Japan crowns homegrown sumo champion after 19-year wait

Kisenosato holds a fish during a ceremony promoting him to the highest rank of sumo wrestling, accompanied by his trainer and trainer's wife.

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New sumo champion crowned after 14 wins in January tournament

Sport has been dominated by Mongolians and other foreigners in recent years

CNN —  

After almost two decades of foreigners dominating its most iconic sport, Japan has a homegrown sumo champion again.

On Wednesday the Japan Sumo Association conferred on 30-year-old Kisenosato the sport’s highest rank, yokozuna, making him the 72nd Grand Champion and the first Japanese wrestler to gain the title since Wakanohana in 1998.

“I accept with all humility,” Kisenosato said at a ceremony to mark his promotion.

“I will devote myself to the role and try not to disgrace the title of yokozuna.”

Professional sumo consists of 10 levels, from jonokuchi to yokozuna, with wrestlers rising through the ranks as they rack up tournament wins.

Lonely at the top

After being promoted to ozeki, the second-highest rank, sumo wrestlers must win two consecutive tournaments or post an equivalent record of wins.

After that, a judging body decides whether the wrestler has demonstrated the “correct character, poise and dignity.”

Among the more than 600 professional sumo wrestlers, there are currently less than four yokozuna, according to NHK.

Kisenosato’s promotion comes after winning the new year tournament with a record of 14 victories and one defeat.

The 175 kilogram (385 lb) Kisenosato, real name Yutaka Hagiwara, has been competing since 2002, reaching the rank of ozeki in five years ago.

Foreign forces

Traditionally dominated by Japanese sportsmen, foreign born sumo wrestlers have outshone their local rivals in recent years.

At home, the sport has faced competition from more popular foreign imports like baseball and soccer, and been rocked by corruption and match fixing allegations.

Last year, 15 of the 42 wrestlers in the top division were from outside Japan, according to NHK. Wrestlers from Hawaii, Samoa and in particular Mongolia, where a traditional form of wrestling similar to sumo is practiced, have proliferated.

“Talking to Japanese fans, (they say) Mongolians are simply hungrier to win in sumo. In Japan, sumo wrestlers, even champions, aren’t particularly rich by national standards,” photographer Taylor Weidman, who shadowed Mongolian wrestlers last year, told CNN.

“In Mongolia, though, the same salaries seem much bigger. Sumo champions are also incredibly famous in Mongolia, and former champions have parlayed their sumo careers into careers in politics and business.”

There are 23 Mongolian wrestlers currently competing at all levels of professional sumo.

CNN’s Yoko Wakatsuki contributed reporting from Tokyo.