Legends of the Dohyo #10: “If I Were Japanese”

Konishiki Yasokichi aka Dump Truck

Part One

In 1987,  American-Samoan Saleva’a Fuauli Atisano’e made history when he became sumo’s first foreign Ozeki. Now one of the sports most elite athletes, Atisano’e, better known as Konishiki Yashokichi, was the closest any gaijin had ever come to attaining one of Japans most hallowed titles: Yokozuna. But the road between Konishiki and the white rope would prove to be a long and difficult one.

Konishiki was on top of the world in July ’87. The Hawaiian born Ozeki had etched his name in sumo’s long storied history, and his supporters believed it wouldn’t be long until he took his place amongst the sports grandest of champions. Despite this optimism, Konishiki followed this achievement with one of the most mediocre periods of his career. With the exception of a fifth career Jun-Yusho, the American rikishi spent most of the next three years doing just enough to retain his spot at the top of the Banzuke. This mediocracy was primarily due to a vicious cycle of knee issues and weight gain that threatened to cut short Konishiki’s career just as it was taking off. Still feeling the lingering effects of a knee injury he suffered prior to his Ozeki run, the big man couldn’t train with the same intensity he had earlier in his career. As a result, the American rikishi had gained twenty-two kilograms and now tipped the scales at 252 kg (555 lb). In turn, this extra weight put even more stress on Konishiki’s ailing knees. Konishiki had begun the most important battle of his career, and if he couldn’t get his weight under control he would lose everything he had worked for. While the Ozeki’s success on the dohyo may have tapered off, so too had the criticism he faced from the Japanese public. Now wiser and more cognizant of his public reputation, the big man had learned to stick to the Kyokai’s script, for the time being at least. This new tune, coupled with the incredible gaman*  he showed in battling back from his devastating knee injury, had earned Konishiki the respect of Japanese fans. But this was only the calm before the storm. The “Black Ship” was on a course towards turbulent waters.

Konishiki 3

Konishiki made headlines again at the 1989 Kyushu Basho when he captured the Yusho, making him the first gaijin to lift the Emperors Cup since Takamiyama in 1972. After getting his weight down, the Ozeki dominated his competition once more and finished one win ahead of fan favourite Yokozuna Chiyonofuji. Having won the Yusho, Konishiki was on the precipice of doing something many of the sports staunchest traditionalists thought was unthinkable and become sumo’s first foreign Yokozuna. His first chance at promotion came at the 1990 Hatsu Basho, but a five-day losing streak dashed any hopes of promotion. finishing with a 10-5 record, Konishiki had missed his chance at grasping that white rope, but the big man had bounced back from his shin-Ozeki slump and was about to enter the best years of his career. Talk of a Yokozuna run was reignited at the 1992 Kyushu Basho when Konishiki claimed his second Yusho. For the first time in sixty years, sumo was without a Yokozuna after Hokutoumi’s retirement in May, and many believed Konishiki’s accession to the top of the banzuke was more a matter of when than if. Just as before, Konishiki came up short at the following Hatsu Basho. However, this time he’d secured a much better 12-3 record, and while not a Jun-Yusho, just maybe he could salvage his chances of promotion as long as he took the championship in March. Konishiki did take the Yusho in March, and the many speculated if he had done enough to get the call that would see an American become the face of the sumo.

Dewanoumi Oyakata
NSK Chairman Dewanoumi

But the call never came. On paper, Konishiki’s record of two Yusho and thirty-eight wins over three tournaments was better than both Hokutoumi and Asahifuji prior to their Yokozuna promotions. However, sumo is about more than just numbers, and without that Jun-Yusho Konishiki did not receive the support of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council or the NSK. In addition to his unsatisfactory record, the NSK also sited Konishiki’s “ugly”, “undignified” sumo and his excessive weight, which had ballooned up to 264 kg, as reasons for not promoting him. furthermore, NSK Chairman Dewanoumi publically insinuated that based on his past, Konishiki lacked the hinkaku or noble character of a Yokozuna, and was not worthy of the rank. But perhaps the most severe criticism came from the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, specifically longtime member Noboru Kojima. In an article written by Kojima titled “We don’t need a Gaijin Yokozuna”, the author stated that “What makes sumo different is its own particular characteristics of civility, which is the basis of Japanese morals and values. I cannot agree with a school of thought that would make a gaijin Yokozuna.” In effect, Kojima had made a statement equivalent to sportswriters of the 40’s denying black baseball players a place in the majors because they lacked the character of white athletes. These sentimentss were not unheard of in a country as ethnocentric as Japan, and were made worse by the deteriorating Japanese-American relations at the time of Konishiki’s Yokozuna run. This political tension, the result of trade disputes, caused the Japanese to cast the United States and Americans as arrogant interlopers trying to dictate Japan’s culture and future. Once again, Konishiki was viewed as an invader. The criticism from the NSK, combined with Kojima’s racist statements and the ridicule of the Japanese public, had pushed Konishiki to his limit.

