Japanese diplomat-cum-wrestler wows crowds in Sudan

  • 18 November 2013
  • From the section Africa

They call him the barefoot diplomat: Yasuhiro Murotatsu, the political officer at the Japanese embassy in Sudan, also carries out an unusual form of physical diplomacy.

He takes on the best Sudanese wrestlers in the ring.

Mr Murotatsu hopes his fights can even bring the Sudanese closer together.

"I will be very happy if all Sudanese, from different parts of Sudan, from different tribes of Sudan, come together to support Sudanese wrestlers against a foreigner, a Japanese diplomat," he told the BBC.

He is believed to be the first foreigner to ever compete with the Sudanese wrestlers in the weekly fights at the stadium on the outskirts of the capital, Khartoum.

Mr Murotatsu is certainly the first diplomat to do so.

As a schoolboy, he wrestled in Japan, but then he gave up the sport.

Before he moved to Sudan, he read about Sudanese wrestling, one of the oldest forms in the world, and he decided to see if his "modern Japanese wrestling" techniques would work against the traditional Sudanese style.

He trains hard with colleagues from the embassy, who use martial arts techniques to give him a good workout.

Unlike the popular image of the Japanese Sumo wrestler, a vastly powerful and heavy man, Mr Murotatsu is actually "kind of thin", as he admits.

It is also difficult to pick up the nuances of Sudanese wrestling.

So far, the Japanese civil servant has lost every one of his fights.

Sudanese wrestler Saleh Omar and Japanese diplomat Yasuhiro Murotatsu shake hands before their friendly match in the Haj Yousif neighbourhood - 25 October 2013
"Muro", as Yasuhiro Murotatsu is know, is often teased as he has yet to win a Sudanese wrestling bout
Japanese diplomat Yasuhiro Murotatsu (R), known as "Muro" in the ring competes against Sudanese fighter Saleh Omar Bol Tia Kafi, nicknamed "Al-Mudiriya" in a traditional Sudanese wrestling match on 28 August 2013
Sudanese wrestling is quite different to the Japanese version
Sudanese wrestler Saleh Omar Bol Tia Kafi fighting Japanese diplomat Yasuhiro Murotatsu - 25 October 2013
Here he was beaten by Sudanese wrestler Saleh Omar
A supporters applauds during a traditional Sudanese wrestling match on 25 October 2013 at a stadium in Khartoum, Sudan
But the crowd loved it

Mr Murotatsu says his friends laugh at him.

"'Why are you wrestling in Sudan?'" he reports them teasing him. "'You are a diplomat, you are 33 years old, you have no girlfriend, maybe you should play tennis more than wrestling, so you can have more of a social life.'"

Despite this Muro, as he is known, is sticking with the wrestling.

'I will be back'

On one recent day, he limbered up on the roof of his apartment building then made the long drive to the wrestling stadium in Haj Youssif, on the outskirts of town.

The posters for the event billed it as "Japanese Muro's Return Match", and Mr Murotatsu himself was confident he would finally score a victory.

Cameramen and photographers clustered round him as he prepared to enter the ring, lenses pointed at the Japanese flag he was holding.

Once the fight began, the barefoot diplomat was immediately on the offensive, pushing his opponent out of the ring, as the crowd roared its approval.

However, as he charged forward once more, Mr Murotatsu was undone by a quick turn from his opponent, and was sent tumbling to the floor.

It was a fifth loss in five fights for the barefoot diplomat.

A bulky man hoisted Mr Murotatsu on his shoulders, and he and his conqueror were carried around the ring.

A triumphant defeat then?

"I am not happy about the loss," Mr Murotatsu said.

"I need to train more and more."

"I need to be more strong to make the Sudanese unified against a Japanese wrestler. I will be back, and then I will win."

Japanese diplomat Yasuhiro Murotatsu holds up a Japanese flag after being defeated by Sudanese wrestler - 25 October 2013
After losing the match the crowd cheers Muro as he is taken around the ring on the referee's shoulders
Sudanese wrestler Saleh Omar Bol Tia Kafi celebrates winning a friendly match against Japanese diplomat Yasuhiro Murotatsu
Mr Murotatsu hopes to see Sudanese wrestlers at the Olympics in Japan in 2020

A minister from South Kordofan state, the home of Sudanese wrestling, was among the spectators.

"He's very hasty, and just depends on physical strength, and he doesn't have sufficient grasp of the rules of the game," Salih Abdrahman Hussein said.

"But I think he will pick it up. It is nice to see him here."

Mr Murotatsu's posting in Sudan is coming to an end, and he will only have one more chance to record that elusive first victory.

The barefoot diplomat has a longer term goal, however.

Japan will host the Olympics in 2020, and Mr Murotatsu hopes to see Sudanese wrestlers competing in his homeland.

"I know they are very strong," he says.

More on this story

Around the BBC