Prestigious University of Tokyo may claim its first sumo wrestler

Hotaka Suyama is set to make history this week when he takes the entrance test for new sumo recruits.

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

Although there is no shortage of former collegiate wrestlers in ōzumo — roughly a quarter of the top division is comprised of university graduates – virtually all come from traditional powerhouse sumo clubs at private universities.

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

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

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

That’s an apt comparison, as Ipswich Town’s Steve Palmer remains the sole man to date to have both attained an Oxbridge degree and played in English soccer’s top tier.

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

Jokoryu, Akiseyama and Hidenoumi are some of the better-known names among that stable’s large ex-collegian contingent.

All three, like their stablemaster, are graduates of the famed sumo powerhouse Nihon University.

Kise doesn’t exclusively recruit from its oyakata’s alma mater, however.

Emperor’s Cup winner Tokushoryu hails from Kindai University, while fellow Kansai native Ura is ōzumo’s sole graduate from Kwansei Gakuin University — better known as the home of the world’s most-decorated college football program.

Kise is a stable that has had issues in the past, and was even shuttered for a time by the Japan Sumo Association over the selling of 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.

Kwansei Gakuin University product Ura is one of several university graduates wrestling at Kise stable. | KYODO
Kwansei Gakuin University product Ura is one of several university graduates wrestling at Kise stable. | KYODO

Suyama, if he joins the numerous other college graduates at Kise stable, will become the first rikishi in professional sumo from what is arguably Japan’s most prestigious seat of learning, but there have previously been a handful of national university graduates in the sport.

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

Despite having to compete for decades in front of empty and near-silent early morning arenas, the undersized man from the University of the Ryukyus famously loved the sport, and kept fighting until the age of 46 before retiring as the oldest active wrestler in sumo.

The end of Ichinoya’s career overlapped with the start of another national university wrestler: Masumeidai.

With a ring name that combined Chiganoura Beya’s standard prefix and the abbreviation for Nagoya University, the Aichi native spent the early part of his ōzumo life shuttling back and forth between the stable and his university as he hadn’t yet graduated when he made the decision to turn pro.

Masumeidai’s sumo career was far shorter than Ichinoya’s, however, and within half a decade he was out of the sport and working as a journalist at a major newspaper in central Japan.

Masumeidai was the first — and, to date, only — wrestler to hail from a former Imperial University, the modern incarnations of which are Japan’s version of the Ivy league.

Distinguished as his Nagoya University background was, it can’t compare with the cachet that comes with having attended the University of Tokyo.

That’s something which makes Suyama’s decision to turn pro surprising.

Around the world, the prestige of an Ivy League or Oxbridge degree — when added to those institution’s powerful alumni networks — opens many doors for their graduates.

The same holds true in Japan.

There are countless well-compensated and satisfying career paths available to Suyama or any graduate of the University of Tokyo, so the choice to join a sport notorious for the harshness of its lifestyle — and one that only financially compensates the top 10% of wrestlers — is certainly newsworthy.

Whether it’s a sign of coming change is debatable.

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

Nihon University, Nippon Sport Science University and Kindai University remain atop the tree in collegiate sumo and the conveyor belts of talent at those programs show no signs of slowing down.

The prospect of a college or amateur yokozuna — let alone an ōzumo grand champion — coming from the University of Tokyo or any other national university in the near or even long term seems remote.

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

Even in such cases, though, the alternative pathways available to those graduates may make ōzumo seem unattractive.

If Suyama overcomes the odds and succeeds in the pro ranks, however, then things could change.

The odds are against Suyama making it to the top two divisions, but the very fact that someone from his background is attempting to succeed in ōzumo deserves attention — even if it’s not a harbinger of change.

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