- Fantasy Basho
Better Know a Rikishi: Wajima Hiroshi
He permed his hair before he grew it long enough to have a chonmage. He drove himself around in a Lincoln Continental. He refused to ever adopt a shikona, preferring to fight under his real name. He never quite followed the typical path of a rikishi, although he was one of the best sumo wrestlers of the 1970s. As a stablemaster, he refused to live on premises and commuted for each day’s practice. He was forced to retire from the Sumo Association in scandal and became a professional wrestler. He was a sensation for a brief second, but couldn’t reach the heights possible to him because of his sumo related injuries.
He was Wajima Hiroshi, and we will never see the likes of him again.
Wajima Hiroshi (輪島大士) was born on January 11, 1948 in Nanao, Ishikawa Prefecture. Ishikawa Prefecture is along the Northern end of the island of Honshu. Nanao is almost 500 km northwest of Tokyo, at the southern end of the Noto Peninsula. On the Noto Peninsula itself lies the town of Wajima. As that illustrates, the name isn’t particularly uncommon, but is very much of its place. Despite his distance from the heart of sumo, Wajima gained national notoriety while a high school student in the prefectural capital of Kanazawa. He was a high school Yokozuna, which apparently brought the attention of then-Yokozuna Taiho. Wajima easily could have gone into professional sumo, with an extra makushita tsukedashi status for being a student champion.
Instead, he chose to attend Nihon University. This was not the obvious path to professional success. University sumo championships date back to the 1920s, and university men were in professional sumo in the 1960s. For Hatsu 1966, a logical time for Wajima to have joined sumo from high school, there were just two university graduates among the sekitori. By contrast, there were 14 in Makuuchi in Hatsu 2023. One was Ozeki Yutakayama Katsuo, who had already earned six career Jun-Yusho. (He would gain 2 more in his career, but never win a Yusho.) The other was former Komusubi Toyokuni Susumu. These men had good careers, but they were the outliers.
They also did not go to Nihon University. Yutakayama was a student at Tokyo University of Agriculture, and Toyokuni attended Chuo University. Wajima’s choice to attend Nihon University, even though he was participating in sumo there, was not a guarantee of future Yokozuna-dom. It wasn’t even an assurance of a strong career. University men did not routinely become top division wrestlers in the 1960s. Very few university wrestlers dominated like Wajima, either. He was twice the University Yokozuna, earning him the right to begin his career in the third Makushita division.
Wajima did that in January 1970, fighting as Makushita 60. He went 7-0, got promoted to Makushita 8 for Haru 1970 and went 7-0 again. That shot him to Juryo, where he scored a 10-5 record. July 1970 was when Wajima saw his first losing record, a bare 7-8. He followed that up with a 13-2 Juryo Yusho in September, and a 9-6 basho in November. That meant Wajima made it to Makuuchi in less than a year of professional sumo and just before turning 23.
Some of Wajima’s unusual personality traits for a sumotori also began to appear by this point. Like many wrestlers who advance quickly to Makuuchi, Wajima was not yet able to grow his hair long enough for the traditional sekitori chonmage. Yet while most wrestlers in a similar situation slick their hair back showing they can’t wait for a topknot, Wajima permed his out. He also kept the name “Wajima.” Fighting under a birth name wasn’t unheard of, but it was certainly notable and showed he wanted to be himself in the traditional world of sumo.
Wajima was also really, really good at sumo, a fact which couldn’t be denied by his Makuuchi debut in 1971. He got two notable nicknames, “Sumo Genius” and “The Golden Left.” The Genius part was somewhat attributable to him being a university wrestler, but also spoke to his amazing natural ability. It was “The Golden Left” that gave an indication of how he fought on the dohyo. Not only was he excellent at sumo, he had a particular way of fighting that was basically impossible to replicate.
Wajima was 185 cm (6’1”) and 130 kg (287 lb), not overwhelmingly big for a sekitori even in the 1970s. Yet he also had extremely long arms. Any still picture makes it look like his arms were attached from someone a head taller. If his arms are at his side, his shoulders are held back awkwardly. If he is moving his arms, like in a dohyo-iri, they seem bent around at strange angles. He also had a strange wiry muscularity rarely seen in sumo wrestlers.
