Legends of the Dohyo #9: The Black Ship

Konishiki 2

In today’s modernized sumo, foreign rikishi have become as much a part of the sport as mawashi, stables, and salt throwing. Wrestlers from across the globe now compete in every level of sumo, following a trail blazed for them by the American born Jessie Kuhaulua, better known as Takamiyama Daigoro. Having broken the Gaijin barrier, Takamiyama opened the minds of the Japanese to the idea of foreign rikishi competing in their national sport. Yet his influence on sumo only went so far. While the notion of non-Japanese wrestlers was becoming more welcome in Japan, the idea that one of them could reach the lofty heights of Ozeki, or more importantly Yokozuna, was still preposterous. But this belief only served to light a fire under the young Samoan-American Saleva’a Fuauli Atisano’e, who was determined to pick up where Takamiyama left off and show Japan that a foreigner could be every bit as worthy of sumo’s most prestigious ranks.

Konishiki & Takamiyama

Born in the breezy paradise of Oahu, Hawaii in 1963 to Samoan parents, Saleva’a Fuauli Atisano’e never dreamed of becoming a sumo wrestler. In fact, he knew nothing about the sport save for one thing: that a Hawaiian named Jessie Kuhaulua had made it big in sumo, and even won their trophy. Little did he know that a chance meeting in 1982 with that very same Hawaiian, now going by Takamiyama, would have a profound impact on his life. Upon meeting Atisano’e, Takamiyama saw great potential in the hulking eighteen-year-old, whose six foot tall four hundred pound frame meant he was already bigger than some of the sports top stars. Despite not knowing a thing about sumo, the young Atisano’e jumped at the offer to journey to Japan to seek the same fame and fortune that Takamiyama had achieved. Joining Takasago Beya, Atisano’e quickly impressed his Oyakata, who saw the same natural talent in the young American that Takamiya had seen. To encourage him to live up to his potential, Takasago Oyakata gave Atisano’e the shikona of Konishiki Yashokichi, the very same shikona used by the sports 17th Yokozuna.

Making his professional debut at the 1982 Nagoya Basho, Konishiki used his impressive size and strength to overwhelm all who faced him on the dohyo, and he entered his third Basho not only undefeated but with two lower division Yusho under his belt. Konishiki’s rise up the Banzuke was remarkably quick, and he reached the Juryo division by November of 1983, having only suffered seven losses along the way. Much like before, the American rikishi dominated his competition, and after winning back to back Juryo Yusho, Konishiki entered the Makuuchi Division at the 1984 Nagoya Basho, just two years after entering sumo. Konishiki made major waves at the ’84 Aki Basho and finished in second place for the Yusho with a 13-2 record, which included kinboshi wins over Yokozuna Takanosato and Chiyonofuji. This remarkable performance earned Konishiki a massive promotion to Sekiwake for Kyushu. An injury, however, compelled the young American to pull out on Day 11, costing him his spot in the San’yaku. Over the next two years, Konishiki would claim the Jun-Yusho and earn promotion to Sekiwake on three separate occasions, but injuries would curtail any hopes of an Ozeki run each time.

young_KonishikiWhile Konishiki was finding tremendous success on the dohyo, cultivating a positive reputation outside the ring proved to be far more challenging. The big American was extremely bright, and his early dominance served made him confident and unafraid to challenge the Kyokai status quo. This attitude lead many to typecast Konishiki as arrogant. Coupled with the way he used his might to “bully” his opponents out of the ring, many Japanese, non-sumo fans included, believed Konishiki was invading their traditional sport. As such, they began to refer to him as “the black ship,” drawing comparisons between the American-Samoan rikishi and the ships used by the American navy to force Japan to open its borders in the 19th century. Konishiki did little to help dissuade this reputation, often coming off as brash and ignorant of sumo customs in interviews. In one such case, the American rikishi was asked if he would defeat the yokozuna in the upcoming basho. Rather than the standard response of “I will do my best” he brazenly responded with “bring it on.” In another interview, when asked what sumo meant to him, Konishiki impatiently responded with the phrase “kenka, ja nai”: it’s a fight, isn’t it? While Konishiki may have been trying to describe the combative nature of the sport, his use of the word kenka, typically associated with street fights, served to only sour impressions of him. Konishiki had strayed from the accepted script, and as a result, his reputation had suffered.

