When describing efforts by foreigners to gain a foothold in Japan, author/commentator and former president of ASI Market Research (Japan), Inc., George Fields, liked to apply the analogy of pro baseball players and sumo wrestlers. The former, for reasons we shall see, were held up as outsiders who forever remained so; the latter were outsiders who became insiders.
Twenty years ago, the most prominent foreign rikishi (sumo wrestlers) tended to be from Hawaii, which has a large Japanese-American population and close cultural ties with Japan. More recently, however, most foreign rikishi have hailed from Mongolia (Asashoryu), as well as Bulgaria (Kotooshu), Russia (Rohou) and other former Soviet bloc countries. Frequently appearing in TV interviews, the wrestlers do, of course, make the occasional error — but when they speak, they sound like sumo rikishi, and they express themselves in a manner remarkably similar to their Japanese counterparts.
This language proficiency, particularly among foreign grapplers from countries with only tenuous historical and cultural ties to Japan, has become a topic of academic study. Dr. Satoshi Miyazaki, a professor at the Graduate School of Japanese Applied Linguistics, Waseda University, began his field work in 1997.
“I asked the Sumo Association about how foreign rikishi were receiving instruction in Japanese, but they had no definitive answer,” Miyazaki relates. So he began visiting the sumo beya (stables), befriending the young wrestlers and talking to the oyakata (stable masters), their wives and people in the neighborhood.
In 2001, Miyazaki published “Gaikokujin Rikishi wa Naze Nihongo ga Umai no ka (Why is the Japanese of Foreign Sumo Wrestlers so Good?),” reissued this year by Meiji Shoin. In it, Miyazaki designates nine salient characteristics concerning the environment of foreign rikishi that have been able to achieve Japanese proficiency, including no prior Japanese study experience before coming to Japan; total immersion; strong motivation to learn; adaptability; ability to tap a variety of resources; and no looking up words in the dictionary.
“To learn the language, they don’t need a teacher or a dictionary,” Miyazaki says. “They just learn through osmosis. Foreign rikishi are not here to learn Japanese, but to learn sumo. But by learning sumo they have to learn Japanese. That’s their motivation. Many students who learn in classroom studies don’t know what to do with the language they learn. So it’s a matter of identity.”
Miyazaki also credits the role of the okami-san (stable masters’ wives) in the language acquisition process. As kindly mother figures, they provide a sympathetic ear, looking after the personal needs of young foreign rikishi and helping them to overcome homesickness. Miyazaki also advanced the hypothesis that the higher the sumo rank achieved, the better the fluency.
“It’s a matter of communication, not fluency per se,” he says. “Their speech shows they know sumo history, and the ‘way’ of sumo. This indicates the degree they can participate according to the role they play in society.”
Regarding the language abilities of foreign baseball players, Marty Kuehnert, Team Adviser for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Sendai and longtime sports columnist says: “Ball players come here for the money, not for a cultural experience. Japan is almost never home for them. They all want to go back to the Major Leagues, if they could make it there, but some have to be content with the money here.
“Sumo rikishi, on the other hand, are coming here to enter a new profession. They are committed to learning that profession and staying here as long as they can, without any significant breaks to go home. They have no interpreters and they have to learn Japanese to survive, so they do.”
Kuehnert was hard pressed to name any baseball players who have mastered the language.
“Mike Solomko [who played for the Hanshin Tigers and Lotte Orions in the 1960s] is the only former player I know who really got good. He was here in the U.S. military before he played, married a Japanese gal and then went into business after he retired and made Japan his home.”
Pro baseball may be an exception to the general rule. Kuehnert fully agrees with Waseda’s Miyazaki that participation in sports can be an ideal vehicle for acquiring Japanese proficiency, and is by no means limited to sumo.
“Find a guy who has come here to master judo, who stays here a minimum of three to five years, and you’ll find a guy who learns Japanese pretty quickly,” says Kuehnert. “It’s a matter of wanting to be here and having a commitment to a new way of life.”