Sasebo gets a look at Japan's national sport, sumo wrestling
FUKUOKA, Japan — About 40 members of Sasebo Naval Base’s community got a heavy-duty introduction — literally — to Japan’s national sport last week.
They visited the Fukuoka sumo stable of Jesse Kuhaulua to watch the 64-year-old legend in Japan’s Grand Sumo circles train the 17 sumo wrestlers attached to his Azumazeki Beya. The trip, arranged by Sasebo’s Navy League Council, was a taste of the sport just ahead of the Kyushu Fall Basho (tournament) in Fukuoka, which starts Sunday and concludes Nov. 27.
“The whole trip was just wonderful, said Elaine Horrell, Sasebo Fleet and Family Support Center’s clinical services director. “One thing I didn’t know is that women are not allowed into the dohyo,” or sand-covered ring.
“I also noticed that while they were crashing into each other … they didn’t do much talking,” she added. “And it looked like some of the younger ones were almost going through kind of an initiation.”
Kuhaulua, known in the sumo world as Takamiyama, was the first American sumo to compete in Japan. He retired in 1984, taking the elder sumo master name of Azumazeki Oyakata. Two years later, he opened his beya.
“There are many beya in Japan and mine is probably in about the middle of the pack as far as how good they are as a whole,” said Kuhaulua, sitting on a throne of a stool, wielding a big stick and barking at the sumo in training.
Horrell noticed that Kuhaulua’s voice was gravely, almost hoarse.
“Everything he said sounded like it was coming from ‘The Godfather,’” she said.
Kuhaulua made his debut in 1964 and reached the rank of sekiwake, the third highest in sumo, before he retired.
The 6-foot-4-inch Takamiyama weighed 452 pounds while competing. The highlight of his career was defeating ozeki Ashaikuni to win the 1972 Emperor’s Cup, the first foreign-born sumo to win a championship.
His recruits have included fellow Hawaiians Chad Rowan, known as Akebono, the first foreigner and the 64th sumo ever to earn the top rank of yokozuna, and Salevaa Atisanoe, known as Konishiki, the first American to earn the rank of ozeki.
“Right now, I have two who are known in sumo. They are Takamisakari and Ushiomaru,” Kuhaulua said. Both hold rankings in sumo, but he doesn’t expect either to rise to the rank of yokozuna or ozeki.
Eastern and western divisions divide ranked sumo. It is possible that each division could have a yokozuna; however, for almost two years Mongolian Asashoryu has been the lone yokozuna in Japan.
“I don’t see any of the Japanese coming on strong enough to become yokozuna right now,” Kuhaulua said. “There is ozeki Chiyotaikai and Kaio in the west and ozeki Tochiazuma in the east, but I don’t think they are strong enough compared to the Mongolian.”
Kuhaulua, even at 64, looks as though he could snatch around a few of the sumo in his stable.
“Maybe,” he said, “but as I get older, I find they are more likely to push me around.”