SI Vault
Michael Shapiro
March 07, 1988
Now it's sleeper holds and airplane spins for a grand master
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
March 07, 1988

Down From Sumo's Summit

Now it's sleeper holds and airplane spins for a grand master

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Hiroshi Wajima once made his living in a far more dignified manner, but now he is sprawled on the floor beside a ring in Nanao, Japan. He is there because the fat man in the green turban has just heaved him over the ropes. Wajima, who appears to be in deep trouble, is surrounded by photographers, and the sound of camera shutters is almost as loud as that of the crowd, which is fervently partial to its hometown son. Slowly, Wajima rises. As he gets to his feet, the crowd begins to chant: "Wa-ji-ma! Wa-ji-ma!"

Wajima has fallen a lot farther than merely out of a wrestling ring. Only five years before this match, he had been a revered grand champion sumo wrestler, one of only 62 men to attain that title in early 350 years.

As grand master he led a lofty life. Young attendants ran his errands, lesser sumo wrestlers from his stable scrubbed his back in the bath before he entered the arena and tied the great white hawser of a grand champion's belt around his 290-pound body. When Wajima married, 2,500 guests attended the ceremony. The official liaison man between his family and his bride's was a future foreign minister of Japan; another guest was a former prime minister. Wajima had married late—he was 33—but he did marry appropriately, choosing the daughter of the master of his sumo wrestling stable.

That, Wajima says, was another life, another world. "I'm not Grand Champion Wajima anymore," he says. "I don't want to be asked about the past."

Instead he will only talk of his beginning again as a pro wrestler, a performer in the world of stagecraft and one-dimensional heroes and villains. Like all beginnings in Japan, even Grand Champion Wajima had to start at the bottom. He was required to do what his young attendants once did for him: He scrubbed the backs of his elders and his superiors in the All-Japan Pro Wrestling Company. "Everything has a beginning," Wajima says in his deep, thick voice. "I've done it before. I knew this is the way it would be."

Sumo grand champions are supposed to retire into comfortable careers of training their successors. Having accomplished great things for their sport, they are rewarded with security in the world of sumo, Japan's most visible remaining bastion of feudalism. If, after a lifetime of overeating and overdrinking, grand champions are prone to die of liver or kidney failure in their 50s, then that, too, is part of the sumo way. It looked as if that would be Wajima's way as well. He inherited his father-in-law's stable when he retired in 1981. He also had a restaurant, which he operated with his sister. It specialized in chankonabe, the thick stew sumo wrestlers consume to build themselves up.

In Japan, a society built upon expectations met, no one expects a former sumo wrestler, especially a grand champion, to violate the rules of the omnipotent Sumo Association. Certainly not to do what Wajima did, which was to use his share in the Sumo Association essentially as collateral for a loan to repay his debts when his restaurant failed in 1985. The association had only 105 partners, and outsiders were strictly excluded. By putting up his partnership in the association as collateral, Wajima had risked letting his share of the association fall into outside hands, hands that could, in turn, sell it to the highest bidder. No one, ever, had committed such an offense before Wajima. It was a disgrace, and disgrace is dealt with harshly in Japan.

Now the transgressions of the younger Wajima were turned from colorful elements of legend into a further indictment of his character.

?As a young competitor not yet eligible for a sumo wrestler's distinctive topknot, had Wajima not permed his hair and affected a Beatle hairstyle?

?Had he not been immodest by being the first grand champion in history to wrestle under his own name?

Continue Story
1 2 3
Related Topics
Hiroshi Wajima 1 0 0
Japan 507 0 3
Giant Baba 1 0 0
Sumo Association 1 0 0
Tokyo 195 0 2