Besieged on all sides and denied a promotion by all rights he felt he’d earned, things only got worse for Konishiki when the New York Times published an article about his struggles in April of 1992. The article featured an apparent interview with the American Sumotori, who accused the NSK of racism and stated that if he were Japanese he would be Yokozuna already. The article caused an uproar in the NSK, who demanded an apology. Konishiki publically apologized for the article and claimed that unbeknownst to him one of his tsubiko had impersonated him during the call. Whether or not Konishiki made the statement is still a matter of debate (Konishiki’s tsubiko Eric Gasper has reportedly claimed to have imitated his sempai during the call) the New Your Times article still had a tremendous impact on sumo. In an attempt to quell the accusations of racism, the NSK decided to put Konishiki’s fate in his own hands, and if the American could win the upcoming Natsu Basho he would be promoted. For the first time, concrete requirements for an automatic promotion to Yokozuna had been laid out: back to back Yusho would seal the deal. But much like before, Konishiki buckled under the pressure and failed to take the Emperors Cup, in what would be his final chance at earning the white rope.

Konishiki 5
Musashimaru, Konishiki, and Akebono in Honalulu. To these two Yokozuna, Konishiki was “da man” and a major source of support throughout thier careers.

Following the 1992 Natsu Basho, Konishiki’s career gradually wound down until the sports first foreign Ozeki, now at the bottom of the makuuchi division, announced his retirement in 1997. While Konishiki may have been the victim of a system that persecuted him because of ethnic origin, the enormous impact he left on Japan’s traditional sport was felt not even one year after his failed Yokozuna run. In 1993, following the path blazed by Konishiki, fellow Hawaiian Akebono Taro secured his second consecutive Yusho, meeting the requirements to become sumo’s first gaijin Yokozuna. There is a saying that goes: Takamiyama cleared the ground, Konishiki built the stairs, and Akebono climbed them. Konishiki Yasokichi fought the good fight and forced the NSK to create a system where merit outweighed ethnicity, ultimately paving the way for men like Akebono, Musashimaru, and every other gaijin to do what Konishiki could not, and reach sumo’s most prestigious title.


Chiyonofuji (left) vs. Konishiki (right), Kyushu Basho, 1989.


*Enduring hardship with dignity.

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.

Takamiyama-Konishiki
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.


Legends of the Dohyo #8: The Saint of Sumo Part Two

Hitachiyama West

Part One

While his Yokozuna career was marked by considerable success, including eight Yusho championships, Yokozuna Hitachiyama Taniemon is perhaps better remembered for his work away from the dohyo. Possibly due to his father’s low opinion of the sport, Hitachiyama was determined to see sumo retain its former prestige. But, he was not satisfied with the sport just regaining its glory in Japan. He had a vision of sumo being held in high regard worldwide. So, in 1907, he embarked on a world tour that saw him travel through much of the western world, including Europe and the United States, where he demonstrated the art of sumo and brought international attention to the sport.

Hitachiyama’s international tour was highlighted by a meeting with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt at the White House on November 11, 1907. The visit began with Hitachiyama presenting the President with a ceremonial family sword, and arrangments were made for him to come back and perform a sumo exhibition for Roosevelt and his family. Hitachiyama NYTReturning in full Yokozuna regalia and accompanied by three fellow rikishi, a gyoji, and an interpreter, Hitachiyama performed his dohyo-iri on a dohyo of thick matting. Following the ring-entering ceremony, the Yokozuna’s two assistants demonstrated the rules of sumo in a series of bouts for the President and his entourage of spectators. Finally, it was time for Hitachiyama to take to the dohyo. The Yokozuna challenged each of his attendants and each time drove them out of the ring. So great was Hitachiyama’s strength, that he purportedly took on all three attendants at once, and even their combined might was not enough to best the Yokozuna. Finishing his exercises, Hitachiyama explained to his audience that he would face up to forty of his fellow stablemates in the course of a day, and would gladly face off against the renowned man’s man Roosevelt in a sumo bout. The President understandably declined the offer, but it was obvious to those present that Roosevelt had been thoroughly impressed.

Hitachiyama’s tour had been a tremendous success for the sport of sumo, and its popularity continued to rebound throughout Japan. Despite taking such an extended leave from competition, the Yokozuna’s fans remained exceptionally loyal due to the global attention he had brought to the sport. While sumo may have flourished due to the world tour, Hitachiyama quickly felt the most significant repercussions of his days abroad. Time away from the dohyo and the ceaseless march of age left their mark on the Yokozuna, and while he achieved one more Yusho in the Spring of 1910, he would never again attain the dominance he exhibited prior to the tour. Unable to compete at a high level, Hitachiyama retired in May of 1914. Now the master of Dewanoumi stable, Hitachiyama began the task of training the next generation of Rikishi, including an impressive three new Yokozuna.

