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“The Sumo Grand Championship” by The White House is marked with CC PDM 1.0. Aoiyama, left, and Tochinoshin, right, in a bout in the May 2019 Sumo Grand Championship. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former U.S. President Donald Trump watch from the audience.
“The Sumo Grand Championship” by The White House is marked with CC PDM 1.0. Aoiyama, left, and Tochinoshin, right, in a bout in the May 2019 Sumo Grand Championship. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and former U.S. President Donald Trump watch from the audience.

Sumo wrestling is a uniquely Japanese sport with deep ties to Japanese culture. In recent years, however, an increasing number of top sumo wrestlers have come from outside Japan. After retiring, some sumo wrestlers opt to become “stablemasters,” managing the next generation of sumo wrestlers. Sumo, however, requires stablemasters to be Japanese citizens. Because Japan does not provide for dual citizenship, foreign-born sumo wrestlers with aspirations to become stablemasters are often left with a difficult choice. In this Around the Web article, I will explore several interesting issues and questions relating to sumo and citizenship.

A Growing Foreign Presence in the Top-Ranks of Sumo

The highest rank in sumo wrestling is that of yokozuna. The official list of yokozuna dates back to the eighteenth century. As of April 24, 2021, 72 sumo wrestlers have attained the rank of yokozuna. The first 63 yokozuna were from Japan. in 1993, Akebono Tarō, hailing from Hawaii, became the first non-Japanese yokozuna. Beginning with Akebono, six of the nine sumo wrestlers who have attained the rank of yokozuna have been from outside Japan (four from Mongolia and two from the United States).

Looking at the list of yokozuna in isolation would be deceptive, however. The vast majority of top-level sumo wrestlers are still Japanese. With that being acknowledged, the number of top foreign sumo wrestlers, especially from Mongolia, has increased over the past several decades.

What is a Stablemaster?

Before continuing, we must pin down what exactly a “stablemaster” in sumo is. For this, I will refer to a November 18, 2018 article in The Japan Times by John Gunning titled Sumo 101: Oyakata (stablemasters). Do note that the Japanese word for stablemaster is “oyakata.”

Sumo Stables

All professional sumo wrestlers are part of a stable. There, they train with fellow wrestlers under the direction of the stablemaster. Mr. Gunning recognizes that sumo wrestling is not a “team sport.” Members of the same stable compete against one another in a tournament, and there are no awards for best stable. However, he adds that the “everyday existence [of sumo wrestlers] is intertwined with others to a far greater degree than any other athlete.”

Relationship Between Sumo Wrestler and Stablemaster

Sumo wrestlers, Mr. Gunning explains, are tied to their stablemasters for life. It is impossible to overstate the influence of the stablemaster over his wrestlers’ careers:

The stablemaster has the ultimate say over his charge’s career, to the point where if the senior man decides to hand in retirement papers for his apprentice, there is nothing the wrestler can do to stop it. His active days are over.

Of course, Mr. Gunning added that decisions such as a wrestler’s retirement are only made after discussions between the athlete and the stablemaster.

The relationship between sumo wrestlers and stablemasters changes over time. Mr. Gunning compared the relationship between stablemasters and lower-division wrestlers to the relationship between parents and young children. For lower division wrestlers, the decisions of the stablemaster are absolute and binding. Conversely, he compared the relationship between stablemasters and upper division wrestlers to parent and teenager. In that case, “oyakata may tell them what to do, but there is no guarantee that they will listen.”

Mr. Gunning explained that the closeness of relationships between sumo wrestlers and stablemasters vary. “Some wrestlers are very tight with their oyakata, while for others he is just a ‘boss’ to be tolerated.”

Mandatory Retirement Age for Stablemasters

Unlike coaches in other sports, stablemasters are required to retire when they turn 65. The article quoted Kaiki Nobuhide, a former wrestler and stablemaster who retired in 2017 after turning 65. Kaiki approved of the age limit, opining that as he grew older, he found it more difficult to be strict with the young recruits.

A Close Relationship Between Sumo Wrestler and Stablemaster

Mr. Gunning noted that some sumo wrestlers develop close relationships with their stablemasters. Before continuing to questions about the citizenship requirement for stablemasters, let us highlight one such story.

