Sumo offers stable life to man from Mongolia


Kyodo News

News photo
Sumo wrestler Kyokutenho, 32, and his bride, Keiko, 33, pose for a picture after their wedding Feb. 17 at a Tokyo hotel. KYODO PHOTO
Standing 191 cm tall and weighing 154 kg, Mongolian sumo wrestler Kyokutenho currently holds the rank of maegashira in the makuuchi division of pro sumo. Back in 1992 he was just one of six Mongolian youths recruited by sumo stable master Oshima, 60, whose real name is Takeo Ota, from some 200 applicants."High-rise buildings and glittering neon billboards — none of this was found in Mongolia. To tell the truth, becoming a sumo wrestler was a trivial matter. I simply wanted to make a trip to Japan," he recalls.But his love for his new surroundings soon turned to despair. The wrestlers at the Oshima stable in Tokyo's Ryogoku district grappled in the dohyo ring for four hours before dawn."Whispering to each other was banned and each – dashed himself against the other without a word. The hierarchy was too severe. I hit out against a younger wrestler, who made much of his seniority only because of his advanced initiation,” Kyokutenho said.

The communal living with some 25 Japanese wrestlers, and the sumo wrestler’s stew, with unpalatable fish and vegetables, frustrated him and his Mongolian colleagues.

Yoshiko Ota, 52, the stable master’s wife, said, “The Japanese wrestlers were also frustrated by the Mongolians, who chewed gum before their matches and had poor communication skills due to the language barrier.” She held a Japanese-language class before bedtime every night for the Mongolians.

On Aug. 19, 1992, five of the Mongolian wrestlers, including Kyokutenho, deserted the stable. They went straight to the Mongolian Embassy in central Tokyo by train and taxi. Two of the five accepted Yoshiko’s tearful entreaties and returned to the stable on Aug. 21. But Kyokutenho and the two others returned to Mongolia a few days later.

That autumn, stable master Oshima flew to Ulan Bator to persuade Kyokutenho to return to Japan.

“The day will come for sumo in the near future when Mongolians play a major role in tournaments,” the former ozeki told the wrestler and his family. Seeing that Kyokutenho had left his hair long, required for styling into a wrestler’s topknot, Oshima felt certain the Mongolian still wanted to become a sumo wrestler. “I will try to break my neck again,” the Mongolian youth replied firmly.

Sixty-one of the 693 sumo wrestlers are non-Japanese, including 34 Mongolians as of the spring tournament. Among them are seven in the top division, — yokozuna Asashoryu, ozeki Hakuho, sekiwake Ama, and maegashira Tokitenku, Kyokutenho, Asasekiryu and Kakuryu.

In January 1998, Kyokutenho succeeded in making maegashira, the lowest rank in the makuuchi division. He has reached as high as sekiwake, the third-highest rank, which he held for one tournament in July 2003. He fought at komusubi, the fourth-highest rank, for seven tournaments.

A restrictive step against recruiting non-Japanese sumo wrestlers was taken by the Japan Sumo Association in February 2002, limiting the number of non-Japanese to one per stable in principle. Among the 53 stables, only four have no non-Japanese wrestlers.

Sumo has grown popular in Mongolia with eight of the 15 TV stations in the capital broadcasting tournaments live with commentary in Mongolian. The audience rating on the last day of a grand sumo tournament is reported to average 70 percent.

Kyokutenho, who set a record of 720 consecutive tournament appearances in the makuuchi division, is expected to become stable master after Oshima retires. He has acquired Japanese nationality, a prerequisite for the job.

“I pondered over my future while approaching the age of 30. What is left to me is sumo, I thought. I wish to return my favor to Japan,” he said. In June 2005, he changed his name to Masaru Ota and got married Feb. 17 in Tokyo.