“Watch, he’s going to salt his hams!” my father called out to me. He had the sumo match on the TV in our Fukuoka living room.
It was November 1976. We’d been in the house on Torikai for several months now. Occasionally we’d watch reruns of “Bonanza” together. It was one of the only shows they broadcast in English. That and “Sesame Street.” Unable to understand Japanese, I’d even taken to watching “Sesame Street” in the evenings when I got home from studying at the university. It was a distraction from the frustration of trying to communicate in a language I couldn’t understand. Besides, I’d begun to like Grover, Cookie Monster, and the other characters on the show.
I couldn’t fathom what my father saw in sumo! Just a bunch of nearly-naked fat men shoving each other.
“There he goes!”
The sumo wrestler tossed a handful of salt into the round earthen ring and slapped his backside hard before clapping and squatting at the center line.
“I call that salting the hams.”
My father referred to the way the wrestler smacked his “hams” with salty hands.
“Okay, I get it.” I went back to reading a back issue of Time magazine.
“Here comes Jesse!”
I looked up again to see a tall man step into the round ring with a bright orange sash. His face was framed by fuzzy sideburns, and he looked singularly unstable on legs as long as telephone poles.
“He’s American,” my father explained.
“From Hawaii. He won the tournament in 1972—the first foreigner ever to do so.”
Jesse “salted his hams” and squared off against his opponent in the center of the ring. Both of them stood there glaring at each other. Rather, the opponent glared up at Jesse’s chin. They turned and sauntered back to the edge of the ring to grab another handful of salt. The crowd began to react—clapping and shouting.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“It’s jikan,” my father explained. “Time for the bout.”
With an underhand flick of his wrist, Jesse tossed a smidgen of salt into the ring, almost as if he couldn’t be bothered. The other wrestler threw a huge handful that arced high over the head of the referee who stood on the edge of the ring in an elaborate silk outfit, quite the contrast to the wrestlers.
The wrestlers kneeled down and then with near lightning speed were at each other’s throats, smacking and shoving. Jesse pushed forward, seemingly invincible, and knocked the smaller man clear across the ring, forcing him to tumble down the raised platform.
“He won another one!”
I watched as Jesse stood at the top of the ring and extended his long arm in a friendly gesture, pulling his opponent back into the ring. They bowed. The loser left. Jesse squatted at the edge of the ring and waved his hand over the referee’s fan, snatching up a white envelope before he too left.
“He gets money because he won,” my father explained.
I watched the next bout and then the next, asking my father questions.
“Why do they throw salt?”
“To purify the ring.”
“Why do they do that little routine where they raise their arms out to the side like bird wings?”
“They clap to call the gods. They open their hands like that to show they have no weapons.”
I was hooked.
I rushed to the TV every afternoon to watch the bouts with my father.
I learned that Jesse’s sumo name, or shikona, was Takamiyama.
“It means High Mountain View,” my father translated. “Fitting don’t you think? He’s the tallest wrestler in the tournament.”
Takamiyama wasn’t the highest-ranked wrestler, though. That honor belonged to Wajima and Kitanoumi. I soon developed a dislike for Kitanoumi.
In the first place, he was just not very attractive with his massive girth and double chin. But more than that, it was the arrogance he exuded. I didn’t like the way he strutted around glaring at everyone. Takamiyama was big, too, but he radiated a lovable sweetness.
Wajima, Kitanoumi’s biggest competitor, was brawny but lacked the corpulence of the other wrestlers. He was tall and almost lanky. My father told me he had been a college champion. In fact, Wajima is the only sumo-tori even to this day to have reached the highest rank of yokozuna coming from a college background. He was also one of the few to wrestle under his own family name, Wajima, instead of a shikona.
I always rooted for Wajima.
My father and I had other favorites, too.
We liked Asashio. His face was round and his cheeks so big, it was sometimes hard to even see his eyes. His forehead was always furrowed. But in post tournament interviews he emanated a cheerfulness, comparable to that of his stablemate, Takamiyama.
I have to be honest, though, Takanohana was my favorite.
I didn’t like him because he was a strong wrestler—which he was—but because he was undeniably handsome.
He was almost slender with a muscular build. His face was chiseled and his prominent nose was aquiline. For the longest time I thought his shikona meant High Nose but only later learned the kanji were Noble Flower.
I lived in Fukuoka from 1976-1977 and had many wonderful experiences. But watching sumo with my father tops the list. Just before I had to return to the States, my parents took me to Nagoya where we caught the last day of the July tournament.
Wajima trounced Kitanoumi to win the Emperor’s Cup. I left Japan a few days later, still savoring the victory.
Watch this YouTube video to see Jesse in action.
The video begins with his last bout as a professional sumo-tori. Jesse had hoped to continue wrestling until he reached the age of forty. But, having sustained several injuries along the way, he was on the brink of being demoted to one of the lowest divisions of sumo, the makunoshita. He had to retire just short of his fortieth birthday.
In 1980 Jesse became a naturalized Japanese citizen (the only way he could continue in the sumo world following retirement from active wrestling.) In order to do so, he had to give up his American citizenship. I remember watching a documentary on TV with my father about it. The reporters interviewed Jesse’s mother who cried over his loss of US citizenship. My father grew a bit weepy, too.
The video opens with Jesse’s last bout and then charts his history in sumo.
At 3:54 you can see Jesse wrestle with Wajima.
He wrestles with Kitanoumi at 5:26.
And there are a few scenes of Jesse being silly and sweet from 13:57.