Photo/IllutrationYokozuna Wajima performs the "dohyo-iri" (ring entering) ceremony. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Former yokozuna Wajima, who died on Oct. 8 at age 70, often got similar-sounding words and expressions mixed up, eliciting mock groans or chuckles from people who heard his mistakes.

When I was a schoolboy, “playing Wajima” was a popular game among sumo fans.

For instance, “nekojita,” which translates literally as “cat’s tongue,” means being unable to handle hot food or drink. And “nekoze,” or “cat’s back,” is an idiom for round-shouldered.

We boys would deliberately misuse these expressions by interchanging them. Another example would be saying “cholesterol” instead of “collect call.”

But so invincible was Wajima on the dohyo, his goofy slips of the tongue came across as charming and pretty cool.

Wajima was promoted to ozeki simultaneously with Takanohana (1950-2005), and the two ushered in an exciting era that was called “Ki-Rin”--one way of pronouncing the kanji for “Taka” and “Wa,” respectively.

After his elevation to the highest rank of yokozuna, he and Kitanoumi (1953-2015), his same-rank rival who was five years his junior, established the “Rin-Ko” era.

Wajima sported a golden “mawashi” belt. The color was definitely unorthodox, and so was his style of sumo itself.

Disproving the sport’s axiom that “grabbing the opponent’s mawashi over his arm is the proper way to win, never by an underarm throw,” Wajima perfected the technique of downing his opponent with a powerful underarm throw from the left.

His flashy lifestyle also drew attention. He drove to tournament sites in top-of-the-line imported cars and spent money at fancy nightclubs in Tokyo’s posh Ginza district like there was no tomorrow.

Totally unapologetic, he would simply say: “It’s all my money. What’s wrong with that?”

But in his post-retirement life, he was a pathetic sight at times. He tried his hand at pro-wrestling, wearing his trademark golden pants. He also promoted himself as an entertainment personality.

There was not a vestige of his gravitas from his yokozuna years, which saddened his former fans.

Until his final years, Wajima cared deeply about Ishikawa Prefecture, the place of his birth. He made frequent visits to the prefecture while he was still active in sumo and tried to instill love of the sport in local children.

He donated a dohyo to the primary school he had attended, and coached sumo camps for junior high school students at his alma mater.

His post-sumo life was anything but smooth, but Wajima never lost his sunny optimism.

He once told The Asahi Shimbun: “I don’t like to talk about adversity. Life is like a meal--sometimes delicious, sometimes unappetizing.”

I will never forget these words.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 10

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.