Retired Sumo Wrestlers
They’re chefs and bar owners, but also hip-hop singers and TV comedians. After retiring from the ring, the road for champions of the legendary Japanese sport divides. But their second life, to be invented, is built precisely on discipline and hard work. Only to discover that the spirit of fighting is in their blood and always will be.
Life after sumo
Some Rikishi (Sumo wrestlers) choose to leave the ring because they’ve stopped winning. Some leave the world of Sumo because they cannot bear the necessary discipline. Some are forced to leave the ring after injury. Many start their new lives with a hopeful dream for the future. But every single Sumo wrestler brings the particular experience of their sport with them into their second life and many struggle to establish a new social identity beyond the ring. Their concepts of time and of society are different to the world they find outside the strictures of their sport and they must learn ways to adapt.
Freedom is the first difficulty that every ex-wrestler encounters in their life post Sumo. They have to choose what to eat, how to dress, how to arrange their hair: all daily details that they had never had to think about before.
They need to organise their own life from scratch. They need to make ends meet, find a new home and a new role in life. Once they leave the world of Sumo, they are free from its rigid, military standards of behaviour. But really these huge figures are fledglings, fragile little birds leaving their mothers nest and hoping to learn to fly through new, uncertain skies.
Many former Sumo become chefs or open restaurants. Eating has been a small but unlimited pleasure throughout the rigours of their former lives. In fact many wrestlers cook well, because it is one the first lessons they must learn to become part of Sumo society. And they must eat to become stronger competitors. Many have become real gourmets through the sport, their taste buds educated by endless opportunities to taste the different cuisines of Japan as the tournament traces a route around the country.
I met Naoki Hino in his restaurant in Tokyo. Naoki was a Sumo wrestler for 12 years. After this long career he decided to open a new restaurant. His speciality is Chanko-Nabe, traditional stew made with chicken, vegetables and tofu in a clay pot. It is known as a typical Sumo food, part of a daily weight-gain diet. “I take advantage of my experiences. When I hear people saying it is a beautiful dish for eyes and delicious in the mouth, I’m really happy. When I see them enjoying my food, I’m more convinced of what I’m doing. I always liked cooking for others. Now I am a father of two daughters so my restaurant brings food for my family.”
Giuliano Kochinda Tsusato is a Brazilian of Italian origin, from Lucca. Currently he owns a bar in the heart of Roppongi, a district known worldwide as the centre of Tokyo’s frantic, insomniac nightlife. He is planning to open another bar or club. He was forced to give up Sumo after eight years in the ring, following an injury to his leg. His father fell ill at this moment, so he returned to Sao Paolo. This was 1999. Sumo had been his life’s work and his life’s dream. It was gone.
“Many of my juniors cannot put up with the severe rules and my ex-companions were jealous of me. But in the end, I found it more difficult to manage a bar. There are a lot of competitors in this district and the rent is extremely high. When I was part of the Sumo beya (stable), I didn’t have to worry about anything. I had a regular paid job, a tatami to sleep on and always more than enough food. So I tell anyone who wants to quit to stay as long as they can” says Giuliano sighing. He is still missing the ring to which he dedicated his heart. “Sumo is a sport that requires complete self-devotion and follows the strictest set of social rules. Learning this tradition was a great challenge for me. I was getting up at night to do extra training. It took me three months to learn the language. My oyakata (master) and his wife were part of my family. But I haven’t seen them for eight years since I quit. You know why? I have to grow up. I am still not ready to see them, because I have to show them what has become my new life. I will go and visit them at the right time, probably when I open another bar” says Giuliano.
Sumo wrestlers are among the highest earning sportsmen in Japan. They become famous personalities and are often the target of gossip and scandals. Some continue celebrity lifestyles after they leave the ring, famous figures whose success has opened the door to the attention of the mass media, a glamorous cocoon they are loath to leave. One of the biggest Sumo champions of this century is Konishiki, a man of Hawaiian origin but Samoan parents. At 285 Kg he was the heaviest wrestler in history and he was the first foreigner to achieve the title of Ozeki champion, the second highest accolade in the sport. Success in the ring allowed him to pursue his dream of a singing career. Today he sings pop music in six languages, produces his own record label and presents a children programme on TV. He lives in both Japan and Hawaii and has a charity organisation for child artists. “The sumo life was based on hierarchy. You must serve your superior. If you are the superior, you need to guide your juniors. But it is a battle against yourself. I learned about pain and how much I can bear. When I have to struggle, I am even stronger. I’ve tried and I’ve learned. If you learn from yourself, it means you learn from life.”
