Sumo is a form of wrestling that is intimately connected with Japan's Shinto tradition, and the Japanese were not quick to allow foreigners into its ranks. Although it dates to prehistoric times, sumo didn't become a popular spectator sport until the 1600s; foreigners didn't join the upper ranks until the mid 20th century. The first foreigner to win a championship bout was an American, and so was the first foreign-born yokozuna, or grand master.

The Sumo Tradition

Although a sumo tournament involves much ceremony and tradition, a match is not a complicated affair. Two rikishi, or wrestlers, one who represents the east and one who represents the west, enter a ring marked out on a sand-covered stage, called a dohyo, and each attempts to push the other out of the ring or upend him. A typical match is over in a matter of seconds. A tournament, or basho, consists of 15 consecutive days of matches, and the wrestler who wins the most matches wins the tournament. There are six scheduled bashos every year.

The Sumo Ranks

A wrestler must rise through six ranks to become a grand champion. Those in the lowest divisions receive basic stipends, but the ones in the two highest divisions, juryo and makuuchi get salaries. The highest division, makuuchi, which has a maximum of 42 sekitori -- as wrestlers in these divisions are called -- is further subdivided into five classes: maegashira, komusubi, sekiwake, ozeki and the highest, yokozuna. In order to become a yokozuna, a wrestler must win two consecutive basho as an ozeki. Only 70 sekitori have accomplished this feat since sumo became popular in the 1600s.

The First Foreign Sekitori

Foreigners began engaging in sumo after Japan emerged from isolation in 1854 and started sharing its culture with the rest of the world, but few progressed past the lower divisions. The first foreigner to actually win a basho was Hawaiian-born Takamiyama Daigoro, whose real name was Jesse Kuhaulua. He accomplished the feat in 1972 and received a congressional citation for it in 2009. Takamiyama rose to the rank of sekiwake. The first foreigner to rise to the rank of ozeki was also Hawaiian. Born Saleva’a Atisano’e, he was known as Konishiki in the dohyo, and retired in November, 1997.

Foreign Grand Champions

Konishiki's promotion to yokozuna was widely anticipated, but he never won the required two consecutive basho as ozeki. Instead, another Hawaiian, Akebono Taro, who fought concurrently with Konishiki, earned the distinction of being the first foreign-born yokozuna. Born Chad Rowan in Waimanalo, he was promoted in January, 1993. Six years later, and two years before Akebono retired, another Hawaiian, Musashimaru Koyo, was promoted to yokozuna. After that, three Mongolian sekitori from Ulaanbaatar became yokozuna -- Asahoryu Akinori in 2003, Hakuho Sho in 2007 and Harumafuji Kohei in 2012. At the end of 2013, both Hakuho and Harumafuji were still active.