wait to see it for myself. When I arrived in the country, though, I was disappointed to discover that the area around the stable looked nothing like what I imagined. [Laughs] It took a visit to Shinjuku and Shibuya to convince me that the TV program hadn’t been making things up.
Kyokushūzan What impressed me when we first landed were all the cars and high-rise buildings. I marveled at how far ahead Japan was compared to Mongolia. In contrast, at training the next day, we found ourselves surrounded by guys with topknots who were covered from head to toe in sand from practicing. The difference between these two images was jarring.
Culture shock also manifested itself at mealtimes and when confronted by unfamiliar technology.
Kyokutenhō In Mongolia, we usually eat rice mixed with other ingredients in a stir fry or gruel, not plain as in Japan. At first, my stomach did somersaults at the thought of eating a bowl of bland white rice.
Kyokushūzan Disposable chopsticks were completely new to me. I didn’t even know you were supposed to break them apart. Once when the stable master took the six of us out to eat, I looked on in horror as Kyokutenzan separated his chopsticks with a snap. I really thought he was in for it. I didn’t want to suffer the same fate, so I used my hands to awkwardly open the ends of the chopsticks and grab my food, being careful not to break the two sides apart. [Laughs] Getting used to eating fish was another hurdle, since in Mongolia they’re considered sacred.
Kyokutenhō When I started out, I got hooked on cola, which is rare in Mongolia. There was a vending machine next to the stable that I visited nearly every day to get my fix. I pumped a heap of coins into that machine. [Laughs]
Kyokushūzan You know how some vending machines talk, right? It being Japan, I was convinced that they were robots. I went up to one once and asked it to give me a can of juice. I felt like a fool when it didn’t respond. [Laughs]
Kyokutenhō I couldn’t believe that a vending machine could talk either. I snuck around the back of one to see if someone was hiding inside. [Laughs]
There are certainly many expats in Japan who can relate to such tales, but these humorous recollections only hint at what the six Mongolian wrestlers actually contended with. Along with rising at the crack of dawn to take part in rigorous morning training sessions, they had to quickly learn how to navigate the strict hierarchy and peculiar customs of sumō, tasks made all the more difficult by the language barrier.
Add to this to the limited ambitions of the group, which lay more with experiencing Japanese culture and seeing the sights than making it as rikishi, and there is little wonder that the Mongolian wrestlers decided to jump ship. As Kyokushūzan describes it: “I wasn’t looking to make a living from sumō. I wanted to learn what I could and then head home after three years.” Kyokutenhō echoes this, saying, “At just 85 kilograms, I knew I couldn’t compete against wrestlers in the higher ranks, most of whom weighed in at over 100 kilograms. We’d visited the three big cities of Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya for tournaments, and our stable master had even taken us to Disneyland once. We’d seen all we wanted to, so after talking it over, we decided to make a break for it.”
The world of sumō would look very different today if Kyokushūzan and Kyokutenhō had not made their mark on the sport. Asahikuni professed to seeing glimmers of the great yokozuna Taihō in Kyokutenhō, which is likely why he was reluctant to let him and his other charges remain in Mongolia. “When I initially tried out, I didn’t have any experience with Mongolian wrestling and ended up losing my test bout,” explains Kyokutenhō. “[Asahikuni] called me back anyway and gave me a second chance. Even after we’d ran away, he pleaded with me to give sumō another try, telling me that I had the potential to be a top rikishi.” Asahikuni in his determination helped to usher in a new era in the sport.
Typically, when a rikishi flees from his stable, there is no going back. Previous connections are severed, and any attempts to reconnect are met with cold indifference. The Mongolian wrestlers, however, managed to avoid this fate by throwing themselves into training, gradually rebuilding lost trust as they worked their ways up the rankings.
Kyokutenzan made it as far as the upper makushita division, but Kyokushūzan and Kyokutenhō broke into the top-flight makuuchi, where their popularity soared. Kyokushūzan in particular thrilled fans with his broad repertoire of kimarite, match-winning moves, earning him comparison to Mainoumi, a contemporary who was considered one of the best technical wrestlers of the day.
He also gained a reputation as a workhorse—when on regional sumō tours, he was known to put in over 50 bouts of grueling butsukari-geiko at training sessions open to the public. One senior wrestler put it this way: “He could go bout after bout and it never seemed to faze him.” Some stable masters, however, point out that despite his training and technical prowess, Kyokushūzan only managed to rise as high as komusubi, sumō’s fourth highest rank, arguing that he could have made ōzeki, the second highest rank, if he had focused on being more aggressive in bouts.
Kyokushūzan pursued interests outside of sumō, including enrolling in a correspondence course through Waseda University’s School of Human Sciences. After retiring in 2006, he returned to Mongolia, becoming an entrepreneur with companies in fields like construction and trade, and even served for a time in the Mongolian parliament.
Kyokutenhō surpassed Kyokushūzan to reach the third highest rank of sekiwake and enjoyed a long, successful career, including winning the 2012 summer tournament at the venerable age of 37 years and 8 months old, which was a record at the time. After retiring at 40, he took Japanese citizenship and now heads the Ōshima stable.
Dreams of Japan
The success of the two Mongolian rikishi made them celebrities in their home country. Both became regular fixtures on television, with their lives and exploits in the ring being widely covered in the media. In particular, their achievements showed that unimaginable financial gains await those willing and able to endure the strictures of sumō and rise to the top. As an illustration, Kyokushūzan while in the lower ranks sent home some of his meager earnings, a paltry amount in Japan but large by Mongolian standards, so much so that his parents were suspicious as to the money’s origins. Once in the makuuchi division, though, he wasted no time in purchasing a sprawling residential plot for his family.
As role models, the pair inspired hundreds of their young countrymen to chase their “sumō dream.” These young wrestlers stepped into a void caused by the steady decline of new Japanese recruits, initiating a period dominated by the likes of grand champions Asashōryū and Hakuhō.
Kyokushūzan and Kyokutenhō are pioneers in a sporting success story. Their achievements continue to reverberate in their homeland and in the world of sumō.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: The six pioneering Mongolian wrestlers during the physical entrance exam ahead of the 1992 spring tournament. At the far left are Kyokutenhō and Kyokushūzan. © Kyōdō.)