Who Was the Tallest Rikishi in Japanese History?
Source: sabakuINK. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0).
This exploration started at Jason’s All-Sumo channel on YouTube. In his Day 1 coverage of the Nagoya Basho, Jason remarked that many of the tallest rikishi are foreign-born. And he wondered who might have been the tallest Japanese-native rikishi. My interest now piqued, down into the rabbit hole I dove.
What I Found
One of the first resources I found was an article appropriately titled, “C7 The Debut of Giant Wrestler Ikuzuki Geitazaemon” (C7 巨人力士生月鯨太左衛門江戸に登場), part of the outstanding “Digital Sumo Research Institute(相撲デジタル研究所 ) website published by Ritsumeikan University. This article named a few famous rikishi and provided their heights in the traditional shaku and sun units as well as in centimeters. Another article at this site lists Akashi Shiganosuke, widely heralded as the first rikishi to be awarded the rank of Yokozuna. Truth be told, there are no historical records confirming that Akashi really existed. It is most likely he evolved from a hugely popular hero of the same name who appeared in a famous collection of fictional stories titled The Water Margin (水滸伝).
I found another online article with the extremely long title, “Legendary Akashi Shiganosuke of the Edo period (the first Yokozuna). He stood 251.5 cm tall and weighed 185 kg!! Is he still the champion compared to the modern era?” (江戸時代の「初代横綱」である明石志賀之助が恵体すぎる！身長251.5cm 体重185kg！！現代でも勝てるやつおるんか？). This article listed several very tall Japanese rikishi, most born after the mid-1800s. The author brought up the challenge of finding accurate measurements for rikishi born in the Edo period and earlier. The author proposed that traditional records were greatly exaggerated and suggested a conversion factor for historical records—with 250 cm being the modern equivalent of 180 cm.
A Challenge of Mythic Proportions
Of course, in Japan, as in many other parts of the world, it is common to exaggerate the physical characteristics of heroic, popular, and legendary beings. Babe Ruth and his ox Babe of the midwestern United States come to mind.
Historical records are not helped by the Japanese custom to stop counting or measuring anything that falls too far outside of what is considered average. This failure to accurately count very large numbers poses a thorny problem for historians. In modern Japanese for example, man (万 or 萬) translates to 10,000, like the currency. However, in pre-western Japanese usage this word is best translated as “a myriad” or in other words, some immeasurable number too great to count.
Another challenge arises with the traditional Japanese measuring system. The modern conversions are that 1 shaku (尺) equals 30.3 cm and 1 sun (寸) equals 3 cm. However, the traditional system, called shakkanhou (尺貫法), is derived from anatomical landmarks. So, a true shaku equals the length of a person’s forearm from the elbow to the writs. A sun equals width of a person’s thumb knuckle, or about 1/10 of a shaku. As you can imagine, people living in 18th-century Japan were much shorter than those who grew up in the 20th. Naturally, their limbs were proportionally smaller as well.
What I Did Next
Armed with this background, I decided to compare the rikishi named in these two articles. For rikishi who competed prior to 1850, I applied an adjustment factor. The 250 cm = 180 cm is a 28% difference, which seemed overly extreme. So, I opted for what seemed like a more reasonable 20% difference. That means the heights of the pre-1850s rikishi were converted using the 250 cm = 200 cm. I stuck with the modern conversion of 1 shaku = 30.3 cm.
I input the names and heights into an Excel spreadsheet and came up with the following graph.
Not surprisingly, most of the Edo period “giants” turned out to be of rather average heights following the adjustment. The legendary Akashi stayed in the middle of the pack even after the adjustment because his traditional (and unbelievable) reported height is 8 feet, 3 inches. The big surprise was who turned out to be the tallest rikishi in the list. Fudoiwa Mitsuo, born on August 6, 1924, towered above his peers at 7 feet.
I had hoped to find a ukiyoe print of our first yokozuna to use as my centerpiece, but alas the only print of him in a mawashi is very low resolution. There are several gorgeous prints of Ikuzuki, who was very popular during his career. But with the rather ordinary stature of 6 feet, he is at the wrong end of the scale. For my “Akashi”, I picked a rikishi print that lacked any obvious identifying features, such as a family crest or kanji. (For those of you who simply must know, he is Momijigawa Namizo, who later changed his shikona to Somagahana Fuchiemon.) I sized his image to fit the Akashi bar on the chart, then sized the shadows down and up as appropriate. I changed the decimal points into inches, changing Akebono’s 6.69 feet into 6 feet, 8 inches, for example. And of course, I added name labels for everyone.
And there you have it. I invite you to share either of these graphics with your sumo-loving friends. I do ask you to respect the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) license by properly crediting the source as described in the caption. Thanks for reading!