That made him absolutely deadly if he latched onto an opponent’s mawashi with his left hand. His most common winning kimarite was the simple yorikiri, frontal force out. That was 36% of his victories, but most of his common winning techniques involved a mawashi grip. His second most-common winning kimarite was uwatenage, the overarm throw, and other throws like shitatenage, uwatedashinage, and sukuinage were also frequently deployed.
Watching Wajima matches shows he was doing things a little differently as well. From the time he made Makuuchi, everybody seemed to know that his left hand grip was a special weapon. Therefore, Wajima’s opponents often tried to block it or work away from it. That usually didn’t pan out. Wajima’s arms were so long, and he was so strong, that he could wrap his left hand around into his favored position eventually. Once he had the grip, it was trouble for whoever’s mawashi he had.
And then there were the endings of his matches. Most throws in sumo see one guy topple over as the victor manages to retain his balance just well enough not to lose. Sometimes both fighters are falling over, making the victor the guy who fell a little more slowly. If the other guy is trying his best to send you to the clay or out of the ring, you will probably not be able to set your feet and execute a hard throw most of the time. Unless you are Wajima. He would seem to throw rikishi in two stages: first they would be taken off their feet, then they would be forcefully sent to the ground. Even his yorikiri had an extra emphasis to make sure an opponent was out.
The combination of notable personality and forceful sumo made Wajima an instant star as a Maegashira. In his third basho in the top division, Wajima went 11-4 and earned a Kanto-Sho (Fighting Spirit Prize.) By his sixth Makuuchi basho, he won 11 matches and a Jun-Yusho as a Maegashira #1 East. For January 1972, he was about to turn 24 and was a shin-Komusubi. That’s good, but not someone about to jump to Yokozuna. Most rikishi need time to adjust to Sanyaku status. 9 rikishi in Makuuchi were younger than Wajima, including Sekiwake Takanohana. The question for 1972 was whether Wajima really was elite.
Wajima was then possibly the best rikishi across the entire calendar year of 1972. He went 63-24 with 3 Shukun-Sho (Outstanding Performance Prizes), 3 Jun-Yusho, and his first Yusho in May. He made Ozeki for November, with 33 wins, a Yusho, and Jun-Yusho over his previous three basho. The other top ranked men weren’t quite as strong. Yokozuna Kitanofuji struggled with injuries that year, although he had a Zensho Yusho in Aki 1972. Ozeki Daikirin battled injuries as well, pulling out of two tournaments. Maenoyama lost his Ozeki rank in 1972. Kiyokuni was the type of Ozeki who had winning records, but wasn’t threatening yusho or jun-yusho. Kotozakura was the main challenger to Wajima standing atop sumo’s mountain, as he went 14-1 in November and then earned his Yokozuna promotion by repeating that record in January 1973.
But by March 1973, Wajima was clearly the best candidate for Next Yokozuna. He almost immediately was the Next Yokozuna. In March 1973, Wajima went 13-2 for a Jun-Yusho to Yokozuna Kitanofuji. In May, he achieved a Zensho Yusho, beating everyone he faced including the other three Ozeki and the two Yokozuna in his final five matches. That combination earned him the rope. Wajima’s first basho as a Yokozuna saw him go 11-4. Over the next seven basho after that, he absolutely dominated sumo. He won 5 Yusho and 1 Jun-Yusho, with his worst record being a 10-5 for Natsu 1974. Notably, his yusho in November 1973 was won despite him getting a fusen loss on Day Fourteen and sitting out Day Fifteen. In July of 1974, fellow Yokozuna Kitanofuji and Kotozakura retired. Wajima was the lone Yokozuna, and he seemed likely to dominate sumo for years to come.
1974 also saw the rise of Kitanoumi, who rocketed to Yokozuna by the November tournament. Kitanoumi was almost a model contrast to Wajima. Slightly shorter than Wajima, Kitanoumi had the more prototypical sumo build, broad shouldered and big-bellied with powerful legs. He was five years younger than Wajima, but joined sumo three years earlier when he was just 13. In his late teens, he began a surge up the Banzuke, making Juryo at 18 and Makuuchi less than a year later. He made Sanyaku and then Ozeki before turning 21, then spent just three basho as an Ozeki. A yusho followed by a playoff loss to Wajima got him to Yokozuna at 21 years and 2 months. When Wajima was 21, he was still in University.
They were also strikingly different personalities. Yokozuna-dom did not rein in Wajima’s flamboyance. For starters, he kept his family name–still the only Yokozuna never to adopt a shikona. He began consistently wearing a yellow mawashi on the dohyo. Outside the ring, he became known for driving a Lincoln Continental and staying in luxury accommodations during the regional Jungyo tours. This rubbed some of the sumo establishment the wrong way, but seemed to endear him to certain sumo fans. Kitanoumi was taciturn and stern. He was famous for never extending a hand to a beaten opponent and giving monosyllabic answers in interviews. Together, Wajima and Kitanoumi were the signature rikishi of the late 1970s. Poetically, Kitanoumi earned his Yokozuna promotion after losing a regulation and playoff match to Wajima to earn a Jun-Yusho. KItanoumi would not be in Wajima’s shadow again.
1975 was an injury plagued year for Wajima, but he came back well in 1976. In the 7 basho from January 1976 to January 1977, Wajima won 3 Yusho and 4 Jun-Yusho. KItanoumi won three of the Yusho when Wajima was runner up and was runner up in two of Wajima’s championships. Kitanoumi was still a young man, while Wajima began having the typical career of an all-time great Yokozuna past his peak years. He would miss the occasional basho with injury, but compete for a yusho more often than not when he did compete.
Wajima also seemed like he was settling into the usual behavior of a future sumo elder. His peculiarities were now an accepted part of who he was as a Yokozuna. He married the daughter of his stablemaster, a typical way to inherit a stable as a star rikishi. With his stablemaster Hanakago Oyakata (former Maegashira Onoumi) approaching the mandatory retirement age, Wajima retired in March 1981. He was 33 and had won his 14th and final Yusho two bashos before going intai.
When he retired, Wajima had 14 Yusho, 14 Jun-Yusho, and a 673-234-85 career record. Those are impressive numbers, as he was sitting third all time in career yusho. Taiho had 32 championships in the 1960s, and then number two was already Kitanoumi. In March 1981, when Wajima left competitive sumo, he had 23 Yusho. Wajima was one of the great Yokozuna of all time, but also could be said to be the second best Yokozuna of his era. (Important note: Chiyonofuji came along as a Yokozuna in the 1980s and won 31 career yusho. Takanohana won 22 in the 1990s. Asashoryu achieved 25 yusho in the 2000s before his career came to an end. Hakuho topped everyone by winning 45 championships in his remarkable career. So in 2023, Wajima sits 7th on the official all-time yusho list.)
Perhaps Wajima could have become a great stablemaster who upheld the best traditions of the Sumo Kyokai. Instead, he was just as unusual an oyakata as he was a rikishi. Most strikingly, he refused to live in the stable’s premises, preferring to commute in for practice each day. Of course, that also meant he was not really paying attention to what was happening outside of practice. A sumo stablemaster is supposed to live with their charges to guide them as they grow as competitors and people. It’s an all-consuming job, but Wajima tried to do it by going through the motions. His marriage was also troubled. His wife attempted suicide, which led to him being demoted in the ranking of elders. Everything seemed to be falling apart. By 1985, he didn’t have a single sekitori at Hanakago-beya.
Wajima also was pursuing outside financial interests which were unusual for an oyakata, and they proved his undoing. In particular, he lent his name and credibility to a chankonabe restaurant. When it failed, the creditors came for Wajima. It was then discovered he had put up his elder stock as collateral in a loan. This wasn’t just a problem for Hanakago-beya, but the entire Sumo Association. There are 105 shares of elder stock, and the owners of those 105 shares control the Japan Sumo Association. Now one of them was owed to people outside of sumo. Wajima eventually sold his elder stock, which closed Hanakago stable. His wrestlers went to other heya. Wajima was able to pay off his immediate debts, but he was no longer allowed in sumo and he didn’t have any money to his name.
So he became a professional wrestler. Maybe he always should have been a professional wrestler. His aloofness from the sumo establishment, his flair for self-promotion, and his desire for a luxurious lifestyle would have fit the squared circle more than the dohyo. But he joined pro sumo at age 22, not puroresu. He signed with All Japan Pro Wrestling at age 37, with a full career as a sekitori behind him.
Like in grand sumo, Wajima had to begin at the bottom and work as an apprentice. Although also like in sumo, he didn’t really have to apprentice for long. Giant Baba signed him to AJPW, and immediately took him on a 6-month tour outside Japan. That was a chance for him to learn the basics of professional wrestling from the legend Baba. In the tradition of masters in Japanese culture, Baba took the former Yokozuna to task when needed, reprimanding him and physically disciplining him. Wajima accepted his place and even washed Baba’s back.
