Boycott sumo, a sport tainted by racist rules

To the Japan Sumo Association:

I have yet to watch a sumo bout. It’s one of the few unfulfilled goals I set for myself when I made a list of things to do while living in Japan. I’ve heard that sporting events in Japan are quite the experience, and that sumo is chief among them since it has held tight to its Shinto origins of purity and pageantry. It is supposed to be as much a cultural festival as a sporting event, and I think attending a tournament would be something I would really enjoy. Which is why I am somewhat saddened that I am, for all intents and purposes, boycotting sumo.

In the past few years sumo has been synonymous with scandal. Its bout-fixing and suspected yakuza ties prompted the cancellation of the 2011 spring tournament. But I am a sports fan, believe it or not, and am aware that rigging is nothing new to the world of sports. Admittedly the extent of the rigging does seem to suggest professional wrestling more than baseball, but I’ll give sumo the benefit of the doubt and believe the JSA when it says that the majority of its matches are honest.

Then there is the issue of hazing. Ritual hazing and abuse taints sumo and made national news when it led to the death of a 17-year-old wrestler. He was put through extreme exercises and beaten with bottles as punishment for running away and disobeying his stablemaster, who ordered the fatal beatings.

This is a truly horrendous event, but it is also the only case I know of where hazing has been allowed to, or perhaps ordered to, reach that level. Again, the JSA seems to be doing what it can to protect the safety of the wrestlers and the integrity of the sport. As an isolated incident, I can do my best to not let it tarnish my view of the sumo world. That the police were originally willing to dismiss the case until the boy’s parents insisted upon an autopsy, a practice that does not seem to be at all isolated, is what I ended up taking away from this story.

When it comes to the drug busts of 2008, I just don’t care. A handful of wrestlers and less than a handful of pot. As with the other two scandals, the JSA is very involved in cleaning up the mess made by those involved and assuring the public this won’t happen again. This story may have dominated a news cycle or two, but I just wasn’t interested.

The story I was interested in — the one that does the most damage to the integrity of sumo and prompted my boycott — received very little news coverage: the discriminatory policies based on nation of origin put into action by the defender of all things sumo, the JSA. These policies are fairly recent in origin, at least when compared to the entire history of sumo. In fact, before 1992 there were no regulations regarding foreign wrestlers. Then, after six Mongolians were recruited, an unofficial foreign ban went into place for the next six years. The ban was relaxed and each stable was allowed two new foreigners. In 2002 an official ruling of one foreigner per stable was made, with existing foreigners to be grandfathered in.

To me, this is discriminatory enough. However, the final insult came on Feb. 23, 2010, when the JSA decreed that “foreign” meant “foreign-born,” meaning a sumo wrestler would not be considered Japanese even after naturalizing. Whatever the reasoning, or fears, offered by stablemasters about “more and more stables overrun with foreign wrestlers, so it can’t be helped,” this is a flat-out racist decision. The JSA is using a person’s country of origin to qualify and discriminate against Japanese citizens. I am amazed that this wasn’t seen as violating the Constitution, whose Article 14 states: “All of the people are equal under the law and there shall be no discrimination in political, economic or social relations because of race, creed, sex, social status or family origin.”

Sumo is considered to be the national sport of Japan, and it is embarrassing and insulting that it is propagating racist thought and making a distinction between its participants based on nation of origin. I can’t help but be reminded of how Major League Baseball operated under similar rules for six decades until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. For the MLB this led to a trend of inclusion regardless of skin color and nationality to achieve the best play possible.

Just as a note of interest, two of baseball’s superstars, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, are among the 13 current Japanese MLB athletes. The JSA, on the other hand, is willing to take arguably unconstitutional actions to increase its exclusivity.

Considering that its new policy went into effect after overseas wrestlers formed a majority of those in the upper ranks and the number of foreign wrestlers in the top two divisions reached a record 19, both in 2007, it looks as if the JSA is less interested in raising the quality of its sport than restoring ethnic Japanese dominance.

I was disappointed when this policy of racism was given so little news time and there was little, if any, public outcry. I even giggled a bit at what felt like karma’s revenge when scandal forced the canceling of the spring tournament. But I have to realize that schadenfreude will get me, and sumo, nowhere. I don’t want sumo to suffer. I want it to improve.

The Nagoya Basho started on Sunday and I cannot with a clear conscience attend the event. Instead I feel I must publicly state my qualms with sumo and urge others to take a stand by boycotting the sport while it operates discriminatory practices. Sumo, which has origins in Shinto purity, is tainted by its own racist policies. The JSA has taken quick action to defend and improve sumo when scandal rears its head. Now, even though there is currently no scandal erupting, I hope it can take the necessary action so that all residents of Japan can enjoy this national sport. Until it does, watching sumo will have to remain one of my unfulfilled goals.

Maebashi, Gunma

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