The most recent Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in March 2021 was won by Terunofuji Haruo, a Mongolian sumo wrestler who is a member of the renowned Isegahama Stable. He reached sumo wrestling’s second highest rank of ōzeki in 2015, needing only 25 tournaments to do so. After a series of health problems, his rank fell to the second lowest rank in sumo. Mr. Gunning detailed in a March 31, 2021 article that Terunofuji’s injuries and ailments included shattered knees, diabetes, cellulitis, and kidney stones.

Tenurofuji began his comeback in 2017 and steadily rose through the ranks to return to sumo’s third highest division – sekiwake. The sumo promotion system is a bit complicated, but winning 33 bouts in three tournaments (each tournament has 15 bouts) generally ensures a promotion from sekiwake to ōzeki. After his March victory, Tenurofuji had won 36 matches in three tournaments, all but guaranteeing his promotion.

Tenurofuji was quoted in a March 29, 2021 article at Kyodo News explaining why it was important to him to win at least 33 tournaments in three matches in order to ensure that there would be no doubt about his promotion:

If I were getting that promotion, I didn’t want any questions about whether I deserved it. I thought it would be unacceptable to sling mud at my stablemaster.

Tenurofuji

By clearing the 33-win threshold, Tenurofuji effectively removed discretion from the question of his promotion, and he negated any questions that may have ensued about favoritism to his stablemaster.

Sumo Stablemasters and Citizenship

Mr. Gunning’s summary of the role of stablemaster did not include one crucial requirement. In order to be a stablemaster, one must be a Japanese citizen. Because all stablemasters are former sumo wrestlers, this was not much of an issue when nearly all of the wrestlers were natural-born Japanese citizens. However, the issue has become relevant over time as more foreign nationals reach the highest rank of sumo. Below, I will discuss several articles relating to the citizenship requirement for sumo stablemasters and other articles about foreign-born stablemasters who first became Japanese citizens.

Japan’s General Prohibition of Dual Citizenship

I wrote an article here at The New Leaf Journal about Japan’s prohibition of dual citizenship. In short, Japan only allows dual citizenship for persons until the age of 22. Those individuals must choose between their Japanese citizenship and foreign citizenship between the ages of 20 and 22. In the case of an older person, such as a retired sumo wrestler, he or she must renounce any foreign citizenship in order to become a Japanese citizen.

Japan is not alone in restricting dual citizenship, but it is an uncommon position among economic powers. As I noted in my January article, Japan, China, India, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand are the only countries in the world’s top 25 by GDP that generally prohibit dual citizenship.

Japan’s dual citizenship restrictions make becoming a stablemaster difficult for retired foreign national sumo wrestlers. As we will find in the next article I cover, many foreign-born wrestlers understandably retain an attachment to their home countries – making renouncing their home citizenship a difficult sacrifice.

Asahi Shumbun: Foreigners wrestler with having to become Japanese citizens

On February 24, 2021, the Asahi Shimbun published an article on the difficulty that some foreign national sumo wrestlers face in deciding whether to renounce their foreign citizenship to become stablemasters. The article also examines some other issues faced by foreign-born stablemasters even after they become Japanese citizens. In the following sections, I will go through the key sections of the article. You can follow along with the original article here.

Background of the Stablemaster Citizenship Rule

The Japan Sumo Association implemented the citizenship requirement for stablemasters in 1976. The article notes that at that time, an American sumo wrestler by the name of Takamiyama had achieved prominence in sumo when, in 1972, he became the first foreign-born sumo wrestler to win a top-division championship.

No reason was given for the imposition of a stablemaster citizenship requirement. However, the article explains that “one speculation was that some were concerned that foreign wrestlers cannot fully teach traditions and conventions behind the sport dating to ancient times.”

Before continuing, it is important to clarify that there is no requirement for sumo wrestlers themselves to be Japanese citizens, nor has there ever been such a requirement.

Takamiyama played a role in opening the door to future foreign nationals to take up sumo, Today, the article noted that “active and former foreign wrestlers are increasing their presence to provide a solid foundation for the sport.”

Difficult Decisions for Foreign Nationals Who Want to Become Stablemasters

According to the article:

There are more than 100 stablemasters and 44 stables. Of these stablemasters, only five … are foreign-born [wrestlers] who own their stables.

It is possible that the citizenship requirement, along with other hurdles, plays a role in the fact that there are only five foreign-born stablemasters.

