Local favoritism is built into organized sports. At the macro level you have whole countries rooting for national teams at the Olympics or the World Cup. At the micro level you have fans cheering a hometown boy who plays for a team far away. By the same token, nationalistic fans denigrate opposing countries’ players in international tournaments, while athletes from outside a locality may not receive the same level of local enthusiasm as those who grew up there.
In its Sept. 30 issue, Shukan Shincho attempted to build a story on two recent events: Hakuho’s breaking of Chiyonofuji’s record for consecutive sumo victories, and Ichiro Suzuki’s milestone 3,500th hit as a professional baseball player. That these events occurred within 24 hours of each other was irresistible, and Shincho wanted to connect them in a way that was guaranteed to attract attention. The headline of the article was, “Ichiro’s and Hakuho’s racism problem.”
Both athletes are strangers in foreign lands; or, at least, they started that way. Ichiro has been an outfielder for the Seattle Mariners in the United States since he entered the Major Leagues in 2001 after nine years playing in Japan’s Pacific League, and he has consistently been one of the game’s best hitters in both countries. Hakuho was born and raised in Mongolia, and is now the sole yokozuna (grand champion) in what is an ancient and traditional Japanese sport. Shincho’s point is that because both are “foreigners,” they do not receive the same attention and respect from the media and the public in their respective countries as native athletes, despite the enormity of their achievements.
Shincho claims that Ichiro’s 3,500th hit, a landmark that very few players in the history of the major leagues have reached, was virtually ignored by the American press. The reason, according to the magazine, is that Ichiro compiled this record in two countries, and Americans don’t take Japanese baseball seriously. To support this theory, the reporter quotes Japanese sports writers and baseball players who make the case that Ichiro’s talent is superior to that of the vast majority of currently active American baseball players.
As proof that Americans don’t evaluate Japanese players equally, the opinion of retired major leaguer Pete Rose is cited. Rose, whose gambling proclivities have prevented him from gaining induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame, holds the Major League record for most career hits, and he is not impressed by Ichiro’s unique method of getting on base, which entails lots of infield hits. This view is ramped up in a recent article in another weekly, Shukan Asahi, which says that Americans basically look down on Ichiro because he doesn’t hit home runs.
Though there is probably some truth to this assertion, by sticking exclusively to anonymous Japanese sources for quotes and focusing on what they see as the American media’s noncoverage of Ichiro’s accomplishments, including the more impressive feat of 10 consecutive 200-hit seasons, Shincho and Asahi lose sight of the meaning of baseball in the United States.
Statistics count for a lot, but they are mainly significant from a historical perspective, and most fans concentrate on the here and now. Japanese fans focus on Japanese players in the U.S. and thus think it strange when Americans don’t show the same interest, but Ichiro’s supposed visibility problem has less to do with his nationality than with the fact that he plays for a losing team. Shincho admits that Ichiro is a hero in Seattle, but because the Mariners continually dwell at the bottom of the standings, the rest of the country may not pay as much attention. Ichiro’s accomplishments are prodigious, but baseball is a team sport, and these accomplishments aren’t contributing to winning seasons.
Sumo, however, is an individual sport, which means Hakuho’s record should command full attention. Unlike Ichiro, he is a winner, but Shincho says that the Japanese press, or at least the sports tabloids, downplay his record because they have to sell newspapers and sports fans would rather read about Japanese contestants. Sumo fans long for a Japanese champion to emerge and take the sport back from all these foreigners, and while there is no doubt that certain chauvinistic attitudes rule sumo, Shincho’s implications of nationalistic bias again ignores a larger matter, which is that sumo is a Japanese sport. Unlike Ichiro, who didn’t really have to change to fit into the American game, Hakuho had to greatly adjust to become a rikishi (sumo wrestler) in Japan.
And he has made the transition brilliantly. Unlike his compatriot Asashoryu, he comports himself with the dignity expected of a yokozuna. During an interview last week on TV Asahi’s “Hodo Station,” the interviewer asked Hakuho, somewhat patronizingly, “Are you really Mongolian?” The grappler’s use of language and understanding of the Japanese sensibility was so advanced that the reporter just had to ask.
What Japanese sumo fans may miss is not so much a Japanese champion as the possibility of surprise that the sport lost with the influx of non-Japanese rikishi, who are recruited for their size and power. Last week, Kaio, at 38 one of the oldest wrestlers in sumo, was close to being demoted from his ozeki (champion) ranking. When he won a crucial bout with great difficulty, the crowd went nuts, not because he had beaten a foreigner, but because, in classic “Rocky”-like fashion, he came from behind dramatically.
To me, Hakuho is “Japanese,” even if he’s more voluble than your average native-born rikishi. And that’s another reason why Ichiro doesn’t attract as much attention in the States: He doesn’t seek it. Ichiro has never actively adapted to American life. He still uses an interpreter and avoids scrutiny, even from Japanese media, which often portray him as being egotistical and even arrogant. In America, the land of self-promotion, Ichiro isn’t ignored because he’s Japanese. He’s ignored because he prefers it that way.