(Reuters) - When Georgia’s Tochinoshin became the first sumo wrestler from his country to be promoted to the sport’s second-highest rank of Ozeki last month, the 30-year-old completed a rise that almost ended before it began as a homesick teenager in 2005.
Tochinoshin, born Levan Gorgadze, arrived in Japan at the age of 17 to join the Kasugano stable armed with a basic Japanese language book that enabled him to pick up a few phrases in a new country where he felt isolated.
As he continued to struggle with the language barrier and could only really communicate with Gagamaru, a Georgian wrestler at a nearby stable, a frustrated Tochinoshin admitted he was on the brink of giving it all up and returning home.
“My family told me that I could come home, but I was able to stick it out because senior wrestlers in my stable were kind,” the Asahi Shimbun quoted Tochinoshin as saying on Wednesday.
The senior wrestler he credits with convincing him to stay was Hiromitsu Munakata, who was assigned to take care of the teenager with the pair forming a bond that remains as strong as ever today.
“Without Munakata, I would have gone back to Georgia,” said Tochinoshin, who won his first Emperor’s Cup in January and earned promotion to Ozeki by winning 23 of his next 30 bouts across the next two tournaments.
Munakata taught him unique greetings and other expressions used by sumo wrestlers, one at a time, taking half a year for Tochinoshin to get used to the traditional salutations.
“Once he acquainted himself with greetings, everything went fine,” Munakata added, describing his protege as “warm-hearted”.
On May 30, Tochinoshin made a speech to mark his promotion in Japanese when he received an official notice from a Japan Sumo Association representative.
“I will follow what my stablemaster teaches me and work hard to be a role model for other sumo wrestlers,” Tochinoshin said.
Munakata, meanwhile, is delighted to see his “little brother” improving on his language skills.
“I was surprised to hear him even joke in Japanese,” he said, recalling a telephone conversation after Tochinoshin’s maiden championship win in January.
Tochinoshin will compete as an Ozeki for the first time in Nagoya next month, where he hopes to record another double-digit number of wins at the 15-day tournament.
Reporting by John O'Brien in Singapore; Editing by Peter Rutherford