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Sumo association between a rock and a place

by Mark Buckton

Sumo has been around in organized form for over 250 years. As a sport in which the rankings and most of the promotion/demotion rules and regulations have remained unchanged, sumo has just turned 100.

Yet, and as has been covered in Sumo Scribblings before, the sport is more than just a sport — for sumo is as culturally ingrained in the Japanese psyche as any other so called “sport” in just about any other nation on earth.

As quintessentially Japanese as sumo is, however, over the years, it has gradually opened up to outside influence. Perhaps not quite as fast as some would like — particularly for fans overseas — but the sport has advanced in leaps and bounds, especially in the decades since World War II. Rikishi from around the world have enjoyed the same opportunities as their domestic counterparts to advance to the top of the ranking structure in the sport, with only two “supposedly” real examples of note on the subject of discrimination preventing promotion for non-Japanese. Unfortunately these two examples are an ever-present in the minds of many foreign fans, many of whom hold their own, usually Western, sociocultural norms up as measuring sticks to Japanese sumo thanks to the Internet and ease of global communication in doing so.

The first quite simply fails to carry water when facts are revealed, but remains a case many turn to, to “prove” the difficulties foreign fighters are up against, even if few followers of sumo today ever had a chance to see the rikishi in question fight. His name was Rikidozan, and for so long his own claim that a (North Korean) background prevented him from advancing any further up the sumo ladder than sekiwake, a rank he reached just twice, was long repeated without the reality behind the claims being checked.

When Rikidozan did get to the sport’s third rank, in May 1949, and again in May 1950 he posted an overall 11-19 win-loss record. Taking into account his final basho in sumo before earning himself a name as a popular “square ring” wrestler, his record as a sekiwake reads 11-19-15 — the “15″ an indication that he failed to show up for any of his bouts in the September tourney that year prior to retiring. This is hardly the stuff of bona fide promotion, or subsequent no promotion because of discrimination claims. ?

Meanwhile, ozeki Konishiki’s failure to make it to yokozuna, oftentimes the topic of any conversation about the Hawaiian through the late 1980s, the ’90s and even today, is slightly more credible — but in the end fails in similar fashion. Konishiki’s lack of promotion following a championship victory in early 1992 was called discriminatory by hoards of foreign fans, and still is. He had won another yusho two basho earlier, but the lack of what is now an automatic requirement that the yusho be back-to-back was missing. In between these yusho he had scored 12-3 but this score at the time failed even to place him as a runner-up.

Admittedly of the two then current yokozuna, Asahifuji and Hokutoumi, only one — Asahifuji — had been promoted with consecutive championships. Hokutoumi had been promoted on the back of his second yusho, having the basho before secured a jun-yusho runner’s up equivalent with a 13-2 score. The problem is, that all this had happened years earlier, and by the time Konishiki was ruling the roost, this yokozuna duo were on the wane. Konishiki would fight neither man during this golden period, as both were planning retirement announcements at the same time the American was laying claim to trophies. Although not his own fault then, he never therefore proved himself against a reigning top dog when he had to.?

Whether a result of not being promoted or for another reason, Konishiki never again came close to a yusho victory, and the realization that the Nihon Sumo Kyokai may have got it right in not promoting the gentle giant starts to sink in. (Hokutoumi did go on to win several more championships.)?

Hindsight thus shows in at least these two cases, that like it or not, what have become increasingly routine discrimination claims put forward as the sport of sumo reaches an ever larger audience are little more than tired shouts of “unfair” when things don’t go your way. Almost all are unjustified in the larger scheme of things, and are no different than the more conservative Japanese fans seeking to ban or limit further foreign participation because a local lad can’t seen to win the yusho.

For their part, as they have been for some time on this issue, the NSK are therefore stuck between something of a rock and a hard place — a traditional sport operating in a modern world trying to keep the locals happy, but aware that in its obvious benefiting from welcoming foreign rikishi, the global community is watching.