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 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.
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.
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.