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Media outside Japan must stop normalizing sumo as an ethno-sport

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Special To The Japan Times

I know that by now this is old news (blame press holidays and timely Trump articles), but congratulations to Kisenosato for ascending to yokozuna, sumo wrestling’s highest rank, last month. After all your efforts, well done.

So what does JBC have to say about it? Nothing to diminish that achievement, of course. But let’s consider how the event echoed overseas. Here are some headlines from prominent news outlets:

BBC: “Japan gets first sumo champion in 19 years.”

The Washington Post: “After 19 long years, Japan has a grand champion of sumo once again.”

The New York Times: “For the first time in years, Japan boasts a sumo grand champion.”

The Guardian: “Kisenosato becomes Japan’s first homegrown sumo champion in 19 years.”

Even our own Japan Times: “Kisenosato becomes first Japanese-born yokozuna in almost two decades.”

Hmm. At least three of those headlines make it seem like Japan hasn’t had a Japanese yokozuna — or any yokozuna — for nearly two decades.

That’s false. We’ve had five yokozuna (Musashimaru, Asashoryu, Hakuho, Harumafuji and Kakuryu) since 1998. Perhaps they’re referring to the fact that the last four champions have been Mongolian, not Japanese. But that means they don’t count? And what about Musashimaru? He’s a naturalized Japanese, and was one (as The Japan Times duly noted) when he became yokozuna in 1999.

So he’s not counted because he’s not a “real” Japanese? Apparently. That’s why the JT and Guardian slipped in qualifiers like “Japan-born.” As if that matters. It shouldn’t. Except to racists.

And it matters in Japan because of the embedded racism of the sport. Consider the fact that not so long ago, the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) overtly denied the yokozuna rank to foreigners, no matter how well they did, for expressly racist reasons. They even thwarted former American wrestler Konishiki, who said just that to The New York Times in 1992.

And what were those reasons? Officials claimed foreign wrestlers lacked the requisite “aura of dignity” (hinkaku) that only Japanese mystically have.

Fortunately, that mysticism was soon dispelled by talent (not to mention embarrassment caused by the NYT). By 1993, Hawaiian wrestler Akebono had made his promotion undeniable, becoming Japan’s first foreign-born yokozuna. He was joined by another in 1999, then two more in 2003 and 2007.

Oh, snap, said the JSA. That’s why they put a cap on things in 2010, limiting sumo training stables to one foreign wrestler each. And just to fortify the racism, they stipulated that even naturalized Japanese (in violation of the Nationality Law) were also to be deemed “foreign” and limited!

Yet that “homegrown” advantage is being overturned nonetheless. Another foreigner was yokozuna-ed in 2012, and again in 2014. And even though foreign nationals have traditionally totaled only 7 to 8 percent of sumo’s 600 professional wrestlers, they made up 30 percent of the top-ranked grapplers in 2013.

And having that much foreign talent overcome numerous obstacles and achieve success on an already uneven playing field is a bad thing?

Well, according to Japanese media, it is. News outlets and pundits have been hankering for a “real” Japanese to become a grand champion for years, wailing that somehow sumo has “lost something” because it’s been “dominated” by foreigners. Even though, remember, 92 percent of sumo pros are still “homegrown.” Maybe they should ganbaru (try harder) like only “real” Japanese mystically can.

Well, Kisenosato did. Good. But the problem is not that his win became big international news, it’s that sumo’s prevailing racist attitudes did not. Because foreign reporters seem to have bought into the racism.

Doubtful? Let’s read beyond their aforementioned headlines:

Guardian: “His addition to the yokozuna ranks is also expected to help improve sumo’s image, after a decade in which it has been rocked by a series of scandals, including bullying, drug taking and allegations of match fixing.”

The implication is that a respected yokozuna can’t improve sumo’s image if he’s foreign. However, remember that sumo’s scandals are self-inflicted — almost always caused by the “real” Japanese (despite the JSA’s scapegoating of Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu until he quit; see Zeit Gist, Sept. 4, 2007).