“I sacrificed a lot of things being constantly in Japan for Sumo. I couldn’t go to my relatives’ weddings. Now I want to spend more time with them and have my own family. My family was poor. 27 years ago in our house, we had neither a kitchen nor a bathroom. We’ve grown up eating tinned sardines but no one complained. We were a really happy family. Whatever was on the table, it was good. I grew up with musicians in Hawaii where everyone knows dancing and singing. Now it’s time to introduce this music and these Hawaiian artists to Japan”.
Performance certainly seems to be an attractive career for former wrestlers. I met Hirose Yasuyuki in his rehearsal room where he was practicing for his next performance. One of his most popular tricks is to drink 2 liters of water straight down, one shot, in 10 seconds. He smiles but tells me seriously, “we had to train for Sumo almost in the nude, which was really difficult for me. I had always fear in the pit of my stomach. I was big but very shy. I couldn’t even look into someone’s eyes while they were talking. To get over my shyness, I applied to a performance art school for TV talents. Then I went to an audition for Shochiku which is one of the biggest casting talent agencies in Japan. This is how I became a comedian. Sumo helped me to reach a place I never thought I’d get get to“ Although his Sumo career was only six months, for Hirose Yasuyuki it seems it served its purpose.
Sanyutei-Utamusashi also left Sumo after six months to become a lone storyteller of Rakugo, a traditional Japanese verbal comedy. Sanyutei-Utamusashi also passionately dedicates his time to a charity Rakugo that tours around the world. He even joined the Japanese Self Defence force as a volunteer for four months, to allow him to perform in Zaire where Japanese soldiers were stationed. “I do like having a set of strict rules, whatever job it might be. I am attracted to Rakugo, not because I want to be a popular celebrity either on TV or in the theatre. In the world of Rakugo, the only thing that matters on the stage is you and your monologue. It is a unique confrontation with the public”. In Rakugo a storyteller sits on the stage alone and uses only his voice, enchants with simple changes in pitch and tone, the slightest tilt of the head. The only props allowed are a paper fan and on rare occasions a small handkerchief.
“To be a great Rakugo artist, you need to learn from the great masters and it requires years of practice and training. Just like Sumo, if you are good, you win. Both of the traditions are based on systems of apprenticeship and you are the sole player on the stage. It is important to know how to defend yourself. Even though I had only six months of experience in Sumo, it is actually a great source of inspiration now and it gives me many ideas for creating new monologues. I was injured so soon and I had to stop. But I would never be what I am now without Sumo”. His dream is further travel around the world, performing for Japanese solders stationed abroad.
Sumo’s hard physical training can lead some to careers in other sports. Hoshi Tango- literally “Star Tango” in Japanese- became a professional wrestler. He became the first Argentinian Sumo in 1986, when he was 22 years old. He knew nothing about Japan and didn’t speak a word of Japanese.
After seventeen years as a professional Sumo wrestler, today he is a Japanese citizen and still lives in Ryogoku, the mecca of the Sumo. “I’ve learned how to be disciplined and respect others. That’s why I’m still here in this country. Sumo was such an excellent school for someone like me who came from a poor family. The sacrifice and the disciplines teach you how to live in Japan. Even in the free style wrestling which is technically very different from Sumo, there are some common important aspects to learn, such as respect for your rival.”
“When we are injured, we are forced to think of another future” says Yoshinori Tashiro, or Tassy as his friends call him. Tassy’s parents gave him a computer for his 20th birthday and he learned website design. Thanks to his interest in the Internet, his Sumo team was the first to open a website, in 2001. Among his fans, he was known as the intellectual Sumo wrestler.
After nine years in the ring, in 2005 he injured a leg and for the first time needed to think about another job. After 50 days in hospital, he noticed that the public was following his daily blog. “I’ve never imagined till then how many followers were reading my blog and I wanted to communicate with them” He started designing a website for other colleagues, updated and expanded the blog which follows his team. This became his new job and his new life. Today He lives in a suburb of Tokyo, working as a freelance web designer.
So what do you need to become a Sumo wrestler? Physically you have to be 173 cm tall and weigh 75 kgs. After that you have to endure cold hard winters whilst training in the near nude, you must learn discipline within yourself and within the ring, and perhaps you might win championships and earn a great fortune. But after this life of structured combat different battles await the giants of the ring. They are rarely the sort to walk away from a challenge.