Grand Sumo: Takamiyama ’s Legacy

Throughout Grand Sumo’s history, Jesse James Wailani Kuhaulua remains the first foreign-born wrestler to have won the top division championship. Known for his impressive stature, the 450lb, 6’3” Hawaiian transitioned from a high school football player to one of Takasago stable’s recruits. In 1964, he made his official debut as “Takamiyama” in Japan’s Grand Sumo ring.

For context, professional sumo is divided into two divisions: “makuuchi” (major league) and “makushita” (minor league). Even when he was starting out in the lower division, Takamiyama’s opponents would sometimes flee before the bout could get underway, intimidated by his stature. Three years after his debut, he became the first foreign-born sumo wrestler to compete in the makuuchi division.

Despite appearances and his impressive victories, Jesse was often homesick and struggled to withstand the gruelling training regimen. Ultimately, his determination and grit to overcome adversity without complaining struck a chord with many fans. This included Takasago stable’s head coach (or “oyakata”), who praised Jesse as he moved to the top division, saying: “He embodies traditional Japanese qualities, unlike the younger generation.” Perhaps that is because Takamiyama always addressed his head coach with deep respect and admiration, referring to him as “boss.” While working together for 7 years, the oyakata treated him like a son.

Following his untimely death in 1971, Jesse considered returning to Hawaii but his boss’s wife convinced him to stay. One year after his oyakata’s passing, Takamiyama won the makuuchi division and was eventually promoted to “Sekiwake” – the third-highest rank in the professional sumo league.

For the next 16 years, he continued to compete in the top division until his retirement in 1984. Not only did he hold the record for the most tournaments fought in the makuuchi division for 25 years, he won 12 bouts against Yokozuna, the highest ranked sumo wrestler in the division.

During Takamiyama’s tenure, he recruited another Hawaiian football player, Konishiki, who trained with him under the same oyakata and eventually pushed his way up to the second highest rank, “Ozeki.” Following retirement, Takamiyama started his own stable, Azumazeki-beya. As an oyakata, he trained the former Yokozuna Akebono, another Hawaiian-born sumo wrestler.

Now 76 years old now, Jesse is no longer an oyakata but continues to live in Japan, which he now considers home.

To see a highlight reel of Takamiyama’s career, watch this video.

Author profile

Yasushi Kurita was born in Tokyo. He has spent the last 30 years as a writer for print publications and TV. When he was in college, he spent two years in New York. His favorite band is the Atlanta Rhythm Section, making him one of about 15 Japanese people who actually like that band.