An activity involving some of the heaviest men in professional sports, requiring a devastating combination of agility and girth, might not seem immediately suited to solving the complexities of the Middle East conflict.
But that's the message 13 of Japan's top sumo wrestlers have brought for a one-week tour of Israel under the banner of "fellowship and peace."
With wives and children in tow, they will spend the week touring historic sites, performing demonstrations, and visiting sick children at Schneider Children's Medical Center of Israel in Petah Tikva. The visit, which is being sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism and the Isuzu importer UTI, is meant to strengthen ties between Japan and Israel.
The wrestlers were welcomed and introduced to the Israeli public at a press conference held at the Tel Aviv Hilton yesterday. Standing next to Ozekei Kotooshu, a two-meter, 147-kilogram sumo champion who towered above him, Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog called the visit another sign of the excellent relationship Israel enjoys with Japan. "By the end of this week, every youngster in Israel will know the name of these famous athletes," he said. "I promised my wife I will not eat the same diet as our friends from Satogatake," he added.
This visit marks the first time the Japan Sumo Association, sumo's governing body, has permitted an entire sumo "stable," or heya
, to officially represent the sport abroad. Israel is hoping that the tour will promote an exchange of cultures and lead to a positive view of Israel in Japan. "The main idea is to show the people of Japan the face of Israel through the eyes of the sumo leaders that will go everywhere," said Eli Cohen, Israel's ambassador to Japan.
Sumo wrestling, where two fighters grapple to push the other outside of a circular area, is a traditional sport in Japanese culture, and makes up one of the iconic images of Japan. It is also highly controlled and organized along a strict hierarchy based on sporting merit. Wrestlers are classed into six divisions based on their number of wins or losses. There are about 700 professional wrestlers in Japan today, each of whom belongs to a stable, which is responsible for their feeding and training.
The stable now visiting Israel, named Sadogatake, contains a particularly notable wrestler. Kotooshu, 23, was born as Kaloyan Stefanov Mahlyanov in Bulgaria. A fluent speaker of Japanese, he is the first European to reach the champion rank, the second-highest in the sumo ranking system.
None of the wrestlers at the conference seemed to mind the occasional joke about their weight. On Thursday, said Cohen, the wrestlers will go to the lowest point on Earth, "in order to see who is heavier, the Dead Sea or the sumo wrestlers."
For their part, the wrestlers who spoke at the press conference all seemed happy to be in Israel. Sekiwake Kotomitsuki, dressed in a blue robe called a yakuta
, said: "I will do the best performance in Israel."