November 10, 2005

Europeans may save Japan’s sumo

By George Nishiyama

TOKYO (Reuters) - First came the Hawaiians, then the
Mongolians and now the Europeans.

The rise of foreign wrestlers in sumo has stoked fears of a
foreign invasion in the past, but the emergence of Europeans
may be a blessing for the ancient Japanese sport, which is
suffering from falling popularity amid an absence of locally
born heroes.

With the next tournament set to kick off on Sunday, all
eyes are on the rivalry between "yokozuna" grand champion
Asashoryu, a Mongolian, and rising star Kotooshu, from

Asashoryu, 25, while reigning supreme as the sole yokozuna
since January 2004, has often been criticized by sumo elders as
being arrogant and lacking the dignity deemed necessary for one
at the pinnacle of sumo's long hierarchy.

"There are a lot of people who can't abide him because he's
not Japanese," said Lynn Matsuoka, an artist who has drawn
pictures of sumo wrestlers for over three decades and is also a
sumo commentator.

In contrast, the 22-year-old Kotooshu seems shy, even

"He has a much different demeanor, so those who were
offended by Asashoryu's antics, they'll be pleased by
Kotooshu," said Matsuoka, who is personally acquainted with
many wrestlers, including the Bulgarian.

Kotooshu, whose ring name means "European harp," captivated
sumo fans in the September tournament where he knocked out
higher-ranking wrestlers and looked set to capture the
championship, only to lose it to Asashoryu in the final bout.

The Bulgarian -- called the "Beckham of sumo" by Japanese
media -- also became something of a national sensation, with TV
shows running specials and even interviewing his parents in

"I am grateful to the fans, but sometimes I get sick of all
the attention. I want to be a regular person," Kotooshu,
otherwise known as Kaloyan Stefanov Mahlyanov, recently said in
a TV interview.


Foreign wrestlers wearing traditional Japanese loin cloths
with their hair in samurai-like top knots and battling it out
on the professional sumo ring are nothing new, but their
countries of origin have diversified recently.

Sumo may even soon witness its first wrestler with a blond
top knot, when Baruto -- meaning "Baltic" in Japanese-- from
Estonia grows his hair long enough.

Professional sumo has a total of 58 foreign-born wrestlers
from 12 countries, ranging from nearby South Korea to as far as
Brazil, and the latest additions are mostly from Eastern

The pioneer was American Jesse Kuhaulua, who entered the
sumo world in 1964 and fought under the name Takamiyama,
opening the way for fellow Hawaiians in the first wave of
foreign invasions in the 1980s.

Mongolians have since replaced the Americans as the leading
foreign presence with 34 wrestlers, followed by six Chinese and
five Russians.

Many young Japanese are reluctant to enter the rigid world
of sumo and officials said they expected more Europeans,
especially those from countries were wrestling is popular, to
be knocking on sumo's door for a chance to rise to fame and
make a fortune.

"There'll be more of them, from countries like Russia,
where wrestling and other contact sports are popular," said
Hidetoshi Tanaka, president of the International Sumo
Federation, the sport's amateur global body.

Kotooshu was a Bulgarian wrestling champion aspiring to
compete in the Olympics, but had to give up his dream after
rule changes limited wrestlers to be under 120 kg (265 lb). At
a towering 2.04 meters (6 ft 8 in), he now weighs 143 kg.

While sumo watchers agree that the allergy to foreign
wrestlers has worn off, the sport's professional body still has
limits on the number of grapplers from abroad, which it says is
aimed at maintaining the traditions of the "national sport."

Sumo stables, where wrestlers live and train under a
master, can only have one foreign wrestler.

Hopes for a homegrown champion remain strong.

"I think there's been a turnaround, and I think people have
slowly started gaining interest," commentator Matsuoka said,
referring to the attention caused by the rise of Kotooshu.

"But until a Japanese shows up, you're not going to pack
the house."