It’s often said that sport, at its heart, is inherently a substitute for war.
In Europe, the animosity that festers from centuries-old conflicts can be felt most viscerally at many of the continent’s various soccer derbies. Whether it’s sectarian hatred flowing down from the terraces whenever Rangers and Celtic meet in Glasgow, or the clashing political and national identities that underpin Spain’s “El Clasico” between Barcelona and Real Madrid, proxy wars take place week in, week out across the continent.
Even the absence of a clear enemy doesn’t prevent sport from being co-opted for jingoistic purposes. The NFL, with its Salute to Service merchandise, patriotic ceremonies and Air Force flyovers funded by the Department of Defense, often feels like a public relations arm of the U.S. military.
Football of course is America’s actual national pastime — in 2018, more people named it as their favorite sport than those that did for baseball, basketball, soccer and ice hockey combined.
Such widespread popularity added to the gladiatorial nature of the gridiron makes football fertile ground for nationalism.
Sumo might not wrap itself in the flag in quite the same way that the NFL does, but when a sport can trace its history back two millennia, and is mentioned in the oldest known Japanese historic text, it’s no surprise that there are elements of society that would prefer to keep it free of all foreign influence.
That’s an objective that has only grown in urgency in the minds of those who see the recent Mongolian dominance of sumo as a kind of emasculation of Japanese pride.
To be fair, most of that sentiment comes from external sources. Living and training alongside foreign-born rikishi and stablemasters is something most Japanese wrestlers experience on an ongoing basis. Those inside the sport are less likely to hold controversial views about the “purity” of sumo than the academics or commentators who are regularly wheeled out on talk shows or appointed to committees or panels tasked with improving sumo.
When all your advisers are hammers with a nationalistic bent, every foreigner begins to look like a nail that needs to be beaten down.
A report handed in to the Japan Sumo Association this week by one such committee is generating plenty of heat. Its 51 pages could easily be condensed into a couple of paragraphs by any newspaper editor, but it’s the content rather than the style that is causing the backlash.
Standing out in particular are the thinly veiled digs at the validity and competence of foreign-born stablemasters. The irony of people that have never once put on a mawashi belt claiming that men who have spent their entire adult lives in sumo don’t know how to teach the sport’s culture and traditions is laughable at best, and the view is almost certainly discriminatory.
The committee’s recommendation to end the practice of granting a special, nontransferable one-generation elder stock — which allows a retired wrestler to retain their shikona (ring name) as a stablemaster — might seem reasonable in a vacuum, but exactly how doing away with something that has only happened four times in the past half century is supposed to improve the sport isn’t made clear despite the report’s rambling length.
Given that Hakuho was set to be the first wrestler in two decades to be given the honor, and no one else in the sport seems even remotely likely to come close to the level needed for its conferment, the committee’s recommendation cannot be taken as anything other than a slap in the face for arguably the greatest rikishi in the sport’s history.
How a committee can spend two years on a report only to repeat the same old hackneyed complaints heard about judo being ruined by foreigners boggles the mind. Anyone who equates the introduction of a blue gi with the destruction of a sports’ traditions is doing nothing more than displaying a lack of understanding and insight.
The report is an external one, so it remains to be seen just how much of it the JSA will take on board and what practical differences it will make. Denying Hakuho an honor he more than deserves might be all that arises. That would be distasteful, but any foreign-born rikishi who has survived in sumo as long as the yokozuna has already endured far worse slings and arrows many times over, so Hakuho should be well equipped to handle it.
Protectionism and discrimination are not exclusive to sumo or even Japan. “Overpaid, overrated and over here” has been a refrain long heard in English soccer circles. Dismissing players from other countries as cheap imports taking slots away from homegrown talent is an oft-repeated line in sports leagues around the world.
At the end of the day, this latest report is a mixed bag that does contain some points worthy of discussion, but those are ultimately — and unfortunately — overshadowed by unsavory and unnecessary overtones.
It’s a disappointment for sure, given that sumo faces far more pressing and serious issues such as the health and safety of its wrestlers. But given that the report will have little actual impact, the fire and fury that has raged online in its wake is probably an overreaction.
Yet in a week when public outcry brought about the likely downfall (or at least hamstringing) of the European Super League project in soccer, it’s easy to understand why frustration is rife in sumo’s rapidly growing international fanbase over the sport’s seeming obliviousness to their concerns.
Sumo has exploded in popularity globally over the last five years, but the past few months have seen an erosion of that goodwill. The major concern, of course, is that those in power don’t realize what is happening — or even worse, don’t care.
Whether or not that turns out to be true is something any fan of the sport should be concerned about.
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