When one looks at the current banzuke, they are sure to find rikishi from all over the world. There are the Mongolians such as Hakuho and Terunofuji, Egypt’s Osunaarashi, the Bulgarian Aoiyama, and Wakaichiro from the United States. Foreign rikishi have become commonplace in Japan’s national sport, but for the vast majority of its existence, sumo was exclusively for those of Japanese heritage. That is, until Takamiyama Daigoro blazed a trial that countless rikishi around the globe have followed to this very day.
Takamiyama Daigoro, birth name Jesse Kuhaulua, was born on the Hawaiian Island of Maui in 1944. Even in his youth, he was known for his enormous size, standing over 6 feet tall and weighing nearly 300 pounds. Despite his impressive stature, he suffered from weak legs and hips as a teenager. He was encouraged by his high school football coach to join a local sumo club to strengthen his lower body. Takamiyama soon caught the attention of several professional rikishi visiting Hawaii from Japan, and in 1964 he accepted an invitation to join Takasago beya. At the 1968 Haru basho, Takamiyama became the first foreign-born rikishi to be promoted to the Makuuchi division. He would go on to have a long and successful career in sumo’s top division, spanning 17 years and a record 97 consecutive tournaments. This record for most consecutive basho as a sekitori stood for twenty-five years until it was surpassed by Ozeki Kaio Hiroyuki in 2009. Although not the most technically proficient rikishi, Takamiyama’s size and strength made up for what he lacked in skill. He regularly used his power to push his way to victory, and on many occasions would merely lift his opponents up and out of the dohyo.
In addition to his success on the dohyo, Takamiyama became a celebrity throughout Japan. His massive size, bushy sideburns, and jovial personality made him incredibly popular with fans, and he regularly appeared in advertisements until it was banned by the Sumo Association. The crowning achievement of his career came at the 1972 Nagoya basho when Takamiyama became the first foreign-born rikishi to win a yusho. To congratulate him on his victory, President Richard Nixon sent a letter that was read aloud after the presentation of The Emperor’s Cup. This marked the first time English was ever spoken on the dohyo. In addition to his yusho, Takamiyama was awarded 11 sansho special prizes and earned 12 kinboshi victories throughout his career.
In 1982, Takamiyama was given a heroes welcome when he returned to Hawaii. During this trip, he met a young Saleva’a Atisano’e, later known as Konishiki Yasokichi. This meeting would inspire the future first non-Japanese Ozeki to begin his sumo career. In 1984, at the age of 39, a debilitating elbow injury forced Takamiyama to end his career. Having become a Japanese citizen, he joined the Sumo Association and started his own stable, Azumazeki beya, the first foreigner to do so. His most promising student, Chadwick Rowan, would go on to become Akebono Taro, sumo’s first foreign-born Yokozuna. With his fighting days behind him, Takamiyama passed the torch to his fellow Hawaiians, Konishiki and Akebono, both trailblazers in their own right. They would, in turn, pass the torch to a generation of rikishi from across the globe, each of whom owes a debt to their forerunner, Takamiyama, the man who paved their way.
Takamiyama (left) vs. Asahikuni (right), Nagoya basho, 1972.