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Does sumo commentary need to stress the foreignness of the wrestlers?


Special To The Japan Times

Let’s scroll 10 years back to 2006, when a wrestler named Tochiazuma emerged victorious in the January Grand Sumo tournament. That win, by a native Japanese grappler, was already a rare occasion, as Mongolian yokozuna (grand champion) Asashoryu almost completely dominated the sport and another Mongolian, a promising newcomer named Hakuho, was moving up fast.

By January 2007, Flash magazine went so far as to predict it would not be too far-fetched to imagine that within a few more years, sumo’s sanyaku (the three highest ranks in the top division) would be composed entirely of non-Japanese wrestlers.

That hasn’t quite come to pass, but it hardly matters: Out of the 78 past tournaments over 13 years (the Osaka 2011 tournament was canceled due to scandal over match fixing), native Japanese wrestlers have taken only five championships. This domination by non-Japanese wrestlers is all the more impressive if one considers that of the roughly 660 total number of grapplers in the ranks of professional sumo, non-Japanese account for only about 6 percent.

So you can imagine some fans’ sense of pride, mixed with relief, when Kotoshogiku, a 32-year-old native of Fukuoka Prefecture holding the rank of ozeki (champion), pushed and shoved his way to victory in the recent January tournament with a solid 14-1 record. His sole loss came at the hands of mid-ranked maegashira (rank-and-file wrestler) Toyonoshima, who won the outstanding performance prize for his 12-3 record.

Although Kotoshogiku stands out as one of the top performers in the sport, his fighting technique can be described as completely predictable: Like an angry water buffalo, he springs out of a crouch using his low center of gravity and momentum from his 178 kilograms to drive opponents to the straw rope’s edge, where he typically delivers a series of rapid body thrusts, described as gaburi-yori (“one bite at a time”), that propel opponents from the ring. The secret to beating him is to blunt his charge by leaping to the side and then rush in and grab his belt or trip him before he can recover.

Several magazines, including Shukan Bunshun and Shukan Shincho (both Feb. 4), largely chose to sidestep reportage on Kotoshogiku’s tournament victory, instead focusing on his Jan. 30 gala wedding reception. More coverage was devoted to his multilingual bride, Yumi Ishida, than to Kotoshogiku himself.

Another interesting side-effect of Kotoshogiku’s victory was how the media referred to his origins. As opposed to nihonjin (Japanese), the nomenclature used by NHK and followed by others was nihon shusshin (“from Japan”), although some publications used wasei (“made in Japan”).

Aera (Feb. 8) observed that usage of nihon shusshin “feels awkward,” but nonetheless can’t fault it entirely as it points to wider recognition in sumo, and by society as a whole, that foreign athletes who have acquired Japanese nationality also need to be acknowledged.

For instance, Mongolian-born grappler Kyokutenho became naturalized in 2005, which means he’d already been Japanese for seven years at the time he won the May 2012 tournament. He has since retired and now heads the Oshima stable.

Aera cites Doshisha University professor Hajime Ota as someone who is uncomfortable with the expression nihon shusshin. “It’s all right if fans are pleased by the achievements of Japan-born wrestlers,” he says, but adds that if the competitors adhere to the spirit and traditions of sumo, there’s no point in making national origin distinctions. He feels that NHK bears a heavy responsibility for treating foreign wrestlers differently, departing from international standards. And Aera concludes that media in Japan are lagging further behind in globalization than even the Sumo Association or fans.

A few stories cast suspicions over Kotoshogiku’s victory. On the day following the tournament, tabloid newspaper Nikkan Gendai (Jan. 26) devoted its entire back page to sumo coverage. Regarding his victory over Hakuho on the 11th day, it applied the accusatory term mukiryoku (lethargic), which in the sport is used to describe not making an effort to win.

Never reluctant to expose sumo’s shortcomings, Shukan Post (Feb. 12) ran a three-page story titled “Alas, another 10 years can be expected before a ‘wrestler from Japan’ wins again.”

“The only thing that comes to mind is that in this tournament, Hakuho has, in various ways, become sensitized to the feelings of the fans,” said a unnamed sports journalist. “The change occurred on the ninth day of the tournament, after he defeated Tochiozan with a henka (quick sidestep maneuver).”

Fans disapprove of such trickery by a grand champion, and boos were heard from the audience.

It was two days later that Hakuho so unexpectedly went down to an easy defeat against Kotoshogiku’s predictable shoving attack.

What possible motive would he have for not winning? Recent speculation suggests Hakuho — already sumo’s all-time great with 36 tournament victories — seeks to persuade the Sumo Association to accord him the unprecedented privilege of allowing him to head his own stable — which would be unprecedented in sumo history. So perhaps his allowing a popular rival to win would have been a case of going along to get along, so to speak.

Be that as it may, no real challenges to the Mongolians appear on sumo’s horizon. An unnamed sumo insider told Shukan Post: “In recent years, Japanese wrestlers fail at the stage of being scouted. Youngsters with excellent physical attributes are grabbed by other sports, and the candidates who report for the physical exam and induction into sumo have been declining, with no prospects for change in sight …

“On the other hand, for Mongolians, Japanese sumo is still a sport that offers them a chance to pursue their dreams. I expect their dominance will continue for a while longer.”

It very well may be 10 more years until a “Japanese” wins another grand sumo tournament, the magazine concludes.

  • Christina Tsuchida

    French (Catholic) philosophers have an expression: “distinguer pour unir” (distinguish, in order to unite). Is not this behind the fuss about foreignness in Japan, of which sumo is one example and other examples are many JT articles, including this one!
    Various JT opinions have opposed this custom and have labelled the phenomenon “RD” for “racial discrimination” (viz., in current politically correct English, racialist prejudgment), an attitude familiar to readers of US literature.
    Yet, what if one tries out the theory that it is merely “getting to know you” (as in the “King and I”, now back on the stage)? If it is regarded, as in the French phrase, a distinction WITHOUT condemnation (only a bit of competition) and WITH the motive of assimilating eventually, it seems to me to work better in practice here in Japan. (Compare “affirmative action” which for a time required “racial” labels for quotas. Was that not RD? If not, why not?) If we foreigners are at least urged to assimilate to Japan customs, lest they perish, Japan also takes what is good from foreign sources, as Japan ever has.