Striking sensitivities in sumo

The alienation of Japan's national sport

By William Wetherall

A version of this article appeared as
"Striking sensitivities in sumo's inner sanctum" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 126(45), 8 November 1984, pages 50-52

Blue phrases were cut from the FEER version.
Purple phrases were added to the FEER version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the FEER version.

Japanese sumo enthusiasts are discovering that not all "guest athletes" are willing to play by the local rules. For half a century, Japan's national sport has been vaccinated with innocuous doses of exotic wrestlers, allegedly to prevent boredom from homogeneity, but also to immunize Yamato Japanese against doubts about their ethnic superiority. In theory at least, foreigners and other minorities are not supposed to become Yokozuna (Grand Champions, the highest rank), or otherwise disillusion the majority spectators who pay good yen to see their own kind win.

Japanese believe that the "sport of emperors" originated about two millennia ago (like everything else they hold to be purely Japanese). But wrestling is an old and universal game, and forms of grappling possibly related to sumo are found in Mongolia and other Altaic regions that are supposed to have helped people and culture the Japanese islands in antiquity.

Sumo is Japan's kokugi, which for any other country would translate "national sport". But purists think sumo is more than a sport. And some even call it sumodo -- to stress the fact that sumodom is a way of life, like bushido (way of the warrior = samurai code), or sado (way of tea = tea ceremony).

Fifteen-day tournaments are held six times a year in arenas like Tokyo's Kokugikan, sumo's principal shrine. Now being rebuilt at another location, the arena (which accommodates other sports too) has box seats for the emperor, who is the head priest of the Shinto religion that inspires sumo traditions and rites. Many foreign tourists are intrigued by (and some resident aliens become addicted to) the timeless pageantry that imbue sumo with the decorum that saves it from being just another kind of cockfight.

Every aspect of the sport is controlled by the Japan Sumo Association (JSA), a foundation incorporated under the Ministry of Education. JSA members are former sumo wrestlers who run training stables after their retirement, and by regulation they must be Japanese.

But one does not have to be Japanese to wrestle, or even to be a Yokozuna (Grand Champion, the highest rank). And 20-year-old Salevaa "Sally" Atisanoe, a Samoan American who wrestles under the name Yasokichi Konishiki, has provoked some JSA officials to consider more "distinctions" that would keep sumo the national sport national.

Although Konishiki did not win the recent Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament, he came in a strong second by upsetting two Yokozuna and several other high rankers -- despite only two years of sumo experience, and only one previous tournament in the upper division. Most sports commentators feel that Konishiki will become the first "real foreign" Yokozuna.

If Konishiki stays around, he could dominate the ring for a decade like the great Taiho, who retired in 1971 with 32 tournament victories -- the most in sumo history. Taiho is reported to have said that losing to a foreigner like Konishiki is a disgrace to Japan -- a strange remark from the mouth of a Japanese whose mother is supposed to have been a White Russian.

But Konishiki's greatest "threat" to the inner sanctums of sumo may be the attitude that critics have read into his offhand remark on a television program that sumo is a kind of kenka (fight). Most offended by this tongue-in-cheek equation of sumo with a street brawl was Yoshitaka Takahashi, a professor of German literature who chairs the council which decides who becomes a Yokozuna.

In Takahashi's view, "The problem is that sumo is a kind of ethnic [read "racial"] culture rather than a pure sport. The life of a sumo wrestler involves cultivating relations with wealthy patrons, and entails other obligations that would be drawbacks for ordinary athletes. But now this strong guy barges in with the idea that he need only win."

Konishiki is being criticized for practicing an unaesthetic form of sumo based on the mechanics of power. Takahashi feels that Konishiki has no "art" or "technique" -- one of sumo's three key elements, collectively called shingitai (spirit, technique, and physique). His solution to the problem would be "to distinguish sumo as a kokugi (national sport), from sumo as a supootsu (sport) without [ethnic features like] topknots and loincloth strings."

Others joke about sumo trainers giving up on an African black they recruited because "no one could form his kinky hair into a topknot". One critic has said that foreigners with black hair are tolerable, but that blond topknots and blue eyes would be resisted.

Konishiki stands 187 cm (6 ft 2 in), and at 215 kg (473 lbs) he is the heaviest contender in sumo history. His sturdy stance, and speed and agility in the ring, are also great advantages.

Some critics, though, find Konishiki's colossal physique unattractive. Uncomplimentary epithets (from "elephant" to "monster") have rolled from the lips of those who regard him as something less than human in comparison with their favorite Yamato wrestlers. "It is difficult for me to say this," remarked one veteran sports writer, "but the body of a giant mollusk is unsuitable for a Yokozuna."

"Neither Takamiyama (REVIEW, 7 June '83) nor Konishiki are types that I like," agrees sumo novelist Naruo Morita. "The sumo personality that endows great Japanese wrestlers is evident in neither of them."

Morita believes that sumo is like other "truly traditional things Japanese that foreigners have difficulty understanding", and he sees no need to internationalize the sport. "To do so would be like combining oil painting with Japanese art, but Japanese art is good the way it is." And so he concludes that "if foreigners become Yokozuna, then sumo should be abolished."

But Asashio, who holds the title of Ozeki (Champion, the second highest rank), calls his American stablemate a "one-of-a-kind genius and superstar". Others also praise Konishiki's talents, and he gets especially high marks for spirit.

