By KENICHI HATO/ Staff Writer
May 10, 2020 at 08:00 JST
With sumo wrestlers unable to engage in regular training due to the coronavirus pandemic, stablemaster Arashio knows their frustrations all too well.
Arashio, formerly known as Sokokurai when he competed in the sport’s top division, was suspended in 2011 when a match-rigging scandal rocked the sumo community.
He was dismissed as a wrestler by the Japan Sumo Association on suspicion of having engaged in the irregularities.
"It was really painful because I had just started finding joy in competing in sumo at that time," said Arashio, 36, who became the first Chinese to run his own stable this spring.
After he filed a lawsuit demanding that his dismissal be nullified, Arashio asked friends to let him to stay at their homes. He then joined a company's rugby team to substitute for sumo practice.
Two years later, a court ordered that the association’s dismissal be rescinded, allowing Arashio to make a comeback at the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament in July 2013.
"It is fortuitous for wrestlers to be able to practice and do sumo," said Arashio.
In his 17-year career, Arashio made his ring debut when he was 19 and achieved promotion to the top division at age 26.
After he received an award for his exceptional skills for the first time in the 2017 New Year Grand Sumo Tournament at 33, Arashio rose to maegashira No. 2--the highest ranking in his career--in the next spring tournament.
"I want my junior wrestlers to build good sumo careers so they will never have any regrets," said Arashio a month after he took over the stable from his predecessor, komusubi Oyutaka, recalling the years he devoted himself fully to the sport.
GRAPPLING WITH VIRUS OUTBREAK
One day in early April, Arashio was seen giving instructions to his 10 disciples, including juryo wrestler Wakatakakage, by gesturing in a white "mawashi" loincloth in the morning practice session.
"My arm strength was weaker, and I was poor at getting a good start in bouts," said Arashio. "But the strength is not the only factor important in sumo. I will share detailed skills, such as how to move your waist and how to twist your body, with trainees."
Immediately following that day, the Japan Sumo Association ordered all stables not to carry out battering and match-style practices. The Arashio stable forbids those kinds of training and instead will concentrate on such basic exercises as "shiko" ground stomping and "teppo" pillar slamming.
Members of the stable are refraining from going out to convenience stores, and those who want to venture out are only allowed to go to a nearby park for a 30-minute walk at 8 p.m. or later.
Although his otherwise glorious debut as a master was strained by challenges from the virus outbreak, Arashio said he is still in high spirits to "overcome the difficulty together."
"I am concerned about wrestlers' growing stress as they cannot practice or refresh themselves, but what is most important right now is not spreading the infection and is protecting their health," Arashio said.
He noted that whereas they are forced to stay at the stable during the pandemic, daily pleasures can still be had by enjoying meals with his stable members. Arashio recently cooked a specialty from his hometown in the Inner Mongolia region with his homemade noodle and mutton-flavored soup for his trainees.
"I want to keep as close a watch as possible on my disciples in this time of difficulty," he said.
Now, Arashio is dreaming of the day when the threat of the virus will vanish, leading to many people visiting the stable again.
The Arashio stable in Tokyo's Chuo Ward has a large window so visitors can watch wrestlers practicing from outside. Sumo fans can take photos with the wrestlers, so the stable is especially popular with over 200 people visiting it last year on one day.
As being the first Chinese stablemaster drew considerable attention in his home country as well, many posts were reportedly uploaded on social media sites by those who "would like to tour the stable."
"When the situation improves, I want people to cheer for wrestlers again," Arashio said. "I will further refine the stable with a top priority put on the lives of the athletes."
MASTERS FROM OUTSIDE JAPAN
Hawaiian Azumazeki, who is also known as sekiwake Takamiyama, is famed for being he first stable head of non-Japanese origin. He retired as a stablemaster in 2009. After his wrestling career ended in 1984, Azumazeki became independent from the Takasago stable and developed yokozuna Akebono.
In addition, after Azumazeki, former yokozuna Musashimaru, also from Hawaii, who now goes by the name of Musashigawa; Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu, who is called Naruto as a stablemaster; and Mongolian sekiwake Kyokutenho, or master Tomozuna, have opened their own stables.
That means those from outside Japan serve as masters at four of the current 45 sumo stables, including the Arashio one.
Kunihiro Sugiyama, formerly a newscaster at Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK), who has long engaged in sumo reporting, touched on the difficulties facing stablemasters of foreign origin.
"Stablemasters from outside Japan do not have their hometowns in this country so they often struggle to recruit new trainees," Sugiyama said. "The same applies to Arashio, who has just begun managing his own stable."
Sugiyama, however, said that he believes Arashio can overcome this and other difficulties.
"I was surprised at Arashio's patience and tenacious nature (when coming back after the bout-rigging scandal)," he said. "His polite attitude and experience of refining his sumo techniques despite his small body will help him as a stablemaster. I hope he does well."
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