Sumo wrestling, Japan’s NASCAR, to remain Japanese, stagnant

From an article about Estonian Rikishi Baruto:

Out of 708 wrestlers in Sumo’s six divisions, 59 were born outside of Japan. There have now been three foreign Yokozuna grand champions.

Hawaiian Akebono was the first in 1993, then his compatriot Musashimaru and now Mongolian Asashoryu.

The current crop of foreign wrestlers comes from across the globe, including Tonga, Brazil, Bulgaria, Russia, Mongolia — and Estonia.

Their number is unlikely to increase much more, however.

Perhaps fearing a gradual foreign takeover of Japan’s ancient sport, in 2002 the Japan Sumo Association limited the 55 stables to one foreign sumo wrestler each (a few stables already had more than one foreign wrestler when the rule was introduced).

For the moment the Mongolians are cleaning up. Yokozuna Asashoryu heads a gang of seven countrymen in the top division. From the other end of the continent, European wrestlers like Russian Roho, Bulgarian Kokkai and Kotooshu from Georgia are also starting to push their weight around.

The old presumption that foreigners could only ever succeed by brute force has already proved wrong, says Mark Schreiber, veteran sumo watcher.

“All the Hawaiians had going for them was their bulk. When I look at the new crop, I see a slightly different style,” he says.

“Now you get people who are big, and who have technique. You certainly see that with the Mongolians.”

In the farcical image game that is professional sports, these issues can be confusing. I am tempted to make accusations of racism to the Japan Sumo Association, but there are many possible reasonable counter-arguments . But despite my initial gaijin rage that bubbled up upon reading this, I eventually had to laugh it off and decided to “let the baby have its bottle”.

There is a perceived need for sumo to give its fanbase “what it wants” because without them there can be no sumo. Perhaps this move was meant to rein in more liberal trainers who want to beef up their stables or find the next Asashoryu (Mongolian wrestler currently dominating the sport).

Japan’s Sumo is apparently in a state of crisis. Foreigners are dominating Japanese competitors, and hard economic times, among other factors, have meant that the number of young Japanese willing to undergo the harsh physical training to become a rikishi have dwindled from 2000 in 1998 to just 1 in 2002.

If there is a real danger of the sport being taken over by foreigners, then maybe these restrictions are a good idea in the interest of the sport. However, it is obvious that it’s not just about the sport or the business, but more about maintaining the status quo. Japanese people might not like to see foreigners in the spotlight at the expense of their fellow Japanese, which would hurt business. There has been some uproar about foreigners in sumo recently, with Akebono making an embarrassing attempt at a kickboxing career and Asashoryu’s many transgressions, including inviting his relatives to come and work illegally in the country and criticizing lazy Japanese youth.

However, I think that Japanese people would get over it eventually. Ironically enough, the JSA is actually trying to avoid forcing Japanese fans to make that choice in the first place.

This sentiment is in no way unique to Japan. Everyone in America knows that NASCAR is the sport of choice for rednecks. Why? Because all the drivers, all the announcers, all the pretty girls singing the national anthem, are WHITE. All the other sports, say those brave enough to admit it, have been “taken over” by blacks and other foreigners. Sumo is Japan’s NASCAR — K-1, pro wrestling, even baseball (despite restrictions) are all dominated by foreigners. Sumo remains one of the few places where fans can see Japanese people excelling in competition.

Sumo, as we are reminded again and again, is Japan’s “traditional” sport (The word “sumo” has been used to mean many different styles of wrestling throughout Japanese history, and the modern rules for what we know as Sumo Wrestling came about in the Edo period). Accordingly, its training system and ranking hierarchy are about 400 years old.

Funnily enough, Sumo’s rigid training system already ensures that only very adaptable people who can withstand the complete personality transformation that is required can become sumo wrestlers, regardless of nationality. Yet somehow even this was not enough to keep out foreigners. What began with a few dedicated, possibly “token” foreigners whose interest in Japan was probably regarded as cute and harmless now presents a danger. The idea that there may not be another Japanese Yokozuna for many years no doubt scares many. These further restrictions will surely limit foreign competition to all but the most dedicated wrestlers.

But at the same time they are protecting the racial purity of the sport, they are denying the wrestlers the chance to compete with the best wrestlers, bringing the level of the game down. It’s a downward spiral, seen in Japanese baseball as well: protecting against foreign competition brings down the level of the game, in turn making it easier for a foreign player to come in and dominate the sport in a short period of time (a la Asashoryu). The existence of Sumo leagues all over the world, including Europe, the US, Mongolia, and elsewhere, will all but guaranteee that some phenom will be able to make it big in Japan. In these hard times for Sumo wrestling, limiting competition by foreigners is probably the wrong move.

There is a fine line that a professional sports league such as the JSA must walk — they must simultaneously be a forum for high-caliber athletic competition and serve as a source of pride, drama, intrigue, and most of all identity for the fans. In the case of Sumo Wrestling, I say let them give it a try and see how long they can last.

6 thoughts on “Sumo wrestling, Japan’s NASCAR, to remain Japanese, stagnant”

  1. As a huge fan of sumo, I have to admit that while I think the Sumo Association is blatantly racist, I support the restriction that they have placed on foreign wrestlers. The fact is, it’s a Japanese sport, made by Japanese for Japanese, and they should have the right to protect it.

    I think most would agree that a Sumo banzuke with 75% foreigners would lose lots of fans, which in turn send the sport into further obscurity. I can’t blame the Japanese for tuning out in that scenario. The fact is, if baseball or football were predominantly foreigners who didn’t speak my language, I would probably stop watching those sports. A testament to this tendency is the fact that MANY soccer leagues around the world have similar restrictions on the number of foreigners allowed to play (Mexico, European Union, etc).

    My problem with the Sumo Association is their lack of ANY attempt whatsoever to save the sport (beyond the foreigner restriction, that is…). They pay the wrestlers squat compared to what other athletes in Japan get, they broadcast the big guys at 5:30, instead of prime time, they take sucker punches in the media at Asashoryu every chance they get (why drag down the best, making him the villain, not the hero?), etc. They need to adapt the sport the 21st (or 20th, for that matter) century, and market it better. Allowing women on the dohyo might help, too.

    Having said that, I guess it all goes hand in hand…it seems that the tradition of the sport is what is holding it back; yet the tradition is what draws us in…

  2. Don’t forget the large sumo scene in Brazil, which was started by Japanese immigrants, but has now gone native.

  3. NASCAR is hardly the only sport dominated by whites in the US. The other forms of auto racing are as well, as are quite a lot of the sports that lack mass appeal, are expensive to play, or have rather small regional appeal. Swimming, soccer (in the US), all that X games crap that ESPN shows, golf, tennis, lacrosse, hockey, etc.– lots of white people (although many foreign whitish people in hockey). (Black people do very well in track, of course, and there are brilliant individual exceptions in many of these sports.) Rednecks don’t tend to be as big fans of those sports, though.

    A better things to say perhaps is that NASCAR is the only sport with mass appeal that isn’t dominated by black athletes, and hence rednecks like it. That’s because rednecks don’t like elitists or sports stereotyped as being for the elite or wealthy, either. NASCAR, because it’s based on stock car driving rather than special body car, shares with other mass sports the idea that just about anybody could do it, at least in the USA, because everybody owns a car.

    But perhaps when you said sport you meant popular sport with mass appeal. (And automatically excluded golf, tennis, and hockey?)

  4. True, I must have unconsciously meant popular sport with mass appeal. I had thought hockey had mass appeal until recently, but really I don’t think of golf and tennis on a daily basis. Please forgive my unintended slight.

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