Because Konishiki studies video tapes of his ring opponents, and actively solicits information about them from older stablemates, he is said to have the "rational mentality" of an American. And while other wrestlers are being serviced at their favorite massage parlors, the "brown bulldozer" works out in a garage he rented and outfitted with weights.

However, Konishiki is credited with having the kind of "hangurii seishin" (hungry spirit) that many critics feel is lacking in Japanese wrestlers who tend to have had much softer lives. He sends most of his earnings to his parents in Hawaii, and he flatly states that he has no intention of staying in Japan like his popular sponsor, mentor, and fellow Hawaiian Takamiyama. All he wants is to become a Yokozuna, and save enough money for a house and business back home.

The recently retired Takamiyama, formerly an American from Hawaii but now a Japanese national and stablemaster, has been called a "black ship" in reference to Commodore Matthew Perry's 1854 "invasion" of Japan which forced the self-isolated country to open its ports to foreign vessels. But Konishiki is being dubbed a "nuclear aircraft carrier" -- referring to his physical bulk, but also to his somewhat unwelcome physical presence: few Japanese of any polarity relish the idea of aliens defending their islands, much less polluting their cultural resources.

While Takamiyama may have broken the "color line" as the first "real foreigner" to make inroads into sumo (he won one tournament and set most of his records before he naturalized), a number of ranking sumo wrestlers (including Yokozuna) have been of Korean ancestry. Some were pressured to naturalize and adopt Yamato names.

When now-retired Mienoumi was promoted to Yokozuna in 1979, Korean community papers in Japan showed pictures of him reporting his achievement before his father's grave. Both parents were Koreans, and Koreans in Japan were upset that the Yamato press made no mention of the naturalized wrestler's ethnic ancestry.

The powerful Yokozuna Tamanoumi, who died in 1971 in the middle of a promising career, was also a second generation Japanese of Korean descent, as was Takamiyama's stablemate Maenoumi, who held the title of Ozeki.

Foreigners have been competing in sumo for at least half a century. An American began wrestling under the name Hiraga in 1935. Some Americans were even wrestling in Japan during the war. Konishiki is only the 41st foreigner to debut in Japanese sumo, not including those from Taiwan, Korea, and Sakhalin during the years that these places were Japanese colonies. Eight more are presently competing in one of the six sumo divisions -- three other Americans, three Brazilians, and one Korean and a Chinese.

While the hardcore protectionists have captured the headlines, most popular writers who follow sumo have come to Konishiki's defense. The prolific potboilerist Saho Sasazawa believes that Konishiki's appearance has made the tradition-bound sport more interesting.

"The extraordinary power of super-sized wrestlers crashing together and pushing one another is a real spectacle," says Sasazawa. "And the toppling of such large wrestlers by smaller wrestlers who depend on technique is also one of sumo's attractions."

Novelist, critic-at-large, and would-be politician Akiyuki Nosaka argues that Konishiki's appearance could bring about a revival of sumo's original temperament. He sees no need to exclude Konishiki just because his nationality is different, or because he may look unusual. And he predicts that sumo will be further improved through the challenge that Konishiki presents to other wrestlers.

Erotic fiction writer Sokun Kawakami flatly states that "Limiting sumo to Japanese only would lead to the atrophy of the national sport." He dislikes the closed character of JSA, and believes that sumo would be enhanced by the admission of contenders from all over the world "without respect to their personal appearance -- beautiful or ugly. Even the hideous should be admitted if they are strong."

But defending the more xenophobic line, comedian Beat Takeshi believes that the size and power of foreign athletes like Konishiki put Japanese athletes at a disadvantage. "All this talk about spirit and technique is nonsense," he argues. "Just think of what would happen if foreigners started competing in kendo (way of sword = bamboo-stick fencing). The foreigner is going to be taller and have longer arms, and the Japanese fencer will be struck first."

The comedian was not trying to be funny when he decried the way the Japanese coach of the American Olympic gymnastics team embraced his athletes and shared their joy: "He got paid to teach an enemy country all of Japan's techniques!" His solution to the threat of aliens dominating Japanese sports is to "create an all-foreign sumo stable, and an all-foreign baseball team."

Takeshi was also upset that Greg "Boomer" Wells had won Japanese baseball's highly coveted triple crown for highest batting average, most home runs, and most runs batted in. The big black-American first baseman was only the second foreigner to do so, but world home run king Sadaharu Oh (alias Chen-chih Wang) won it twice, while only four Japanese have won it once each.

Many Japanese share Beat Takeshi's hope for the appearance of a Yamato wrestler who would do for sumo what Rikidozan did for professional wrestling until his death in 1963. The great gladiator (REVIEW, 6 Oct. '83, 31 May '84) restored Yamato machismo to its proper place under the sun at a time when Japanese were "bearing the unbearable" aftermath of defeat in a war that was to have been won.

The perennial habit of invoking Rikidozan's name whenever the gods fail to keep the outlander at bay is pregnant with one of the many ironies that make Japan the country it is. For the peerless hero of postwar Japanese arena sports, who also began as a sumo wrestler, was secretly proud of his Korean ancestry.

Konishiki, though, is no position physically, even if he were mentally disposed, to pass himself off as a Yamato wrestler for the sake of indulging his hosts in one of their favorite myths. And he seems even eager to prove to his hosts that sumo, too, is vulnerable to internationalization.