Evaluated on the strength of his won-loss record, the Japanese sumo wrestler Raiden Tameemon (1767–1825) should be considered the sport's greatest practitioner in history. Although Raiden won more than 96 percent of the matches in which he competed, for reasons that are still debated, he was never elevated to yokozuna, sumo's highest ranking.
Raiden Tameemon was born in the town of Tomi, now in Nagano Prefecture, the son of Hanemon Seki, in January of 1767. His name at birth was Seki Tarokichi; Raiden Tameemon was a shikona, or ring name, that meant “thunder and lightning” or “thunderbolt.” Seki grew up in a farm family where working hard was expected, and even as a small child his size and strength attracted attention.
As with other famous strongmen throughout the world, legends surround Raiden's early life, which is otherwise sparsely documented. It was said that he hung a stone weighing more than 200 pounds from a plow and lifted it in the fields to build up his strength, and a stone said to be the same one still stands before his family residence. Other rumors assert that he could lift an iron bathtub while his mother was sitting in it, and that he cleared a giant boulder from his path single-handedly. More certain is that Raiden rebuilt his parents a house; long since restored, it still stands today, just west of its original location, and it is one of Tomi's most important tourist attractions.
By the time Raiden completed his family's new house, he had begun training as a sumo wrestler. His father, a sumo fan, allowed him to take classes in a neighboring village, where a visiting sumo trainer noticed him and recruited him. Raiden's mentor was a legendary yokozuna named Tanikaze, and he patterned the house he was then building after that of his mentor. It had an indoor sumo ring, or dohyo, on the first floor, and above that was a balcony for spectators. As word of Raiden's talents grew, local sumo fans would gather to watch him train.
Raiden combined enormous size (even by the standards of sumo wrestling) with considerable speed. Accounts of his size and weight vary slightly, but he was reported to have stood about six feet, six inches tall and to have weighed more than 370 pounds. By the time he became a rikishi, or professional sumo wrestler, in 1790 at the age of 23, he was already well known. Before his first match in November of that year, he took the name Raiden Tameemon (also transliterated Tame’emon) and made his debut in a basho, or professional sumo tournament, under the sponsorship of the feudal lord Unshu-Matsudaira. Raiden blazed through the basho without losing a match and was named the top wrestler in the tournament.
Over the course of his 21-year career, Raiden was dominant in the sport of sumo to a degree unmatched before (professional sumo wrestling dates to 1684) or since. He won 254 matches, lost ten, and had two draws and 19 matches declared no contest (for instance, for being too close to call). He far outstripped the other ozeki of his day, including his mentor Tanikaze. At one point, he won 44 consecutive matches over the course of 11 basho. Raiden's record might have been even better had not sumo authorities, after 1800, banned some of his favorite sumo moves, hoping to make matches more interesting. He won 28 of the 35 basho he entered, never lost twice in a single basho, and lost twice to only one wrestler, named Kachozan.
After 1800, Raiden lost matches occasionally, but he was still the top sumo wrestler in Japan. He remained an ozeki into his 40s, an unusually long run at the top in sumo. In 1811, at the age of 44, he was registered for several matches but did not appear, choosing to retire. A gentle and intelligent man despite his size and strength, Raiden kept a diary, called the Raiden Journal or Shokoku Sumo Hikae-cho (“Journal of Sumo in Various Regions”). He worked on this journal throughout his career and devoted time to polishing it after his retirement. Although the journal has apparently never been translated into English, Dennis J. Frost asserted in Seeing Stars: Sports Celebrity, Identity, and Body Culture in Modern Japan that it “no doubt contributed to [Raiden's] lasting popularity after his death in 1825.”
While comparisons among athletes from different periods in history are intrinsically difficult, Raiden is viewed by many fans of sumo as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, rikishi in the sport's history. The City of Tomi's website calls him “one of Japan's all-time great sumo wrestlers,” and his win percentage remains unmatched in the history of the sport. Benjamin Morris, writing on the sports website Fivethirtyeight, contended that “Raiden set a standard for greatness in the sport that would last hundreds of years.” During the last years of his life Raidan served as chairman of the sumo association in his sponsor's province.
Despite these accomplishments, Raiden was never given the rank of yokozuna, the highest rank in sumo wrestling. Yokozuna are selected by sumo associations, and the rank is not conferred simply for amassing a certain record but involves such intangible qualities as dignity and grace. Only a few wrestlers are designated as yokozuna at any given time, and there are sometimes none at all. No records have survived as to why Raiden was not made a yokozuna, but several theories have been advanced. According to one, he had no interest in the honor and was content with the rank of ozeki. Another theory pointed to familial rivalries between Raiden's sponsor and the feudal clan that usually granted yokozuna recognition. Finally, Raiden's sheer power might have hurt his chances: J.A. Sargent wrote in Sumo: The Sport and the Tradition that the wrestler “was never elevated to the rank of grand champion because he roughed it up too much.”
Whatever the case, Raiden's talents were recognized after his death on February 11, 1825. A so-called yokozuna stone at Japan's Tomioka Hachiman Shrine, the home of the first sumo tournament, bears inscriptions of all of the names of the yokozuna up to that time, and Raiden's name is appended with the designation “peerless rikishi.” He has been honored with postage stamps in Japan and was the subject of an issue in the illustrated series New Weekly Manga History of Japan; Raiden's entry is drawn by noted mangaka Hiromu Arakawa.
Frost, Dennis J., Seeing Stars: Sports Celebrity, Identity, and Body Culture in Modern Japan, Harvard University Press, 2011.
Sargeant, J.A., Sumo: The Sport and the Tradition, Tuttle, 1959.
City of Tomi website, http://www.city.tomi.nagano.jp/ (December 2, 2016), “The House of Sumo Wrestler ‘Raiden.”’
Fivethirtyeight online, http://fivethirtyeight.com/ (December 2, 2016), Benjamin Morris, “The Sumo Matchup Centuries in the Making.”
Sumoforum, http://www.sumoforum.net/ (December 2, 2016), “Who Is Raiden?”❑