[From October Issue 2013]
Real name: Abdelrahman SHALAN
“I was very happy when I qualified as a ranking wrestler (sekitori),” says OOSUNAARASHI Kintarou. Oosunaarashi is a sumo wrestler. Sumo is a traditional martial art in Japan. There are about 700 professional sumo wrestlers, but only 8% of them are recognized as sekitori (fully-fledged wrestlers). Oosunaarashi is now 21. He was promoted to juuryou (the second highest division) only two years after making his debut.
Even though the history of sumo in Japan’s stretches back over 1,000 years, there has never been a wrestler like Oosunaarashi until now. Oosunaarashi is the first Egyptian, the first African and the first Muslim. Moreover, he’s risen through the ranks so quickly that he’s famous enough to be invited to the Japanese Prime Minister’s parties.
Oosunaarashi was born in 1992 in the Dakahlia Governorate of northern Egypt. His father was a professional soccer player, but because he didn’t like soccer, Oosunaarashi trained as a bodybuilder since childhood.
When he was 14, he met someone at a bodybuilding gym who was into sumo. He was invited to have a go himself. Sumo is not widely practiced in Egypt. There are only about 50 enthusiasts. “Two overweight men were pushing each other; they looked just like jostling elephants,” says Oosunaarashi candidly.
Oosunaarashi weighed around 120kg then. He challenged a wrestler who weighed 75kg. He thought he could “win easily,” but lost every time. Shocked, he thought, “What kind of a sport is this?” As soon as he got home he did some research on the Internet. He was impressed when he watched the famous wrestler Takanohana in a bout.
Oosunaarashi went to the gym the following day and told his trainer, “I want to be a pro wrestler in Japan.” Of course, he wasn’t taken seriously, so he practiced everyday by watching footage on the Internet. As a result he came second place at the Egyptian championships a month later and took first place the next year. He performed exceptionally well at the World Championships, too. However, when he posted that he wanted “to go to Japan to be a sumo wrestler” on a sumo chat site, he was mocked. He wrote letters to people involved in sumo in Japan, too, but got few answers.
However, his enthusiasm was eventually recognized, and he was able to go to Japan in September 2011. Since it was soon after the Great East Japan Earthquake, his mother was vehemently opposed to the idea. Oosunaarashi was able to come to Japan by persuading her that, “I’ve been dreaming of going to Japan for five whole years. I’ll do my best for you, too.”
There are considerable cultural differences between Japan and Egypt. For example, when a problem occurs, Egyptians make their opinions known, whereas Japanese immediately apologize. Men walk hand in hand in Egypt, but not in Japan. Japanese are used to the sight of near-naked wrestlers, but Egyptians are uncomfortable with this. This is because, according to Islamic doctrine, men must also cover their midriffs.
“In Egypt, everyone wore sport shorts under their loincloths. I was ashamed, too, at first, but I soon began to joke about it. Mawashi (loincloth) means cow in Arabic.” Oosunaarashi says bellowing like a cow. “I’m already used to it. This is my formal attire now,” he laughs.
Oosunaarashi is a positive person, but he often experiences culture shock. “Egypt and Japan are worlds apart. Moreover, the culture of sumo isn’t exactly the culture of Japan.” Sumo has a strict hierarchy with elders giving orders to their juniors. Newcomers can’t come and go as they please because they have to do chores like cleaning, laundry and dishwashing. Such customs in sumo seem quite conservative even to Japanese eyes.
“When I was new, I lived in a room for six and did a lot of chores,” says Oosunaarashi. In sumo, there are other peculiar customs, such as being given a wrestling name like “Oosunaarashi Kintarou,” having an old samurai hairstyle, and wearing a kimono as part of your everyday routine. There are unique words like “heya” which means a stable for sumo wrestlers.
Even Japanese quit if they can’t adapt to the world of sumo. “Quite honestly, I haven’t overcome my culture shock yet. The food, the people and the culture are all really different. I encounter problems every day. I’m learning Japanese by listening to others talking around me, but I can’t speak well yet,” he says with a sad look on his face. “But I’m training hard every day and studying the culture. All I can do is my best,” he says.
In the world of sumo, sekitori wrestlers get special treatment. They are allowed to wear high quality kimono and have someone to look after them. They also customarily perform a ceremony before each bout in a spectacular apron-like loincloth. “I felt good, but I was nervous.” Non-ranking wrestlers only get six payments a year of 70,000 to 150,000 yen each. Ranking wrestlers (sekitori) get more than a million yen a month.
But Oosunaarashi says, “Money isn’t everything. You can’t buy health with money.” During sumo bouts wrestlers shove each other violently and quite a few get injured. “My mother tells me ‘You don’t have to buy anything to bring back from Japan. Just stay well.’ It’s a great thing being a ranking wrestler, but it’s also tough. I feel I have a duty to remain in the sekitori (above juuryou division).”
During Ramadan, Oosunaarashi won despite not having eaten anything since the morning. Although Islamic diet and customs are often controversial, he swears that, “Religion isn’t a barrier. I haven’t been a victim of any prejudice, either. There’s pressure from being in the spotlight, but I try not to think about it too much.” Oosunaarashi’s dream is to become yokozuna (champion). “My idol is Takanohana. He’s a man with a good heart. I too would like to be a wrestler loved by family and friends, who everyone is proud of.”
Text: SAZAKI Ryo
Photos: HAMANO Yutaka