At the time the article was published, there were two active yokozuna: Hakuho and Kakuryu (Kakuryu retired on March 24, 2021). Both Hakuho and Kakuryu are from Mongolia. Furthermore, both have aspirations to become stablemasters.

Both Hakuho and Kakuryu have become Japanese citizens, but not without some difficulty.

Regarding Hakuho, who is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished sumo wrestlers in the sport’s storied history, the article recounted that he took years to decide whether to become a Japanese citizen. Hakuho’s father, who the article describes as “a legendary figure in the Mongolian wrestling world,” opposed his son’s becoming a Japanese citizen.

The article quotes Tomozuna, a former Mongolian sumo wrestler (known as Kyokutenho as a wrestler) who had attained the rank of sekiwake before retiring and becoming one of the five foreign-born stablemasters. Tomozuna was the first Mongolian sumo wrestler to become a Japanese citizen when he did so in 2005. He explained that it was an agonizing process:

People told my parents in Mongolia, ‘Your son sold out his country and relatives for money’ and ‘You sold your son to Japan.’

Tomozuna

He added:

I can endure the name calling, but it was tough for my parents.

Tomozuna

Other Challenges For Foreign-Born Stablemasters

The article notes that in addition to having to change their citizenship, foreign-born stablemasters also face practical challenges after doing so.

One of these challenges is that the foreign-born wrestlers usually have “few ties with Japanese schools to scout talent.” Writing about Stablemaster Naruto, who was the first European (Bulgarian) to reach the rank of ōzeki when he did so in 2006, the article explained that he did not have connections with a home city or school to use to recruit wrestlers. Stablemaster Naruto nevertheless has been successful through his persistence and taking advantage of technology in building a strong stable of talented young sumo wrestlers. However, these difficulties may also play a role in the relatively small number of foreign-born sumo wrestlers who decide to pursue becoming stablemasters.

A May 10, 2020 article by Kenichi Hato at Asahi Shimbun described similar difficulties faced by Stablemaster Arashio, the first and only Chinese stablemaster.

The Stablemaster Citizenship Debate

The 2021 article observes that not all are in accord about the citizenship requirement for stablemasters.

Rikido Tomikawa, a sumo expert and professor at Nihon Welness Sports University is a naturalized Japanese citizen from the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China. Of himself, he stated that he considers himself half-Japanese, despite having renounced his foreign citizenship to become a Japanese citizen. He suggested that the Japanese Sumo Association should amend its rules to require retired sumo wrestlers to obtain lawful permanent resident status in Japan or sign a contract to remain involved with sumo instead of having to relinquish their home citizenship.

The article also quoted an anonymous former sumo wrestler from overseas. He opined that people in Japan would consider it absurd if the United States required Japanese baseball players to come U.S. citizens in order to coach in Major League Baseball.

Interestingly, however, Stablemaster Tomozuna, who we quoted earlier talking about how difficult it was for him to renounce his Mongolian citizenship, no longer opposes the rule as much as he did in 2005. He stated:

Fans will find rooting for foreign sumo wrestlers worthwhile if they can see the wrestlers’ commitment to the sport and to Japan.

Tomozuna

He did, however, add that he believes foreign wrestlers have a unique perspective to offer as stablemasters:

There is not only one way of teaching sumo. Foreign wrestlers can also teach well, drawing strength from their backgrounds as coming from other countries.

Tomozuna

Foreign-born wrestlers will have a role to play in any rule changes. The article notes that 28 active sumo wrestlers from eight countries are members of the Japanese Sumo Association.

Continued Resistance to Foreign-Born Sumo Wrestlers?

In most cases, retired sumo wrestlers who become stablemasters do not keep their ring names. However, in rare cases, the Japan Sumo Association may grant a retired sumo wrestler “nontransferable one-generation elder stock,” allowing him to keep his ring name as a stablemaster.

We noted above that Hakuho, the only active yokozuna, acquired Japanese citizenship in order to become a stablemaster after his retirement – which is expected this summer. Hakuho is not only a yokozuna, but also arguably the most accomplished sumo wrestler of all time. In an April 21, 2021 article, John Gunning of The Japan Times took issue with what he viewed as a slight by the Japan Sumo Association against Hakuho.

