The Jewish Sumo Wrestler

Forward Magazine - - FOREGROUND - By PJ Grisar

In 1987, Mar­cello Salo­man Imach, a 22-year-old swimming in­struc­tor stepped into a gym in Buenos Aires, stamped his feet and did some­thing his Jewish mother could never have imag­ined. He started sumo wrestling. Sumo is Ja­pan’s na­tional sport, wherein two, over­weight and un­der­clad fight­ers

( rik­ishi) try to force each other out of a ring or into touch­ing the ground.

Stand­ing at six foot one and weigh­ing a hefty 320 pounds, Imach made quick work of his op­po­nents, hurl­ing them across the ring. A vis­it­ing Ja­panese coach was present for one of Imach’s bouts and made him an of­fer.

Ar­gentina was still reel­ing from the Dirty War that rocked it from 1974 to 1983. So, with­out know­ing the Ja­panese lan­guage or cul­ture, Imach re­lo­cated to Tokyo and im­mersed him­self in one of the city’s most in­su­lar and es­o­teric en­claves where he be­came Hoshi­tango, the Jewish sumo, whose life is a tes­ta­ment to the Cho­sen Peo­ple’s pow­ers of as­sim­i­la­tion.

Like many leg­ends, there’s a de­gree of un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing his ex­act ori­gins. While one ac­count re­ports Hoshi­tango’s dis­cov­ery in the match in Ar­gentina, an­other source re­ports he first moved to Ja­pan to study, but later took up sumo to pro­vide for his fam­ily back home. Ei­ther way, his record is canon and all agree, he was, and re­mains, the only Jew to have com­peted pro­fes­sion­ally on the Ja­panese cir­cuit.

The Ja­panese didn’t have much con­text for what a Jew was. To his col­leagues, he was more re­mark­able for be­ing white. “Be­ing Jewish doesn’t mat­ter to the other sumos,” he told the In­di­anapo­lis Jewish Post in 1992. “I keep telling them, ‘Hey, I’m a Jew. You’re sup­posed to give me a hard time.’ But noth­ing... I could be Catholic for all they care.”

Though for­eign­ers, no­tably Pa­cific Is­lan­ders, be­gan in­fil­trat­ing sumo in the 1960s, in the late ‘80s, the sport re­mained rel­a­tively her­metic. Hoshi­tango was vir­tu­ally the only cau­casian rik­ishi for most of his 17 year ca­reer. Like Abraham (née Abram) be­fore him, a new name was se­lected for his new way of life — one of devo­tion, rigor and rules.

Hoshi­tango, Imach’s ssumo alias, is a com­pound of tango, the ball­room dance from his home­land and the Ja­panese word “Hoshi,” mean­ing “Star,” a com­mon pre­fix in the sta­ble where he trained. But the stel­lar des­ig­na­tion was more as­pi­ra­tional than ac­cu­rate. He wasn’t all that much of a star.

“He was in essence the heart and soul of sumo,” says David Ben­jamin, author of 2010’s “Sumo: A Think­ing Fan’s Guide to Ja­pan’s Na­tional Sport,” who spoke over the phone to the For­ward. “He was a medi­ocre ath­lete, he was ca­pa­ble of putting on a lot of weight which is very im­por­tant, and he waited on the up­per level [wrestlers] for most of his ca­reer.”

In fact, even when Hoshi­tango reached the Juryo divi­sion, where wrestlers start to earn a salary and are waited on by the less elite, he con­tin­ued to have clean­ing du­ties.

In fair­ness, though, Ben­jamin notes, the late ‘80s and the ‘90s were a boom time for sumo and Hoshi­tango was up against some great grap­plers like the be­spec­ta­cled Asanowaka

and the im­pos­ing De­jima, fa­mous for the most fear­some charge in all of sumo.

Af­ter as­cend­ing to the Juryo level for the first time in 1992, Hoshi­tango lasted just one tour­na­ment be­fore fall­ing back to the un­salaried Makushita divi­sion, where he re­sumed the de­mor­al­iz­ing tasks of running the sta­ble for his for­mer peers. Two years later he held on for three tour­na­ments and in 1998, at age 33, he white-knuck­led his way through 12 more. Still, he fell short of the Maku­nouchi divi­sion — the sumo ma­jor leagues. From here, with a record of 17 wins in 42 matches, his fate in the sport was largely sealed.

“He went 0 and 15 and that pretty much ended his ca­reer,” said Ben­jamin. “There was no rea­son for him to con­tinue be­cause he knew he wasn’t go­ing to climb up again.”

Hoshi­tango re­tired in 2004. His top­knot was cer­e­mo­ni­ally snipped and, as was the case with Sam­son, his pow­ers were sapped. But un­like his hir­sute fore­bear (Hoshi­tango was known in sumo cir­cles for his im­pres­sive pelt), Hoshi­tango’s story comes with a happy epi­logue.

A Ja­panese cit­i­zen since 2000, Hoshi­tango left the world of sumo with­out any of the many in­testi­nal is­sues that of­ten plague its vet­er­ans. He has since en­tered the arena of pro­fes­sional wrestling — a bet­ter, more main­stream, and far more lu­cra­tive vo­ca­tion — where he’s been known to ex­e­cute fin­ish­ing flour­ishes like the Ar­gen­tine Back­breaker and the Buenos Aires Running Splash. Like many ex-sumo, he’s also in the restau­rant busi­ness.

“In Ryo­goku, where the sumo arena is in Tokyo, there are prob­a­bly 50 chonko nabe restau­rants run by for­mer rik­ishi,” Ben­jamin says. But Hoshi­tango’s restau­rant, Tan & Go Din­ing, has the dis­tinc­tion of serv­ing up Latin fla­vors along­side more tra­di­tional stews.

By leav­ing Ar­gentina, Hoshi­tango seems to have re­dis­cov­ered its cus­toms, along with some clas­si­cally Jewish (by way of Ja­panese) val­ues. In a re­cent in­ter­view with jour­nal­ist Nanako Ya­mamori, he said: “I’ve learned how to be dis­ci­plined and re­spect oth­ers. That’s why I’m still here in this coun­try. Sumo was such an ex­cel­lent school for some­one like me who came from a poor fam­ily. The sac­ri­fice and the dis­ci­plines teach you how to live in Ja­pan.”

No word yet on whether his restau­rant’s kosher-cer­ti­fied.

‘He was in essence the heart and soul of sumo.’


ONE NIGHT IN BANGKOK: Hoshi­tango Imachi puts a choke­hold on fel­low wrestlers at an event in Thai­land.

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