NYT: “But sumo’s reputation has suffered in recent years because of a series of gambling and match-fixing scandals, and foreign wrestlers, mainly from Eastern Europe and Mongolia, have increasingly dominated its top ranks.”

A simple parsing suggests that sumo’s reputation has suffered because foreign wrestlers dominate.

Washington Post: “Japan’s national sport has been in decline in recent years, partly the result of a generational shift towards sports like baseball, partly because of the health issues associated with the heft needed to wrestle, and partly because of the increasing dominance of foreigners.”

So sumo has “declined” because foreigners to do well at it, despite all the hurdles put before them? How unsportsmanlike an attitude is that?

NYT: “Sports fans in Japan had been living with a harsh reality for years: Sumo wrestling, a quintessential Japanese pastime that is increasingly dominated by foreign stars, lacked a native-born champion of the highest order.”

BBC: “Japan has formally named its first home-grown sumo grand champion in almost two decades, in a boost to the traditional wrestling sport.”

Ah yes, I was looking for that — the word “traditional.” It makes sumo seem somehow sacred: not just a sport — an ethno-sport. A sport that “homegrown” blood-Japanese must “dominate,” or else the “tradition” of an allegedly “quintessential Japanese pastime” (one that few Japanese actually play, or watch beyond top-league broadcasts) has been violated?

The “harsh reality” is that the foreign media has internalized and legitimized the racism just because it’s from Japan. Imagine another country that founded a sport (or claims it as its national sport) lamenting that foreigners are winning at it. Like baseball, where other countries have beaten American teams. Or England claiming that soccer, cricket, tennis or rugby have gone to the dogs whenever it doesn’t win a world championship?

Perhaps you might counter that sumo is in fact an ethno-sport, and who can blame Japan for wanting to keep it “Japanese”? Then why has the Sumo Association repeatedly tried to make it into a worldwide Olympic event?

Consider that judo (another international sport that originated in Japan) is also apparently “dominated” by foreigners, according to Olympic medal counts. Has judo’s reputation “suffered” for this?

Only in the eyes of racists, such as Shintaro Ishihara, who, in a regular news conference as Tokyo governor in 2012, called foreign judoka “beasts” (kemono), and said, “An internationalized judo has lost its exquisite charms” (daigo).

Again, where was the international reporting on that? And that’s the point of this column.

One reason why Japan keeps getting a free pass on its racism is that it’s not talked about overtly — or, for that matter, even called “racism” at all. In Japan, that’s shameful. But overseas — where exposure embarrasses Japan’s racists (who would rather keep things “in the family”) — that’s hypocritical. These reporters wouldn’t dare make these claims if they were talking about unfair play in their countries of origin.

That’s why foreign correspondents should not pander to stereotypes, passing overt racism off as “tradition” practiced by those mystical, hidebound, inscrutable Japanese. Embedding these attitudes for export cloaks Japan from the regular dynamics of sportsmanlike conduct that prevail elsewhere.

So here’s a suggestion: How about reporting on the widespread lack of fairness within Japanese sporting events and leagues? Many of which (such as the ekiden races or the National Sports Festival of Japan (Kokutai)) are specifically designed so that foreign athletes cannot participate. Or if they can, these events are tilted so Japanese will win.

Or how about heralding the talented foreign heroes who have overcome the unfair hurdles?

Don’t get me wrong. If you want to report that Kisenosato’s promotion is big news in Japan, and Japan’s media and public have long been rooting for a homegrown hero to finally make the grade, fine. That has happened, and that is news.

But play fair. Don’t validate racists like Ishihara and the JSA. By insinuating that foreign athletes have been spoiling the sport, you’ve done a great disservice to all the wrestlers who have beaten the odds only for their feats to go unreported.

Debito’s latest book, “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination,” is out now. Twitter @arudoudebito. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp