Retired wrestlers face many challenges in life after sumo

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When sumo wrestler Takuya Saito retired from the sport at 32 and started looking for a job, he had no work experience and didn’t even know how to use a computer.

Athletes in many sports can struggle to reinvent themselves after retirement, but the challenge is particularly acute for those in the old world of sumo.

Wrestlers are often recruited early – sometimes as young as 15 – and their formal education ends when they move into the communal stables where they live and train.

It can leave them in for a rude awakening when their top knots are shorn in the ritual that marks their retirement.

When Saito left sumo, he considered becoming a baker, inspired by one of his favorite cartoons.

“But when I tried it they told me I was too big (for the kitchen space),” said the 40-year-old, who weighed 165 kilograms during his career. “I had several job interviews, but I had no experience… they rejected me everywhere.”

professional sumo wrestlers, or rikishi, who reach the top of the sport can open their own stables, but that’s not an option for most. Of the 89 rikishi who retired last year, only seven remained in the sumo world.

Some are drawn to the catering industry, which offers a chance to use the experience gained by cooking large meals for their stable mates. Others become masseurs after years of tending to sore muscles, or leverage their weight to become security guards.

But trying to start over when non-sumo peers may have a decade or more in a career is often demoralizing.

Saito says he developed an “inferiority complex” and found the experience of job hunting much harder than the harsh discipline of his life as a rikishi.

“In sumo, the stablemaster was always there to protect us,” he said, adding that his former stablemaster offered him accommodation, meals and clothing until he died. he finds his marks.

Many wrestlers leave the sport with little or no savings, as salaries are only paid to the top 10% of rikishi in the sport’s top two divisions. Lower ranked wrestlers only get room, board and tournament fees.

Saito wanted to be his own boss and decided to become an administrative scribe, a legal professional who can prepare official documents and provide legal advice.

The qualifying exam is notoriously difficult, and when Saito passed, he chose to major in restaurant-related procedures, hoping to help other former wrestlers. His first customer was Tomohiko Yamaguchi, a friend in the restaurant industry with an amateur sumo background.

“The sumo world is very unique and I think outsiders can’t understand it,” Yamaguchi said, suggesting society can sometimes be biased. rikishi.

Wrestlers who go through being arrested for photos and showered with goodies may also struggle to fade into obscurity. A rare few may end up with televised gigs that keep them in the public eye, but for the most part the spotlight passes.

Keisuke Kamikawa joined the sumo world at 15, “before he even graduated from high school, with no experience of adult life in the outside world”, he said.

Today, the 44-year-old runs SumoPro, a talent agency for former wrestlers that helps with casting and other appearances. He also runs two day centers for the elderly, staffed in part by retired rikishi.

“It’s a completely different world to sumo, but rikishi are used to being considerate and caring” because lower-ranked wrestlers serve those in higher echelons, Kamikawa explains.

Shuji Nakaita, a former wrestler who now works at one of Kamikawa’s health centers, spent years helping famed sumo champion Terunofuji.

“I cooked his meals, scrubbed his back in the bath… there are similarities to caring for the elderly,” he said after a game of cards with two visitors to the center.

While the sight of hulking former rikishi surrounded by tiny older men and women may seem incongruous, retired wrestlers are popular.

“They are very strong, very reassuring and gentle,” smiles Mitsutoshi Ito, a 70-year-old who says he appreciates the opportunity to discuss sumo with former wrestlers.

Kamikawa has also set up a group that provides post-sumo career advice to wrestlers and families worried that their sons aren’t planning for their future.

“Sumo is a world where you have to be prepared to put your life on the line to win a fight,” said Hideo Ito, an acupuncturist who has worked with rikishi for more than two decades.

“For these wrestlers who give it their all, thinking about the future can seem like a weakness in their armor.”

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