Excerpted and adapted from text by Nanako Yamamori. Photos by Reed Young.
Some Sumo wrestlers leave the ring because they’ve stopped winning—pushed out by age or injury. Others can’t bear the discipline anymore. But once they’ve exited the sport, the freedom can be overwhelming. After years devoted to living and embracing the rules of a Sumo stable— where the culture dictates everything from how a wrestler will dress, to how he’ll comb his hair, to where and when he’ll sleep, to what he’ll eat—many wrestlers struggle as they’re confronted by the mountain of everyday decisions. Beyond that, the wrestlers have to figure out how to carve a new social identity and answer the bigger question of what’s next. In those moments, these men seem less like hulking athletic figures and more like fledglings—fragile little birds about to leave the nest and staring at uncertain skies. Presented here are a few wrestlers and the paths they’ve forged for themselves.
Many former Sumo become chefs or open restaurants. In fact, many wrestlers cook well, because it’s one the first lessons they must learn as they join Sumo society. I met Naoki Hino in his restaurant in Tokyo. Before he launched his place, Naoki was a Sumo wrestler for 12 years. His speciality is Chanko-Nabe, a traditional Sumo stew made with chicken, vegetables and tofu in a clay pot. As he puts it: “When I hear people saying it’s a beautiful dish; 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.” While Sumo stew shops have become increasingly popular over the years, Naoki's place has the added authenticity of being one of the few actually owned by a former Sumo wrestler.
Giuliano Kochinda Tsusato is a Brazilian of Italian origin. Today he owns a bar in the heart of Tokyo’s Roppongi district-- the center of the city’s frantic, insomniac nightlife. Giuliano was forced to give up Sumo after eight years in the ring, following an injury to his leg. In an instant, his life's work and dreams evaporated: "My ex-companions were jealous of me. But in the end, I found it more difficult to manage a bar. There’s a lot of competition and the rent is extremely high,” he says. “When I was part of the Sumo 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.” Giuliano misses the ring, but he misses his Sumo family even more, and is working to make them proud: “Learning [Sumo] tradition was a great challenge. 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 in the eight years since I quit... I’m still not ready. 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.
One of the biggest Sumo champions of this century is Konishiki, a man of Hawaiian origin but Samoan parents. At 285 kg (628 lbs) he was the heaviest wrestler in history and 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 being a singer. “I sacrificed a lot of things for Sumo,” he says. “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.” Today, Konishiki sings pop music in six languages, runs his own record label and hosts a kid’s program on TV. He's also undergone a gastric bypass to live a healthier life. “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 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, one of the biggest casting agencies in Japan. That’s how I became a comedian. Sumo helped me reach a place I never thought I'd get get to“ Although his Sumo career was only six months, for Hirose Yasuyuki it served a purpose.
Sanyutei-Utamusashi also left Sumo to perform a traditional Japanese comedy style known as Rakugo. In fact, every day, hundreds of Japanese business people file into an auditorium to watch him perform as they eat their lunches. “I like having a set of strict rules, whatever job it might be,” he says. In Rakugo, a storyteller sits on the stage alone and uses only his voice, enchanting with simple changes in pitch and tone and 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. Even though I had only six months of experience in Sumo, it is actually a great source of inspiration. I was injured so soon, I had to stop. But I would never be what I am now without Sumo”. Sanyutei-Utamusashi's dream is to travel around the world and perform for Japanese solders stationed abroad.
Sumo's hard physical training can lead some to parlay their skills into careers in other sports. Hoshi Tango—literally “Star Tango” in Japanese, is now a professional wrestler. But in 1986, at the age of 22, he became the first Argentinian Sumo. At the time, he knew nothing about Japan and didn't speak a word of Japanese. He continued a career in Sumo for 17 years. Today, he still lives in Ryogoku: “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 freestyle 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 to code. To his fans, he was known as the intellectual Sumo wrestler, and thanks to his interest in the Internet, his Sumo team was the first to launch a website in 2001. In 2005 he sustained a leg injury. After nine years as a Sumo, it was the first time Tassy needed to think about another job. While in the hospital, he noticed that the public was following his daily updates. “I'd never realized how many [people] were reading my blog and I wanted to communicate with them” Before long, he started designing and updating websites for his colleagues, which turned into a full time job. In addition to his web work, he's also a writer and recently published a best-selling book about the real life of a sumo wrestler, including topics such as how to meet a girl, how wrestlers travel, what they eat, and what they do in their spare time.
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