Photo/IllutrationTochinoshin is all smiles at a news conference after he received an official word of promotion on May 30. At his left is stablemaster Kasugano. (Nobuo Fujiwara)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

When Georgian Tochinoshin entered the sumo world a dozen years ago, his toughest opponent was not waiting for him in the dohyo ring.

Instead, the language barrier blocked his path.

Today, Tochinoshin, 30, who was promoted to the second-highest rank of ozeki on May 30, sometimes finds himself speaking Japanese even when he returns to his home country.

That's a long way from when Tochinoshin, born Levan Gorgadze, came to Japan in 2005 at age 17 to join the Kasugano stable.

The Japanese language book he brought with him had a limited number of words.

The wife of stablemaster Kasugano, Noriko, could not find a Japanese-Georgian dictionary. She bought a Russian dictionary, but it did not work because Tochinoshin could speak only rudimentary Russian.

Noriko could finally communicate with him enough to teach him the traditions of sumo after contacting an interpreter through the Georgian Embassy.

Initially, no one around him could speak his native language, except for Gagamaru, 31, another Georgian wrestler, who belongs to the nearby Kise stable.

Tochinoshin found peace of mind only when he was chatting with his countryman.

“My family told me that I could come home, but I was able to stick it out because senior wrestlers in my stable were kind,” Tochinoshin said.

Among them was Hiromitsu Munakata, 40, who was assigned to take care of the teenage wrestler.

“Without Munakata, I would have gone back to Georgia,” Tochinoshin said.

Munakata taught him unique greetings and other expressions used by sumo wrestlers, one at a time. It took half a year for Tochinoshin to get used to traditional greetings.

“Once he acquainted himself with greetings, everything went fine,” said Munakata.

In 2008, Munakata retired from sumo soon after Tochinoshin was promoted to the second-highest juryo division. Tochinoshin tearfully cut off his topknot, as is the custom, at a retirement ceremony.

“Tochinoshin was and is warm-hearted,” said Munakata.

On May 30, Tochinoshin made a brief speech to mark his promotion in fluent Japanese when he received an official notice from a Japan Sumo Association representative.

“I will follow what my stablemaster teaches me and work hard to be a role model for other sumo wrestlers,” said Tochinoshin, flanked by Kasugano and Noriko.

At a news conference after the ceremony, he said, “I have been nervous since yesterday. I awoke five or six times last night.”

Munakata is happy to see his “little brother” improving on his Japanese.

“I was surprised to hear him even joke in Japanese,” he said, recalling a telephone conversation after Tochinoshin won his first championship in January.

Tochinoshin became the first Georgian to ascend to ozeki after competing in 60 tournaments in the highest makuuchi division.

He shares the slowest pace of promotion with former ozeki Masuiyama since the current six-tournament-a-year system was introduced in 1958.

At the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament in July, Tochinoshin said he wants to post double-digit wins of the 15 in total.

Some hope that Tochinoshin will reach the highest rank of yokozuna in the near future, but he does not have the prospect of a further promotion on his mind.

“All I will do is to remain my usual self in the dohyo,” he said.