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Original Issue


Now it's sleeper holds and airplane spins for a grand master

Hiroshi Wajima once made his living in a far more dignified manner, but now he is sprawled on the floor beside a ring in Nanao, Japan. He is there because the fat man in the green turban has just heaved him over the ropes. Wajima, who appears to be in deep trouble, is surrounded by photographers, and the sound of camera shutters is almost as loud as that of the crowd, which is fervently partial to its hometown son. Slowly, Wajima rises. As he gets to his feet, the crowd begins to chant: "Wa-ji-ma! Wa-ji-ma!"

Wajima has fallen a lot farther than merely out of a wrestling ring. Only five years before this match, he had been a revered grand champion sumo wrestler, one of only 62 men to attain that title in early 350 years.

As grand master he led a lofty life. Young attendants ran his errands, lesser sumo wrestlers from his stable scrubbed his back in the bath before he entered the arena and tied the great white hawser of a grand champion's belt around his 290-pound body. When Wajima married, 2,500 guests attended the ceremony. The official liaison man between his family and his bride's was a future foreign minister of Japan; another guest was a former prime minister. Wajima had married late—he was 33—but he did marry appropriately, choosing the daughter of the master of his sumo wrestling stable.

That, Wajima says, was another life, another world. "I'm not Grand Champion Wajima anymore," he says. "I don't want to be asked about the past."

Instead he will only talk of his beginning again as a pro wrestler, a performer in the world of stagecraft and one-dimensional heroes and villains. Like all beginnings in Japan, even Grand Champion Wajima had to start at the bottom. He was required to do what his young attendants once did for him: He scrubbed the backs of his elders and his superiors in the All-Japan Pro Wrestling Company. "Everything has a beginning," Wajima says in his deep, thick voice. "I've done it before. I knew this is the way it would be."

Sumo grand champions are supposed to retire into comfortable careers of training their successors. Having accomplished great things for their sport, they are rewarded with security in the world of sumo, Japan's most visible remaining bastion of feudalism. If, after a lifetime of overeating and overdrinking, grand champions are prone to die of liver or kidney failure in their 50s, then that, too, is part of the sumo way. It looked as if that would be Wajima's way as well. He inherited his father-in-law's stable when he retired in 1981. He also had a restaurant, which he operated with his sister. It specialized in chankonabe, the thick stew sumo wrestlers consume to build themselves up.

In Japan, a society built upon expectations met, no one expects a former sumo wrestler, especially a grand champion, to violate the rules of the omnipotent Sumo Association. Certainly not to do what Wajima did, which was to use his share in the Sumo Association essentially as collateral for a loan to repay his debts when his restaurant failed in 1985. The association had only 105 partners, and outsiders were strictly excluded. By putting up his partnership in the association as collateral, Wajima had risked letting his share of the association fall into outside hands, hands that could, in turn, sell it to the highest bidder. No one, ever, had committed such an offense before Wajima. It was a disgrace, and disgrace is dealt with harshly in Japan.

Now the transgressions of the younger Wajima were turned from colorful elements of legend into a further indictment of his character.

•As a young competitor not yet eligible for a sumo wrestler's distinctive topknot, had Wajima not permed his hair and affected a Beatle hairstyle?

•Had he not been immodest by being the first grand champion in history to wrestle under his own name?

•Had he not driven a big Lincoln Continental and stayed in luxury hotels on the road, while the other wrestlers lived in Buddhist temples?

•Had he not refused to hold to the clannish tradition of sumo even outside of the ring, putting in many long and late hours to earn himself the nickname Emperor of the Night?

For the shame he brought on the Sumo Association, Wajima faced banishment, but before he could be drummed out of his revered sport, Wajima resigned from the association, thereby surrendering all his perks and his status. His wrestling stable was disbanded. Wajima publicly apologized for what he had done, but by then he was a pariah. He was also heavily in debt—by as much as $2 million, it was rumored.

Broke and disgraced, Wajima volunteered to join the All-Japan Pro Wrestling Company in 1986. And so he entered the world of Giant Baba, a 6'8½", 319-pound wrestler with a fondness for cigars and a knack for promotion. "Mr. Baba became my boss," Wajima says. "Mr. Baba told me, 'Become a man one more time.' "

Baba has been a professional wrestler for 28 years. He now became Wajima's mentor. In Japan it is assumed that a mentor knows all and his student knows nothing.