It’s just that this period wasn’t long, and there was no way anyone ever thought it would be. Wajima’s AJPW debut was highly anticipated. Although talks were had about staging his debut at the Kokugikan, the Sumo Association stopped that plan. Instead, he first entered a professional wrestling ring in Japan in his hometown. Nanao is not usually a major tour stop for AJPW, but this was for Wajima. Back among the people who knew him as a kid, Wajima Hiroshi made his official debut as a professional wrestler against Tiger Jeet Singh.
That opponent was the biggest sign Wajima would immediately be pushed as a superstar. Tiger Jeet Singh was a Punjabi-Canadian wrestler whose ring gimmick was a wild combination of exotic noble, crazy foreigner, and vicious psychopath. He also was a main-eventer against a series of Japanese heroes. And Wajima was one of those native heroes. He also had a feud with Stan Hansen, the hulking Texas cowboy who was the top foreign bad guy in Japan in the 1980s and 1990s. In the few years after he debuted, Wajima would have matches against the Road Warriors, Abdullah the Butcher, and then-NWA World Champion Ric Flair. In short, Wajima was one of the top stars of Japanese pro wrestling.
The fact he was a Yokozuna helped his star power. Only one previous Yokozuna, Azumafuji, had worked as a professional wrestler against and with Rikidozan in the 1950s. Everyone knew who Wajima was, and his hair was returned to its pre-chonmage perm. His trunks were even yellow, just like his signature mawashi was in sumo. But Wajima was also a very good professional wrestler. In particular, he understood the subtle storytelling nuances that make a good wrestling match. He learned how to react to a devastating move, build a comeback, and keep the audience engaged. Physically, Wajima was also able to fit in with 1980s AJPW, the land of large men hitting each other very, very hard.
The biggest problem for Wajima’s professional wrestling career was that it couldn’t last. His sumo career had affected his body, as had his less than ideal lifestyle for a professional athlete. Wajima had all the tools to be an all-time puroresu great, just as he was an all-time sumo great. He just entered the game too late, and he wasn’t able to do it as well as he could. His final match took place on December 16, 1988, teaming with The Great Kabuki against Jerry Blackwell and Phil Hickerson. Those were solid workers and respected veterans, but not main eventers. Wajima was fighting them in his last professional wrestling match a little more than two years after debuting against Tiger Jeet Singh.
Wajima’s post-puroresu life was a bit odd, although he had at least paid off all his debts. He sort of wandered through a bunch of small jobs–from coaching American football in Japan to working with the Cuban sumo team to working as a tourist ambassador. He didn’t continue his association with All Japan Pro Wrestling, and he was still kept at arm’s length by the Sumo Association. He was also still Wajima Hiroshi, the great former Yokozuna. There was always some opportunity for him.
In 2009, Wajima returned to the Kokugikan, briefly, as a guest commentator alongside metal singer and notable sumo fan Demon Kogure (now Demon Kakka). Wajima never was fully welcomed back into the JSA, but he got to join gatherings of former Yokozuna. In 2013, he battled pharyngeal cancer and lost his voice. He still kept active, but he wasn’t his former self. On October 8, 2018, Wajima passed away at his home in Tokyo.
Wajima’s legacy is an odd one. At his best, both as a sekitori and a professional wrestler, he was one of the greatest. There was even a brief moment when he was clearly the best sumo wrestler competing. Yet he couldn’t sustain it in the face of a younger rival. In professional wrestling, he could stand with Ric Flair and Stan Hansen in 1987. And then he didn’t even remain active into the 1990s.
It is easy to focus on the flaws, but they should never overshadow Wajima’s incredible strengths. He didn’t manage to be the greatest Yokozuna in history, and he never won a major championship in pro wrestling. Just watch him when he was at his best. Few rikishi or pro wrestlers could match Wajima on his day. That should be his legacy.
“Hiroshi Wajima, lone yokozuna with college degree, dies at 70,” The Japan Times, October 9, 2018
“Ex-yokozuna Wajima remembered for powerful left-arm throws, rivalry in ring,” The Mainichi, October 9, 2018
“Departed yokozuna Wajima brought charisma to ring,” John Gunning, The Japan Times, October 10, 2018
“Down From Sumo’s Summit,” Michael Shapiro, Sports Illustrated, March 7, 1988