A young man from Mongolia, the land of Asia's vast steppes, is to be professional sumo's 69th yokozuna, or grand champion. His ring name, Hakuho, is a homonym for the 1960s' golden age of sumo--the Hakuho era, which itself was named for two great yokozuna, Kashiwado and Taiho. (The kanji characters for kashiwa in Kashiwado are also read haku. This, combined with ho in Taiho, produces Hakuho.)
Mongolian wrestler Hakuho's name uses a different kanji from Kashiwado's, apparently in deference to the inimitable sumo superstar of the 1960s. But Hakuho is ascending to the same top rank of yokozuna.
Hakuho's father was a grand champion in Mongolian wrestling who became a national hero as Mongolia's first Olympic silver medalist in wrestling. But it was not only his father's legacy that helped Hakuho achieve so much in sumo.
Hakuho was 15 when he left Mongolia with six other youths, aspiring to a career in sumo here. He was 1.75 meters tall, but weighed less than 70 kilograms. All the other boys were assigned their stables quickly, but no stable was interested in this skinny lad. He would have gone back to Mongolia had a senior Mongolian wrestler not, on the eve of his departure, interceded and persuaded a stablemaster to take him in. From then on, Hakuho stuffed himself with food to get bigger.
Today, at 22 years, two months old, Hakuho is the third-youngest ever promoted to yokozuna, after Kitanoumi and Taiho. Despite his youth, he has overcome many difficulties.
For the first time in a long time, the next Grand Sumo Tournament, to be held in Nagoya in July, will have two grand champions--Asashoryu and Hakuho, both from Mongolia.
Remarkably, of the six recent grand champions, including Hakuho, four are wrestlers from overseas. And more foreign-born wrestlers are aiming for the highest rank, Kotooshu from Bulgaria, Kokkai from Georgia and others. Thus, it could be said that internationalization is saving Japan's national sport. Yet just 15 years ago, a member of the yokozuna promotion council said of then-ozeki (champion) Konishiki from Hawaii, "We don't need a foreign yokozuna." Sumo has since undergone a dramatic
One nice thing about the arts and sports is that anyone who works hard to succeed will usually gain due recognition, even if he or she does not speak the language of the land and has to start from scratch.
Sumo's popularity is growing in Mongolia, and so is the public's interest in Japan. And opening the doors to foreign wrestlers is certainly helping to strengthen Japan's amicable relations with those countries. One unfortunate development recently concerns suspicions of bout-rigging.
The Japan Sumo Association is now involved in three civil lawsuits against the weekly Shukan Gendai magazine. The magazine's latest report is that there exists a tape of Hakuho's stablemaster, Miyagino, confessing to fixing a bout between Hakuho and Asashoryu during the Nagoya Tournament last July.
A court of law must decide the truth, and Shukan Gendai must prove this alleged scandal. That being said, however, the sumo association also has much work to do. Some wrestlers' and stablemasters' behavior is just asking for trouble, and the association must warn them. The conduct of some non-Japanese wrestlers has bothered some fans, who complained recently when Asashoryu kicked away a zabuton seat cushion tossed into the ring after an exciting bout.
Naturally, foreign-born wrestlers have grown up in cultures different from Japan's. But we believe in helping them understand and appreciate sumo's age-old culture and tradition. It is the entire sumo community's responsibility to set up a system to ensure they are more fully versed in sumo's traditions.
--The Asahi Shimbun, May 29(IHT/Asahi: May 30,2007)