Baba took Wajima to Hawaii. There, he taught the grand champion the ways of pro wrestling: the sleeper holds, the spins, the falls, how to quiver theatrically from the force of a supposed blow to the head. Sometimes, when Wajima did not perform as expected, Baba slapped his face. Once, he chipped some of Wajima's front teeth.

"After my first fight I washed Mr. Baba's back," Wajima recalls. "And as I washed his back, in my mind I could see his back overlap with the image of my sumo stable master's back. In that moment I forgot all my troubles and decided that I would keep fighting for him and be a good wrestler."

Baba's troupe traveled to the U.S.—Buffalo; Charlotte, N.C.; Las Vegas; St. Louis. In Las Vegas, Wajima posed in the Hilton Hotel ring with Mike Tyson. In St. Louis he posed under the Gateway Arch wearing a Cardinals football jersey. The publicity shots were included in the Japan All-Pro calendar.

After six months in the U.S., the time came to return to Japan. There was talk of staging Wajima's Japanese pro wrestling debut in the Ryogoku Kokugikan, Tokyo's famed sumo arena. However, the Sumo Association refused permission. Wajima's debut took place in the seaport city of Nanao, his hometown.

That afternoon was chilly. The arena at the edge of town would not open its doors until 5 p.m., but the first shivering fans were on line for tickets three hours earlier. Wajima spent the afternoon at a nearby spa. For the most part, he sat staring at the Sea of Japan. Baba leaned back, a huge cigar clenched in his teeth.

Nearby was a group of reporters and photographers who had been following Wajima since he returned to Japan a few days earlier. At first he had given interviews, but suddenly he insisted on being left alone. Headlines in the newspapers that had lionized him now read, WHERE IS WAJIMA?

"I wanted to go to my stable master's grave and pray," says Wajima. "I wanted to visit his grave and say a lot to him. But if I moved, the media would follow me, so I couldn't go."

Wajima was scheduled to enter the ring at 7 p.m. By that time his old junior high school classmates had hung up a banner wishing him luck. A man in plaid pants and a paisley jacket held up a sign that read SUPER WAJIMA. But this was not the same devotion that had inspired his hometown fans years before, when they would take bus rides across the island of Honshu to see Grand Master Wajima wrestle in Toyko. Jukichi Naraoki, 73, explained it this way: "We were very proud of him once, but what he did disappointed and embarrassed us. I want to see whether he has accepted what he did. I want to see if he has changed now that he is starting all over at the very beginning."

The house lights went down. The spotlights turned on the entrances. Three young women in kimonos entered the ring with bouquets. Clanging music echoed through the hall. It was the introduction for Wajima's opponent, Tiger Jeet Singh, the villain. Tiger didn't appear. The music suddenly stopped, and a college fight song flooded the jammed arena. And there, coming down an aisle, in the spotlight, was Wajima. He wore a long white robe with an orange collar. The chanting began—"Wa-ji-ma! Wa-ji-ma!" He climbed into the ring, raised a fist and accepted the bouquets. He looked stern. He folded his arms across his chest and spread his legs wide to await Tiger Jeet Singh.

Tiger knew how to make an entrance. He came in menacing the crowd with a gold saber. He flung chairs about. People ran. The Tiger did not wait for any formal introductions. He leaped into the ring and tore into Wajima. He grabbed him by the hair. He kicked him. He threw him out of the ring.

The people wailed and chanted. They begged Wajima to get back in the ring and fight. He climbed back, and in a matter of moments, he had the Tiger's leg wrapped around a ring post. Then he thumped the Tiger with a swift kick.

Baba knelt attentively at ringside, watching his protègè. Now Wajima, now the Tiger, using his nefarious tricks, took the upper hand. The crowd implored Wajima to win.

The wrestlers tumbled outside the ring. They fought up the aisles. They fought among the people in the ringside seats. They kicked, slapped and clawed at each other. Finally, the melee became too fierce. Men appeared to pull them apart, and the Tiger was led away. But Wajima was not through. He broke from the arms of the men restraining him. He ran down the aisle and out into the corridor, shouting for the Tiger. But Tiger Jeet Singh had disappeared. Baba led Wajima back.

Wajima stepped into the ring and stood there alone, the arena echoing with the chant "Wa-ji-ma! Wa-ji-ma!" The former grand master waved and bowed. People were again for him. It was a beginning.



Wajima is one of but 62 sumo wrestlers to be elevated to grand master since the 1600s.


On a U.S. tour, Wajima (in white) posed with a pro wrestling tag team, the Road Warriors.

Michael Shapiro lives in Tokyo and has recently completed a book about Japan.