The Japan Sumo Association released a report in late April recommending the end of the practice of allowing certain sumo wrestlers to keep their wrestling names as stablemasters. Mr. Gunning opined that, in a vacuum, it may not appear to be nefarious. However, in context, he saw problems. According to Mr. Gunning, only four retired sumo wrestlers had been given the honor in the past 50 years. He summarized his concerns succinctly:

Given that Hakuho was set to be the first wrestler in two decades to be given the honor, and no one else in the sport seems even remotely likely to come close to the level needed for its conferment, the committee’s recommendation cannot be taken as anything other than a slap in the face for arguably the greatest rikishi in the sport’s history.

Prospects for the Report’s Adoption

The report was, as Mr. Gunning observed, a third-party product. Thus, it is unclear whether the Japan Sumo Association will adopt it. However, Mr. Gunning found the report’s (in his view) implicit focus on denying Hakuho a well-deserved honor to be deeply offensive, having noted in an earlier article that all but one yokozuna with 20 or more titles has been granted the honor.

I do not know enough about the report to pass any conclusions, but I thought that it was worth considering that some observers believe that the Japan Sumo Association is mistreating the greatest active sumo wrestler on the eve of his transition to becoming a stablemaster on account of his being from Mongolia.

The Legacy of Foreign Stablemasters

Although there are not many foreign stablemasters, they have left a mark on the world of sumo. In March 2021, the Azumazeki stable closed its doors. The stable was established in 1986 by Takamiyama, who we noted earlier was the first foreign-born sumo wrestler to win a top-level tournament. In a March 17, 2021 article, Mr. Gunning described the impact of the stable:

Takamiyama had arguably just as important an impact as a recruiter and coach [as he did as a wrestler]. Having previously brought Konishiki, the man who would become the first ever foreign ozeki, into the sport, the raspy-voiced stablemaster finally broke sumo’s ultimate glass ceiling when he helped Akebono reach the rank of yokozuna.

Mr. Gunning gave Takamiyama credit for opening the door for other great foreign-born wrestlers to reach the highest ranks of sumo:

It’s arguable that had Azumazeki Beya not come into existence under his leadership, men like Hakuho, Asashoryu or Kotooshu might never have made it to Japan, and that sumo would still be … a domestically popular style of wrestling lacking the international recognition and global fanbase that Japan’s national sport currently boasts.

You can read about the closure of the stable in a straight news piece courtesy of Kyodo News.

My Thoughts on Sumo Stablemasters and Citizenship

To most foreigners, myself included, Japan’s rules for stablemasters seem peculiar. However, I do not think that American sports culture provides a useful lens for analyzing how the citizenship rule came about. This is both due to differences between Japanese and American culture and to the fact that no sport in the United States has a tradition that is at all similar to sumo wrestling in Japan.

Thus, in taking the view that Japan should reconsider the rule that may prevent some of the top sumo wrestlers from becoming stablemasters, one should consider the ostensible reason behind the current view. That is, the interest in imparting Japanese culture and sumo traditions to new generations of sumo wrestlers.

To begin, it should go without saying that merely being a top sumo wrestler does not mean that one will be a good stablemaster. Beyond concerns about tradition, being a stablemaster entails a greater responsibility for the lives of young men than does being a coach in most other sports. A stablemaster must have the right temperament and humility to not only ensure that his sumo wrestlers comport themselves in accordance with sumo rules and traditions, but also to take responsibility for their health and well-being, two things that should be high concerns given the weight sumo wrestlers carry.

Preserving Tradition

Let us grant from the outset that preserving sumo tradition, including its many uniquely Japanese aspects, is a valid interest of the Japan Sumo Association. Although I took the view that sumo is not readily comparable to American sports, many American sports have their own traditions and expectations as well. Golf, with its demands that golfers self-report any rule violation, is one such example. A failure to adhere to golf’s honor code is enough to render a golfer a pariah in the golf community.

Having granted that preserving sumo tradition is a legitimate interest, we should then consider whether it is possible to achieve this interest without the citizenship requirement for stablemasters. In the way I detail below, I believe that it would be possible.

Consider a Potential Stablemaster’s Conduct as a Wrestler

Sumo wrestlers are steeped in the traditions of sumo and Japanese culture for their entire careers. I will venture that many young sumo wrestlers who are actually from Japan do not encounter many of the traditions too intimately before actually joining a sumo stable. It is true, however, that someone who grows up in Japan will have more familiarity with Japanese culture than someone who moves to Japan at a later age. Conversely, as Mr. Tomikawa opined, it seems absurd to say that someone who spends 10-20 years practicing sumo would be incapable of transmitting sumo traditions and associated Japanese culture, regardless of where he is from.