Under his leadership, Dewanoumi Beya was home to over two hundred men at its peak. Hitachiyama’s refusal to allow his disciples to branch off and establish new stables ensured that Dewanoumi remained of the most powerful stables at the time. With so many men under his roof, Hitachiyama was faced with the dilemma of how to feed such a massive hoard of hungry rikishi. It was from this predicament that Hitachiyama’s most enduring legacy was born: Chankonabe. The hearty, agreeable and most importantly, cheap meal was a hit at Demanoumi and subsequently spread throughout the other stables. To this day chankonabe remains an integral part of sumo life.

In 1922, at the age of forty-eight, Hitachiyama suddenly died. His death shocked the sumo world, and for the first time in its history, the Japanese Sumo Association organized a funeral procession for the former Yokozuna. As one of the sumos most influential figures, Hitachiyama was a trendsetter and an innovator whose influence on sumo not only brought it back from the brink but earned it recognition around the world. For his efforts and dedication to the sport he so loved, Hitachiyama Taneimomon will forever be remembered by as the saint of sumo.

Hitachiyama Memorial
Hitachiyma Taneimon Memorial, Yanaka Graveyard, Tokyo.

Legends of the Dohyo #7: The Saint of Sumo Part One

Hitachiyama

The history of athletics is full of innovators and dreamers, unafraid to break with tradition and challenge the old ways in the hope of making their sport better. Even a sport like sumo, steeped in ancient customs and practices, has had many revolutionaries come along willing to risk it all to ensure Japan’s national sport grows and prospers. Men like Futabeyama, who introduced salaries into sumo, and Takamiyama, who broke the gaijin barrier, ushered in new eras and shaped the sumo into what we know today. Yet there is no one who can hold a flame to the tremendous impact Yokozuna Hitachiyama Taniemon had on sumo in the early twentieth century.

Hitachiyama Taneimon was born into samurai nobility in 1874, but his families’ privileged status was stripped away during the political upheaval of the Meiji Restoration. No longer able to rely on his family’s reputation, the young Hitachiyama traveled to Tokyo to attend Waseda University. While in Tokyo he stayed with his uncle, who encouraged the youth to pursue a career in sumo after witnessing him lift a nearly five hundred pound boulder while working on his uncle’s property. Despite obvious physical talents, Hitachiyama’s father tried to dissuade him from a career in sumo as the sport held little prestige in the rapidly westernizing Japan. Disregarding his father’s concerns, Hitachiyama joined Dewanoumi Beya in 1890. Making his professional debut in Tokyo Sumo two years later, his early career hit a roadblock when  Hitachiyama was forbidden from marrying his stablemasters niece. Unable to be without his beloved, he fled Tokyo Sumo in 1894 and joined rival organization Nagoya Sumo for a brief time before entering Osaka Sumo.

Hitachiyama 2
Hitachiyama (left) and Umegatani (right). Together, these two men returned sumo to its former prestige in the early 20th century.

Hitachiyama eventually returned to Tokyo Sumo and Dewanoumi Beya in 1896, just in time for the spring tournament where he began an impressive 32 win streak. He made his Makuuchi debut in the 1899 Spring Basho, where he took home the yusho with a record of eight wins. Missing the following summer basho, he scored matching seven-win records at both tournaments in 1900 and took home his second championship at the 1901 Spring Basho. Following this success, Hitachiyama was promoted to the rank of Ozeki. After winning both Basho in 1903, including a senshuraku win over fellow Ozeki and chief rival Umegatani Totaro II, Hitachiyama became the sports 19th Yokozuna. However, he insisted that Umegatani receive a promotion as well and the two became Yokozuna simultaneously. Alongside Ōzutsu Man’emon, this would mark the first time the sumo world ever had three Yokozuna at the same time. Hitachiyama’s business sense was evident even early in his career, as the continuation of his rivalry with Umegatani as Yokozunas saw sumo reach it’s highest point of popularity since the Edo Period. Sumo had never been hotter, and as a result of this new popularity, construction began on a massive stadium to meet the demand of fans eager to see their hero Hitachiyama. Opening in 1909, this stadium became known as the first Ryogoku Kokugikan.

The first Ryogoku Kokugikan, 1909.

During his career, Hitachiyama won eight tournaments and oversaw the popularity of sumo grow to grand new heights. His conduct on the dohyo earned him the reputation as the sports most honorable Yokozuna and he became affectionately known as the Saint of Sumo amongst the population. So revered was Hitachiyama that his conduct becomes the very benchmark upon which all Yokozuna who followed have been compared. Yet despite his influence on sumo as an active Yokozuna, it was Hitachiyama’s work off the dohyo and across the globe that left a far, far greater impact on the sport we know today.

End of part one.