Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Sumo attracts famous politicians seeking public affection, attention

by John Gunning

U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to attend the final day of the upcoming Summer Grand Sumo Tournament.

Often when visiting dignitaries watch sumo at Ryogoku Kokugikan they are seated in the Imperial Box, but on this occasion the White House has reportedly requested front-row seats.

One can only imagine the reaction of United States Secret Service officials when they heard the current incumbent wanted to sit among the general public in an arena that holds 11,000 people and has complete freedom of movement.

Even if the president has a four-person masu (box) to himself, he probably won’t want to sit cross-legged on the floor for any length of time.

With Trump slated to mount the dohyo with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and present a trophy, the likelihood is that he will only be seated in his box for the last bout or two.

Abe himself is no stranger to the venue and has presented the Prime Minister’s Trophy in person several times.

The photo op is something that many of his predecessors also found hard to ignore.

In that respect sumo is no different than any other sport, as politicians worldwide are quick to jump on sporting success and grab a little reflected glory.

Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey famously dropped everything and flew to Paris in 1987 in order to be on the scene when Stephen Roche became the first Tour de France winner from Ireland.

It was mission accomplished for the leader, as there are few photos of the podium that day that don’t include Haughey. Eight hours after leaving Dublin the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) was back in the capital safe in the knowledge that he was forever linked with one of his country’s greatest sporting moments.

As expected with an activity that has been around for a couple of millennia, sumo has often found itself intertwined with politics.

It is a connection that has even affected rankings.

The fact that Raiden, the wrestler with the highest winning percentage of all time, was never promoted to yokozuna, is often attributed to his feudal lord’s lack of power and influence.

The ring, too, has been affected by politically motivated decisions, with post-war authorities expanding the diameter in order to make the sport more appealing to American occupation forces. A strong pushback against that decision lead to its reversal, but it wouldn’t be the last time that sumo was used as a tool by those in power to affect international relationships.

The timing of the 1973 Japan Sumo Association tour to China was no coincidence. With the two countries having just normalized relations, the reverse “panda diplomacy” nature of the trip was clearly apparent when yokozuna Kotozakura wore a Mao suit at the opening ceremony in Shanghai and the JSA chairman announced that the traveling party had “at last come to the original home of sumo.”

Other tours to places like Mexico, Brazil and Korea also were at least partly diplomatic and trade related, but in the 1930s sumo may have been responsible for delaying war between Japan and the United States, as well as saving the life of Charlie Chaplin.

The massively popular actor was on a visit to Japan in 1932 when he became embroiled in political unrest. Chaplin and his traveling party were followed and harassed by members of a shadowy far right wing group and only escaped from one confrontation when Chaplin pretended to have a gun in his pocket.

The same group assassinated Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai soon afterward, and it later emerged that they had also planned to kill the comedian in the hopes of causing an international incident and provoking the United States into war.

Chaplin was not at Inukai’s home when the murder took place as the prime minister’s son had instead taken him to watch sumo.

Of course even had the group been successful in killing the Hollywood star, things may not have worked out as they wished.

As Chaplin explained years later, “I can imagine the assassins having carried out their plan, then discovering that I was not an American but an Englishman — ‘Oh so sorry!’ “

In recent years there has been another political side to sumo with several former rikishi running for office both in Japan and abroad.

The now-closed Oshima Stable has produced two members of national parliaments with Kyokudozan being elected to Japan’s House of Representatives soon after retiring, and Kyokushuzan winning a seat in Mongolia’s State Great Khural in 2008.

In March, former ozeki Baruto took the latest step in a post-sumo career that has seen him, become by turns a farmer, MMA fighter, actor, tourism ambassador and businessman.

The giant Estonian won election to the Riigikogu running on a platform that included pledges to promote trade with Japan.

For better or worse, sumo has always been intertwined with politics.

There are many who say sport and politics shouldn’t mix, but that’s never going to be the case in an organization whose first two chairmen were former military officers with diplomatic links and one that was under direct control of the Ministry of Education until 2014.

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