Sumo identity crises

TOKYO – Japan is slowly losing a grip on its national sport.

Grand champion Asashoryu lifted the Emperor’s Cup on Sunday for his 10th career title, marking the sixth time in the last seven tournaments that the Mongolian wrestler has taken home sumo’s top prize.

Only one Japanese wrestler – ozeki-ranked Kaio – captured the silverware last year. But what’s more alarming to sumo purists is that Japan hasn’t produced a grand champion since Takanohana retired in 2003 and the prospects for the future aren’t promising.

‘I just hope to keep performing at this level so I can please my fans,’ Asashoryu said after producing a perfect 15-0 record at the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament. ‘This is the perfect way to start the year.’

While Asashoryu’s winning streak may be pleasing to his fans, sumo’s hierarchy can’t be too satisfied.

‘Obviously, we’d like to have a Japanese grand champion,’ said Japan Sumo Association public relations manager Uragoro Takasago. ‘Everyone is trying their best and that’s all you can ask.’

In the New Year tourney, a total of 11 out of the 42 wrestlers competing in the elite makuuchi division – sumo’s version of the major leagues -were foreign born.

The three Japanese wrestlers who are closest to grand champion – ozekis Kaio, Chiyotaikai and Tochiazuma – have had numerous chances to reach the top but have never been able to fulfill the requirements for promotion.

It isn’t the first time that non-Japanese have made their mark in sumo but the overwhelming dominance of Asashoryu and the sheer number of foreign wrestlers moving up the ranks no doubt has sumo’s hierarchy in a quandary.

A decade ago, a trio of Hawaiian wrestlers -grand champions Akebono, Musashimaru and ozeki Konishiki – made their presence felt on the raised ring.

Musashimaru, who retired in 2004 after winning 12 Emperor’s Cups, was the most successful foreign wrestler ever but, barring major injury, Asashoryu will surpass his achievements this year.

And unlike the Hawaiian wave of the 1990s, this current influx of overseas talent is multinational. Asashoryu leads a foreign invasion that includes fellow Mongolians, Russians, Bulgarians and South Koreans.

While Japanese baseball limits the number of foreigners who can compete, there is no such restrictions in sumo and some worry that Japanese wrestlers may gradually be forced out of the most prestigious, and lucrative, positions.

Even the lower ranks are dotted with foreign wrestlers.

So why the dearth of homegrown talent?

Asashoryu, who is only 24, thinks it’s a matter of toughness and desire.

‘I think a lot of the younger Japanese wrestlers lack toughness,’ Asashoryu said in a recent interview. ‘When I was growing up in Mongolia, conditions were harsh and that prepared me well for sumo.’

Inspired by the likes of major league baseball’s Ichiro Suzuki and Hidetoshi Nakata, who plays for Italian soccer team Fiorentina, many young Japanese athletes now dream of making it on the world stage rather than the closed world of sumo.

Others complain that a steady diet of computer games and junk food has left Japan’s youth ill-equipped for the harsh realities of sumo’s rigid system, which is bound by tradition and ritual.

After Asashoryu, 19-year-old Mongolian Hakuho is arguably the most promising wrestler in the sport. Hakuho, who has vaulted to the third highest rank of komusubi after making his makuuchi debut in May, 2004, went 11-4 in the New Year tourney to win the meet’s Technique Award. Other up-and-coming stars include Bulgarian Kotooshu, Russian Roho and South Korean Kasugao, who was in contention in the New Year tournament until Asashoryu clinched the title with two days remaining.

As the only yokozuna, or grand champion, some have argued that Asashoryu has benefited from a watered-down field, but Musashimaru says it has more to do with a lack of confidence among higher-ranked Japanese wrestlers.

‘Right now, a lot Japanese wrestlers seem to lack the confidence,’ Musashimaru said. ‘I think Tochiazuma is the closest but he will have to work harder, as will all the others including Kaio and Chiyotaikai.’