The Ryogoku Kokugikan walls are adorned with framed photos of the winners of the 32 most recent grand sumo tournaments. All of the faces now are of foreign-born wrestlers.
Non-Japanese wrestlers have won every tournament since the 2006 spring basho, and 36 of the 38 tournaments held since then have been won by Mongolian wrestlers.
The Mongolians' dominance in the professional sumo world began in 1992, when six wrestlers, including Kyokutenho, came to Japan. Takeo Ota (retired ozeki Asahikuni), scouted the six wrestlers when he was stablemaster Oshima. Ota, now 65, looks back fondly on those days.
"On the way from Narita Airport to our stable, they saw the expressway and shouted with excitement. When I gave them coins, they stood in shock in front of the first vending machine they ever saw and bought juice. They were always goofing around together."
But the transition to a new country and new culture wasn't easy. The Mongolian wrestlers also caused trouble, like getting into fights at the sumo training school or running to the Mongolian Embassy for help.
"I was always apologizing to the Japan Sumo Association (JSA)," recalls Ota, who says he didn't expect sumo to become as popular as it did at the time, sparked by then-hiramaku (and later yokozuna Takanohana) Takahanada's first tournament win.
But Ota always had high expectations for the talented Mongolian wrestlers, who had cut their teeth in the Mongolian sumo world. The six were tactically skilled in getting a grip on their opponents' "mawashi" (belt), and they had the stamina to endure twice as much training as Japanese wrestlers. But what really set the Mongolians apart from Japanese wrestlers was their mental toughness. When Ota used a good balance of strictness and positive feedback, the wrestlers showed intense concentration during training.
"The Mongolians came from large families, just like Japan in the old days. And they wanted to give their families a good life. That sense of mission gave them a hungry spirit," says Ota.
In Mongolia back then, women who gave birth to many children were given medals from the government.
Of the six Mongolian wrestlers who came to Japan in 1992, Kyokutenho, Kyokushuzan and others were promoted to sekitori and became heroes back home. These wrestlers told their young countrymen that they could achieve their dreams as long as they worked hard and that the salary for professional sumo wrestlers in Japan was higher than that of Mongolian presidents due to the economic disparity between the two nations.
In the upcoming fall grand sumo tournament, 11 of the 70 sekitori are Mongolians. The JSA has since limited the number of foreign wrestlers to one per stable, but Mongolians continue to be a major driving force in the sumo world.
Mongolians are also making their mark in the amateur world, including at high schools known for their sumo talent.
"There are so many people who want to do sumo," Kyokutenho says of his native country.
National Museum of Ethnology professor Yuki Konagaya says, "Many young Mongolians confidently break out into the world in search of a place to accomplish their dreams. This might have to do with their characteristics as nomads. The Japanese can't rival their fighting spirit."
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