It’s the rare American who, just after graduating high school, decides What the heck, I’ll go to Japan and become a sumo wrestler. But that’s exactly what Ichiro Kendrick Young—a 5-foot-10, 275-pound 21-year-old from Humble—has done. In August 2016 he joined the Japan Sumo Association, the premiere organization of its kind in the world.
“It’s a path that nobody travels,” Young tells Houstonia, reached during a break from training at the Musashigawa Stable—a highly regimented traditional training facility in Edogawa, Japan, outside of Tokyo. “I just thought, It might be cool to do something that no one else has tried.”
Young’s mother is Japanese, and her parents live in Nagasaki. He grew up visiting his grandparents there during the summers—learning to speak Japanese—and during those trips he’d occasionally see what he thought of as guys in “big diapers,” he says. But because Young was short and stocky, his grandfather would tease him that one day he’d pursue sumo.
In May 2016 Young graduated from Quest Early College High School in Humble, simultaneously earning an associate degree from Lone Star College. As he pondered his future, his mom said it: “You should try sumo.” He flew to Japan for a weeklong training camp, then thought, Wow, I guess I can do this.
A few months later he’d turned professional, going by the name Wakaichiro (waka meaning "young," making it a pun on his given name). And it wasn’t long before he was in the dohyo, or sumo ring, where he won multiple bouts. Today Young enters the ring every two months; so far in his career he’s won about as many matches as he’s lost. As of press time he’s climbed into the mid-level sandanme division.
There are a couple of different strategies for winning a sumo match. Young pushes his opponents outside the ring with leg power; some pros use upper-body strength to get challengers down on the mat, a skill he’s still developing. While he’s satisfied with his performance so far, Young is only earning about $1,000 every two months. Those in the top divisions earn comfortable salaries, but it takes a good wrestler between 6 and 10 years to get there. Will Young make it all the way?
“Yeah, at least I hope so,” he says. “That’s the frickin’ hope.”
But for now Young is content to live the sumo life, which essentially means not having a life other than sumo. Every morning he wakes up in the same room as 18 other wrestlers at the Musashigawa Stable. He cleans his sleeping area before enduring a three-hour training session that includes squats, push-ups, medicine-ball tosses, and practice bouts.
Next is lunch, which he might help prepare; some days, like the one when we spoke with him, Young and his stablemates host guests, so all hands are on deck. “I just got called to juice some watermelons,” he told us. The guests had brought a bunch of them for the athletes, as a gift. After lunch some wrestlers nap. Young often visits the gym for an additional workout. Then come more chores, dinner, and evening free time. At 10:30 it’s lights out.
Young gets a week off after every tournament, but that doesn’t mean partying in Tokyo. Wherever he goes, he must wear traditional sumo clothing, which tells everyone exactly who he is. At his rank he can’t date. Once a year, around New Year’s Day, he takes a weeklong trip to see family in Houston, during which time he can wear and do what he likes.
It’s an unexpected life path for a guy from Humble—his friends still can’t believe he’s a sumo wrestler—but Young is proud of his accomplishments and wants to win. And if it all ended tomorrow, he says, he would have no regrets. “Eventually I want to get to that place up there,” he says, about reaching those higher divisions and earning more money. “But if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work."