Were the Japan Sumo Association to abolish the citizenship requirement and replace it with a permanent residency and/or contract requirement, I would suggest that the whole of a sumo wrestler’s career should provide guidance as to whether he is qualified to be entrusted with the care of young sumo wrestlers – including whether he would properly impart sumo’s traditions. Much is demanded of high-level sumo wrestlers in terms of their comportment, and potential stablemasters are people with many years of sumo wrestling experience. For that reason, by the time a retired sumo wrestler retires, there should be a good body of evidence to evaluate in determining whether he has the ability and character to be a stablemaster – regardless of whether he is from Japan, Mongolia, Bulgaria, China, the United States, or elsewhere.

Concerns That May Not Factor In

In considering the issues, we should bear in mind that some things that many westerners take for granted as interests may not factor in for the sumo community.

Firstly, little suggests that the Japan Sumo Association or many sumo observers see diversity, in and of itself, as a virtue. Furthermore, while one of the articles I discussed acknowledged that foreign-born sumo wrestlers helped bring global interest tosumo, the Japan Sumo Association and the Japanese sumo-viewing public do not seem particularly concerned with how many foreigners are interested in sumo wrestling. For that reason, there is little reason to base any arguments about Japan’s citizenship rule for foreign stablemasters on appeals to diversity or global interest. For whatever it is worth, I think the uniquely Japanese aspects of sumo are essential for cultivating the limited interest the sport garners abroad.

A Case For Changing the Rule: Attracting and Developing Talented Wrestlers

One interest that may play a role, however, is the quality of the sumo. While most of the top-level sumo wrestlers remain Japanese, wrestlers from Mongolia have dominated the very top of the sport for the better part of two decades. It is because of the increased foreign presence that fans have been treated to the exploits of Hakuho and others. While there may be a not-insignificant number of Japanese sumo fans who would prefer to only see Japanese sumo wrestlers, I will venture that many others enjoy watching, and rooting for or against, the most talented sumo practitioners. The evidence is clear that some of the best sumo prospects are not born in Japan.

Thus, if we grant that it is possible to preserve sumo traditions without requiring stablemasters to become citizens, one affirmative interest in making it easier for foreign stablemasters to work is that it may open the door to discovering and developing great sumo prospects who would not have the opportunity in a more insular system.

A Case For Changing the Rule: Honoring Wrestlers Who Gave to the Sport

Finally, regarding the case of Hakuho, a final case for changing the rule concerns respecting wrestlers who give their lives to sumo. Becoming a sumo wrestler means giving one’s whole life to sumo. This involves not only training but also many ancillary commitments that do not attach to most other professional sports. Furthermore, sumo wrestling takes a tremendous toll on the body – as we noted in the case of Terunofuji. If a sumo wrestler gives his life to sumo and conducts himself in accordance with the standards demanded by the Japan Sumo Association, should he not be rewarded with the opportunity to become a stablemaster in order that he may help young sumo wrestlers follow in his footsteps? In removing a barrier to becoming a stablemaster, the Japan Sumo Association could make it easier for some of its top wrestlers to continue to benefit sumo even after their wrestling days are done while rewarding them for having conducted themselves in an upstanding manner throughout their careers.

Conclusion

Whether Japan ultimately changes its citizenship rules and requirements for stablemasters will depend solely on the Japan Sumo Association and other sumo stakeholders in Japan. Although many foreigners watch sumo and follow it to a limited extent, the sport is uniquely, and will remain uniquely, Japanese. The rule will not change until the relevant stakeholders believe that there are affirmative benefits for sumo as a whole. In the foregoing passages, I offered some views from an outsider’s perspective that I think could be relevant considerations for people actually involved with sumo in changing the rules, while eschewing factors that may seem relevant to people outside Japan, but which would not be relevant to the sumo decision-makers.

Finally, it is worth noting that were Japan to change its restrictions on dual citizenship more broadly, that would effectively render the question of the stablemaster citizenship rule nugatory. I would venture that most foreign-born sumo wrestlers would have a much easier time acquiring a second citizenship than renouncing their home citizenship. However, the representatives of the citizens of Japan do not seem likely to change its dual-citizenship restrictions in the near future, so the question for sumo will be left to the Japan Sumo Association for the time being.