“Japanese society is simply sumo wrestling writ large. Business organizations pretty much operate the same way as the sport. However, instead of a boss, you have a stable master. I came to understand this when I went to work in Japan. Before that, I thought it was just an old relic of Japan. This was when I first got into sumo at the age of 13 as I was growing up in Germany. I wanted to enter the world of sumo, but being female, I could only pursue it either as an amateur wrestler or as a researcher. I guess I’m more of an academic.
“It’s a tough place to be. Imagine you’re a 15-year-old school kid, fresh from middle school, with dreams of becoming a ‘Yokozuna’ (grand champion). You join a stable and almost instantly everyone tramples on you to toughen you up.
“You live in a room filled with futons and people snoring and farting; basically no privacy. You get called names and all kinds of derogatory epithets. Also, it’s very hard to reach the top. Only 10 percent ever reach paid ranks. So what do you do when you retire at 32 or so with no savings, no high school diploma, and maybe diabetes? After ruining your body, you’re looking at a life expectancy that’s 5 to 6 years shorter than average.
“I interviewed a former sumo wrestler for my Master’s thesis. I found him working at a karaoke place. He told me he was lucky enough to get a job through his girlfriend, whom he wasn’t even allowed to date because it’s forbidden if you’re not yet a ‘Sekitori’ (ranking wrestler in the top two divisions). I asked him shouldn’t his stable master or the ‘Kouenkai’ (support association) help him transition to the outside world and he said ‘Ha! Nobody helped me. If not for my girlfriend, I wouldn’t have found a job.’ Like him and another guy, who is now a mechanic, most end up with very regular jobs (if they find any at all). In some cases, they might even associate with the yakuza.
“We need to help former wrestlers have a better ‘second life’ if we don’t want Japan’s national sport to die. This is one of my goals at ‘Saving Sumo‘ and I’m going to write a book about it.”