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Rikishi (力士) is the Japanese term for a professional sumo wrestler. The two kanji characters that make up the word are "strength/power" and "gentleman/samurai"; consequently, and more idiomatically, 'a gentleman of strength'. This is reflective of the strength and toughness expected of a sumo wrestler and the gentleman samurai image still afforded to sumo wrestlers who have continued into modern times to dress as the samurai of old.
In popular use, the term rikishi can mean any sumo wrestler and an alternative term to sumotori (sumo practitioner) or the more colloquial sumosan. Within the world of sumo, rikishi is used as a catch-all term for wrestlers who are in the lower, un-salaried divisions of jonokuchi, jonidan, sandanme, and makushita. The more prestigious term sekitori is used to refer to wrestlers who have risen to the two highest divisions of jūryō and makuuchi and who have significantly more status, privilege and salary than their lower-division counterparts, as enumerated here. For details about the differences in competition between divisions see Professional sumo divisions.
The life of a sumo wrestler is strictly regimented, and has detailed prescriptions and rules for rikishi that have been observed for centuries, so much so that rikishi can be seen more as a way of life than a career.
They are expected to grow their hair long to form a topknot, or chonmage, similar to the samurai hairstyles of the Edo Period. Furthermore, they are expected to wear the chonmage and traditional Japanese dress at all times when in public. Sumo life centers around the training stables to which all active wrestlers belong. In addition, most wrestlers, and all junior ones, live in their stable in a dormitory style: training, cleaning, eating, sleeping and socializing together. For more details, see Life as a professional sumo wrestler.
Professional sumo is practiced exclusively in Japan, but wrestlers of other nationalities participate. As of August 2009 there were 55 wrestlers officially listed as foreigners. In July 2007, there were 19 foreigners in the top two divisions, which was an all-time record, and for the first time a majority of wrestlers in the top san'yaku ranks were from overseas. More recently, the ratio of foreigners has stabilized and as of November 2011 there were 18 foreigners in the two top divisions.
A Japanese-American, Toyonishiki, and the Korean-born Rikidōzan achieved sekitori status prior to World War II, but neither were officially listed as foreigners. The first non-Asian to achieve fame and fortune in sumo was Hawaii-born Takamiyama. He reached the top division in 1968 and in 1972 became the first foreigner to win the top division championship. He was followed by a fellow Hawaii-born 660 pound mega-weight, Konishiki of ethnic Samoan descent, the first foreigner to reach the rank of ōzeki in 1987; and the native Hawaiian Akebono, who became the first foreign-born yokozuna in 1993. Musashimaru, born in Samoa but from Hawaii, became the second foreigner to reach sumo's top rank in 1999. Four straight yokozuna, retired Asashōryū, and still active Hakuhō, Harumafuji Kōhei and Kakuryū Rikisaburō are all Mongolian. In 2012, the Mongolian Kyokutenhō became the oldest wrestler in modern history to win a top division championship. Wrestlers from Eastern European countries such as Georgia and Russia have also found success in the upper levels of sumo. In 2005 Kotoōshū from Bulgaria became the first wrestler of European birth to attain the ōzeki ranking and the first to win a top division championship. In another milestone, Brazilian Ryūkō Gō became the first foreign born wrestler to be given makushita tsukedashi status.
Until relatively recently, the Japan Sumo Association had no restrictions at all on the number of foreigners allowed in professional sumo. In May 1992, shortly after the Ōshima stable had recruited six Mongolians at the same time, the Sumo Association's new director Dewanoumi, the former yokozuna Sadanoyama, announced that he was considering limiting the number of overseas recruits per stable and in sumo overall. There was no official ruling, but no stable recruited any foreigners for the next six years. This unofficial ban was then relaxed, but only two new foreigners per stable were allowed, until the total number reached 40. Then in 2002, a one foreigner per stable policy was officially adopted, though the ban was not retroactive, so foreigners recruited before the changes were unaffected. Though the move has been met with criticism, there are no plans to relax the restrictions at this time. Originally, it was possible for a place in a stable to open up if a foreign born wrestler acquired Japanese citizenship. This occurred when Hisanoumi changed his nationality from Tongan at the end of 2006, allowing another Tongan to enter his stable, and Kyokutenhō's change of citizenship allowed Ōshima stable to recruit Mongolian Kyokushūhō in May 2007. However, on February 23, 2010 the Sumo Association announced that it had changed its definition of "foreign" to "foreign-born" (gaikoku shusshin), meaning that even naturalized Japanese citizens will be considered as foreigners if they were born outside Japan. The restriction on one foreign wrestler per stable was also reconfirmed. As Japanese law does not recognize subcategories of Japanese citizen, this unique treatment of naturalized citizens may well be illegal under Japanese law, although the restriction has never been challenged in court.
While sumo is considered a martial art, it diverges from the typical Eastern style both at the surface and at its heart. Whereas most martial arts award promotions to practitioners through time and practice, a rikishi's sumo rank can be gained and lost every two months in the official tournaments. Conversely, in more common Japanese martial arts (such as karate), ranks are gained after passing a single test, and practitioners of karate are not normally demoted, even after repeated poor performances at tournaments. This divergence from other martial arts creates a high-pressure, high-intensity environment for rikishi. All the benefits that sekitori wrestlers receive can be taken from them if they fail to maintain a high level of achievement in each official tournament (or honbasho).
Furthermore, sumo does not provide any means of achievement besides the official tournaments. A rikishi's rank is determined solely by his number of wins during an official tournament. On the other hand, in many other Eastern martial arts, competitors can display their skill by performing standard routines, called kata or forms, to receive recognition. Thus, sumo wrestlers are very specialized fighters who train to win their bouts using good technique, as this is their only means of gaining better privileges in their stables and higher salaries.
The numerous differences between sumo and its martial arts counterparts have not deterred many former sumo wrestlers from competing in mixed martial arts. Most have had limited achievement; perhaps the most successful sumo wrestler to have competed in MMA is Tadao Yasuda who holds a record of two wins and four losses. Sumo wrestlers are seen as generally ineffective in MMA because the sports are vastly different from one another in achieving victory; striking techniques and submissions are required for MMA and neither are taught in sumo wrestling. A Sumo wrestler would need to train in MMA techniques which has not been the case in the past, as the few sumo wrestlers of distinction to compete in MMA did so for financial reasons and not a career change. A few key sumo techniques which require grabbing the belt or pants of the opponent also become ineffective, as this is illegal in MMA.
Other sumo wrestlers to have fought in mixed martial arts include Alan Karaev, Kōji Kitao, Henry Armstrong Miller, Akebono Tarō, Teila Tuli and Wakashoyo. Former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Lyoto Machida also has a sumo background but his main style is Shotokan Karate.