Prestigious Tokyo University could claim its first sumo wrestler

Hotaka Suyama is set to make history this week by passing the entrance test for new sumo recruits.

If successful, the 24-year-old will become the first-ever Tokyo University (Todai) graduate to enter professional sumo.

Although there is no shortage of former collegiate wrestlers in ōzumo – about a quarter of the top division is made up of university graduates – virtually all come from strong traditional sumo clubs at private universities.

Conversely, elite institutions such as the University of Tokyo are better known for producing leaders in business, science, and politics than for producing top professional athletes.

Among Todai alumni, you can find 18 prime ministers and 10 Nobel laureates, but very few famous names in the sports world.

Suyama becomes a rikishi would be comparable to an Oxford or Cambridge graduate playing Premier League football.

It’s an apt comparison, as Ipswich Town’s Steve Palmer remains the only man to date to have both graduated from Oxbridge and played in the top tier of English football.

If Suyama becomes the Japanese version of Palmer, he will do so at the Kise stable, which has long been known to favor college-educated recruits.

Jokoryu, Akiseyama and Hidenoumi are some of the best-known names among the large contingent of former college students in this stable.

All three, like their stable master, are graduates of the famous Nihon sumo university.

Kise does not recruit exclusively among its oyakata‘s alma mater, however.

Emperor’s Cup winner Tokushoryu hails from Kindai University, while fellow Kansai native Ura is the only ōzumo graduate of Kwansei Gakuin University, best known for hosting the most decorated college football program in the world.

Kise is a stable that has had problems in the past and was even shut down for a time by the Japan Sumo Association for selling tickets to figures involved in organized crime. Hidenoumi, meanwhile, escaped prosecution for visiting an illegal gambling establishment in 2021, but was suspended from the first tournament of 2022 as a result.

Ura, a product of Kwansei Gakuin University, is one of several college graduates to wrestle at the Kise stable. | KYODO

Suyama, if he joins the many other college graduates from the Kise stable, will become the first professional sumo rikishi from what is arguably Japan’s most prestigious seat of learning, but there were previously only a handful of graduates. national academics in this sport.

Ichinoya, a former member of the Takasago stable, is by far the most famous of this elite group despite spending the vast majority of his 24-year career in the second-lowest of sumo’s six divisions and he never got beyond the third level.

Despite having to compete for decades in front of empty and nearly silent early morning arenas, the undersized man from Ryukyus University loved the sport and continued to fight until he was 46 years old. before retiring as sumo’s oldest active wrestler.

The end of Ichinoya’s career coincides with the debut of another national college wrestler: Masumeidai.

With a ring name that combined the standard prefix of Chiganoura Beya and the abbreviation for Nagoya University, the Aichi native spent the early part of his ōzumo life shuttling between the stable and his university because he had not yet graduated when he made the decision. go pro.

Masumeidai’s sumo career was much shorter than Ichinoya’s, however, and within half a decade he left the sport and worked as a reporter for a major newspaper in central Japan.

Masumeidai was the first – and, to date, only – wrestler to hail from an ancient Imperial University, whose modern incarnations are Japan’s version of the Ivy League.

As distinguished as his career at the University of Nagoya was, it cannot compare to the cachet that accompanies the fact of having attended the University of Tokyo.

It’s something that makes Suyama’s decision to turn pro surprising.

Around the world, the prestige of an Ivy League or Oxbridge degree – when added to the powerful alumni networks of these institutions – opens many doors for their graduates.

The same is true in Japan.

There are countless well-paying and satisfying career paths available to Suyama or any University of Tokyo graduate, so the choice to join a sport known for its harsh lifestyle – and which does not financially compensate than the top 10% of wrestlers – is certainly newsworthy.

Whether this is a sign of change to come is debatable.

There has been a noticeable growth in the number of wrestlers entering professional sumo from the collegiate ranks in recent years, but even with this week’s news, non-traditional recruiting grounds such as Todai being part of that shift seem unlikely. .

Nihon University, Nippon Sport Science University and Kindai University remain at the top of the collegiate sumo tree and the talent treadmills for those programs show no signs of slowing down.

The perspective of a college or amateur yokozuna – not to mention a great ōzumo champion – coming from the University of Tokyo or any other national university in the short or even long term seems far away.

The only thing that could change the status quo is if some of the Mongolian and foreign prosects who started making their way into professional sumo after graduating from college in Japan choose to study at Todai or similar universities.

Even in such cases, however, the alternative paths available to such graduates can make ōzumo unattractive.

If Suyama overcomes the odds and succeeds in the professional ranks, things could change.

The odds are stacked against Suyama reaching the top two divisions, but the very fact that someone from his background tries to make it in ōzumo deserves attention – even if it’s not a harbinger of change.

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Robert J. King