The Gaijins' Woeful Tale

It was hardly a conventional American teen fantasy. Philip Smoak had glimpsed the hulking giants of sumo as a boy in the mid- 1970s, when his family lived in Japan. By 1980 Smoak was a high-school American football player in Houston, 190 pounds of Texan confidence. He yearned to test his strength against sumo stars, and revealed his dream in letters to the Tokyo-based magazine Sumo World. Publisher Andy Adams then contacted a prominent Japanese coach, or stable master, who agreed to mentor Smoak. The 17-year-old rookie arrived in Tokyo wearing cowboy boots and a ten-gallon hat, met his coach over a steak dinner and began training at 4:30 the next morning. "Within a few weeks he was phoning his mother every night," remembers Adams. "Soon they caught him trying to sneak onto Yokota Air Base to get a flight home." The master finally sent him packing.

Smoak wasn't the first gaijin to try the rigors of sumo. That honor goes to Colorado-born Harley Ozeki, who returned to wrestle in his ancestral home in the 1930s--a stroke of bad timing that ultimately landed him in the Japanese Imperial Army. Since then nearly a hundred foreigners from 16 nations have entered the ring in Japan's national sport. Unlike the Hawaiian power trio of Konishiki, Akebono and Musashimaru, who have dominated sumo since the mid-1980s, most foreigners fail to reach --much less conquer--the Makuuchi, or top rank. They hit the language barrier, choke on chankonabe, a hearty stew that's a staple inside every sumo camp or snap under the relentless hazing young warriors are expected to endure. "It's like boot camp, prison and war--all at the same time," recalls Eric (Fats) Gasper, a 280-pound Hawaiian whose ascent up sumo's junior ranks ended with a spinal injury in 1996. "It's the hardest thing I've ever done."

Few gaijin come prepared. They've seen tournament bouts, which typically last under a minute, but not the four-hour daily workouts or spartan stables. Young wrestlers sleep 20 to a room, share squat toilets, do their own cooking, cleaning and laundry and train without supervision from sports doctors. Twist a knee and the coach barks "gaman," or "endure." Starting pay is about $200 a month, plus room and board, and competitors must learn complex rituals, heed a strict code of conduct and master Japanese. Racism, too, is palpable. In the early 1980s, one stable master was not so subtly urged to quit courting African talent by a top wrestling official, who warned him to avoid wrestlers who "cannot wear a topknot," the traditional sumo hairdo.

Jesse Kuhaulua was the first wrestler of non-Japanese ancestry. The 19-year-old Hawaiian arrived in 1964 and fought under the name Takamiyama. Kuhaulua suffered legendary abuse at the hands of senior wrestlers. "They were tough on Jesse," says American sportswriter Mark Schilling. "One of his ears was almost gone." After retiring to become a stable master, he recruited Konishiki, who inspired rival camps to secure foreign talent of their own. One promising import, the towering Canadian brawler John Tenta, won 24 consecutive junior-division bouts before abruptly quitting. Among his beefs: a coach who objected to his Japanese girlfriend and demands that he submit to skin grafts to mask a tattoo. Tenta went on to win fame as the World Wrestling Federation's notorious Earthquake, Hulk Hogan's chief foil in the early 1990s.

Controversy has embroiled many foreign recruits. A Samoan was cashiered for refusing to drink sake. Three Filipinos took up sumo as a scam to get work visas. When a Japanese stable master recruited five Tongan wrestlers in 1975, then died unexpectedly, his replacement drove them out so brusquely that stable officials had to jet to the South Pacific and explain the incident to Tonga's king.

It doesn't always end so badly. Fats Gasper is still in Japan, despite his neck injury. "I like it here, and a few fans still remember me," he says. Gasper is working for his fellow Hawaiian Konishiki, and dreams of becoming an entertainer like his boss. So there is life in Japan after sumo, even for foreigners who never make it in the ring.