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Meet The Greatest (And Only) Jewish Sumo Wrestler

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 sumo 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.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern.

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