Although opinions of Konishiki may have been at a low, his continued strong performances meant nobody could ignore him. After returning from injury for the third time at the 1986 Aki Basho, Konishiki began a remarkable run that saw him secure five consecutive double-digit records and two more Jun-Yusho. But most importantly, after three hard-fought years in Makuuchi, Konishiki’s efforts had finally secured his promotion to sumo’s second-highest rank, cementing his place in history as the first foreign Ozeki. If his rise to Ozeki had surprised sumo traditionalists, his 1989 November Yusho shocked them. For the first time in sumo’s thousand-year history, a gaijin was knocking on the door of Yokozuna-ship.

End of Part One

Konishiki (left) vs. Takanosato (right), Aki Basho, 1984.

13 thoughts on “Legends of the Dohyo #9: The Black Ship

  1. Looking forward to part 2. When they showed sumo on British tv in the late 80s Konishiki was the man everyone wanted to see. By that time he was colossal: just seeing a human being of that size get up on the dohyo and fight had us tuning in every week. If you put “huge sumo wrestler” or “massive sumo wrestler” into google image search,guess what comes up first.

    • Yup – it watching Sumo on Channel 4 back in the late 80’s (and early 90/s??), seeing the likes of Chiyonofuji and Konishki, sowed the seeds that would, many many years later, blossom into my mid-life sumo obsession.

      Are there any active Hawaiian rikishi these days? Or Polynesia more generally? If not, how come?

  2. Cool write up! I might posit though that it could be a little unfair on Takamiyama to say his influence only went so far – maybe it’s me but I’ve always thought he was one of more influential characters of the last 40 years (as rikishi and oyakata). Even his fighting record compares favorably to almost any non-ozeki/yokozuna.

    • That’s a very fair point, and I in no way intended to diminish the tremendous impact of Takamiyama’s career as a whole. I more meant that at the time of Konishiki’s arrival in Japan, Takamiyama’s influence on changing the way the Japanese viewed foreign rikishi had reached something of a peak. Takamiyama, while successful, was not seen as a threat to the sport in the same way that a young Konishiki was. This was partly due to his ability to assimilate into Japanese culture, but also due to the fact that outside of one Yusho, he was never a serious ozeki or yokozuna contender. As a result, sumo’s top ranks were still considered the sole territory of Japanese rikishi. In becoming an Ozeki, Konishiki pushed the envelope farther than Takamiyama was able to.

      But at the same time, one could also argue that Konishiki’s influence on future Hawaiian born rikishi went beyond Takamiyama’s. This is mostly due to their roles at the time of the arrival of Akebono, Musashimaru, and Yamato. Konishiki was able to help and nurture these rikishi more because he was still one of the boys, while Takamiyama was an Oyakata and was bound by the strict social rules that came with his position. Even Akebono himself has stated that Takamiyama did very little for him during his career, but regardless he still owes his Oyakata so much for paving the way for his success in Japan. So did Konishiki do more for gaijin rikishi in the long run? Probably. Still doesn’t mean Takamiyama’s achievements aren’t incredibly valuable and important.

  3. Seeing what Konishiki has done for the sport, I always find it a bit sad to see him on TV these days wearing this dotted suit on “Nihongo de asobou”!

    • No, that was Rodney Anoa’i, who has no connection to actual sumo. However, his “Yokozuna” gimmick was undoubtedly influenced by the success of Konishiki and Akebono.

    • The only actual yokozuna who competed in WWE was Koji Kitao (Futahaguro) who appeared in a tag-team match at Wrestlemania VII. John Tenta/ Earthquake/ Avalanche/ Shark/ Golga was a very promising sumo wrestler before he went to WWE. The pair of them once met in a pro-wrestling match and it got ugly…


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.