The Mongolian sumo wrestlers taking on the Japanese

Ask most people what they know about sumo wrestling and they’ll probably mention Japan and perhaps talk about ‘men in big white nappies’.

Outside of Asia very little is known about the centuries old sport and the new generation of Mongolian wrestlers who are taking over.

And so it was that I came to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, to learn more about Japan’s national sport and why it was that a majority of the world’s top sumo stars are no longer Japanese.

Despite originating in Japan, Mongolians are winning world medals in sumo. Credit: On Assignment

First stop was the Kyokushu Beya sports centre where three-time sumo world champion Naranbat has recently started coaching.

He left for sumo school in Japan at the age of just 15 and returned aged 30 to help other young Mongolian boys follow in his footsteps.

We watched as he carefully put sumo belts (mawashi) on the eight boys at class that night, including his own son who, having just turned nine, is now old enough to take part.

What we saw then really surprised me.

The boys were put through a tough, very ritualised warm up, including several rounds of squats that made me glad I was just watching.

When it came to the first bout, I was struck by the force of impact. Even these young boys didn’t hold back as they went at one another. The purpose being to propel your opponent out of the ring (dohyo) or into touching the mat with anything other than the soles of his feet.

Between each round there was ritual bowing - respect shown to your opponent and to the ring.

There was clearly one grudge match going on between two of the boys aged 10 and 11, the younger one in tears as he was beaten yet again by his older opponent.

The Mongolians skill at sumo comes from learning Mongolian wrestling at an early age. Credit: On Assignment

The regime Naranbat teaches is similar to what he learned during his time at sumo school in Japan.

When he moved there as a teenager he trained every day for more than 300 days a year to become one of the best sumo wrestlers of his generation.

In the stable (their name for a school) they had to conform to strict customs on what they ate, wore, and even how they had their hair. Initially he was made to shave his hair off but when he began to enter the professional circuit he had to grow it long.

He also had to become fluent in Japanese.

As Naranbat told me his story he and his mother, who was with us, became very emotional.

He’d left a close-knit family to go and live abroad in a strange country where he didn’t speak the language. He was only allowed to call home once every three months, and write home twice a month.

He was isolated, lonely and exhausted, but the pursuit of his sumo dream prevented him from quitting. The friend he’d come with had quit after a few months.

Naranbat was one of the first of a new generation of sumo wrestlers from Mongolia who have risen in the sport as the interest in Japan has declined.

As the Japanese economy has grown and the wealth of the nation has improved, young Japanese boys no longer aspire to be sumo wrestlers and participate in the punishing training it requires.

It is into this void that young Mongolian boys have leaped.

The country also has a strong tradition in wrestling.

Their famous conquering emperor Genghis Khan introduced it as one of the country’s three manly sports considered good for keeping his army in good shape and combat ready.

The other two sports are horsemanship and archery.

Genghis Khan promoted sumo wrestling in Mongolia. Credit: On Assignment

Every year coaches from Japan’s top sumo stables come to Mongolia and watch young boys competing in Mongolian traditional wrestling to see who might possess the necessary strength and skills to make it in sumo.

This year 15-year-old Ochirsaikhan was chosen as one of two who will go to Japan next year to pursue a career in sumo.

He told me he won’t return unless he has become a champion.

For a young boy like him, growing up in the Ger (yurt) district of Ulaanbaatar the sport offers a chance to get out and explore the world, gain status, and money.

The top sumo wrestlers in the world can earn good money from competitions and from the lucrative advertising deals which come with being high profile.

But in Mongolia it’s not the pursuit of wealth so much as the high regard given to someone who achieves highly in sport that encourages so many young boys into the sumo and which has led to Mongolia’s gradual domination.

Debi Edward meets a young wrestler hoping to become a sumo star. Credit: On Assignment

On our final day in Mongolia I met Tuvshijargal. She is a 17-year-old female sumo world champion.

According to Japanese custom women are not allowed to enter the ring and cannot become professional, but still there is a circuit of female wrestlers who are as committed as men to the success of the sport.

I asked her why she would dedicate so much time to sumo when she could never turn professional. She told me she had fallen in love with the tradition and rituals surrounding sumo.

She said it may have a reputation for being just some pushing and shoving, but when you get into it you understand it is about so much more.

After winning a gold medal at the World Championships this summer she vowed to continue breaking down barriers in the sport and at the same time breaking records.

It seems Mongolian men and women are determined to give Japan’s national sport a future.