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Sumo and Sad Japanese?

Foreigners in Sumo

  • A wrestler is a wrestler is a wrestler. May the best man win.

    Votes: 12 48.0%
  • Respecting established taboos, may the best man win

    Votes: 9 36.0%
  • Foreign wrestlers are nice sometimes, but hey... ya know?

    Votes: 1 4.0%
  • Sumo is Japanese and as such needs Japanese wrestlers at the top

    Votes: 3 12.0%

  • Total voters
    25

Mandylion

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Please read the article then vote in my poll.

From Aug 4th, 2003 New York Times



Fears That the New State of Sumo Defiles Tradition​

BISAI, Japan — In the moment before contact, the Bulgarian sumo wrestler faced the Japanese wrestler. No one spoke, in keeping with the solemn rituals of morning practice, and only the thump of another wrestler striking his bare palms against a wood pole could be heard. The smell of sweat, from more than a dozen nearly naked men, filled the room.

The two wrestlers in the ring hurled themselves against each other, producing a fierce noise, and as they locked in a violent embrace, the Bulgarian's face became suffused with blood. The moment they broke apart, his face returned to normal.

Complexion was perhaps the one thing the Bulgarian, Kaloyan Stefanov Mahalyanov, 20, could not control. Outside the ring, an irrepressible smile seems etched on his boyish face; inside, he has learned to bear an unsmiling countenance.

"Bend your knees!" his coach, Yoshikane Sadogatake, shouted at one point. "It's because you don't that you got injured last time."

"Yes, sir!" Mr. Mahalyanov said in Japanese.

Mr. Mahalyanov, whose sumo name is Kotooshu, or European Harp, is one of the rising number of non-Japanese wrestlers revolutionizing the most Japanese of sports.

Most significant, for the first time in the history of Japan, no Japanese ranks as a grand champion. Injuries forced the last Japanese holding that title to retire in January, leaving a Hawaiian and a Mongolian as the reigning grand champions of the 2,000-year-old sport. Grand champions occupy a special place in Japan, given sumo's close links to the traditional Shinto religion, embodying ideals of power, fighting spirit, grace and dignity.

"Sumo is only one small world, and it has been taken over by foreigners, and Japanese people feel sad," said Hidetoshi Tanaka, 56, general secretary of the International Sumo Federation and a trustee of Nihon University in Tokyo.

The sadness has deepened with the prediction that no Japanese will become a grand champion anytime soon and with the perception that the state of sumo reflects larger, uncontrollable currents in Japan. Since restrictions on foreign wrestlers were first relaxed in 1998, their numbers have swelled to 50 of the 386 ranked wrestlers. Most are Mongolians, but the list includes wrestlers from 10 other countries.

There is, for instance, Kokkai, or Black Sea, from Georgia, as well as Hoshitango from Argentina.

It was only in 1993 that Chad Rowan, an American known professionally as Akebono, was the first foreigner to become grand champion. Back then, the arguments against foreign wrestlers centered on whether they could ever have the dignity of Japanese wrestlers, in effect, whether they could become Japanese enough.

"We don't care anymore about foreigners being grand champions as long as they behave like traditional Japanese wrestlers, not as if they were in the W.W.F.," said Munehiko Harada, 49, a professor who specializes in sports marketing at Osaka University.

The new fear is that neither the foreign wrestlers nor the rising number of foreigners in Japanese society will behave the way most Japanese traditionally do. The Hawaiian-born grand champion known as Musashimaru is a model of probity. But concerns have been raised about the 22-year-old Mongolian-born wrestler who goes by the name Asashoryu, who earned the grand champion rank early this year.

In May, at the end of a bout in which judges ruled against him, Asashoryu glared at his opponent, an older Mongolian, and objected to the decision. He bumped the other wrestler's shoulder as he left the ring. The incident amounted to sacrilege in a sport where wrestlers scatter salt to purify the ring, and even the faintest smile after a victory is considered a violation of decorum.

Asashoryu was disqualified in a tournament in Nagoya for pulling an opponent's hair. In an even more egregious breach of etiquette, he was said to have not paid proper deference to an older wrestler by refusing to yield the way in a bathhouse corridor.

Threats were phoned in against Asashoryu. In a later match, fans threw seat cushions at him. Others unfurled a banner that read, "Go back to Mongolia."

Mr. Sadogatake, 62, the coach of the team to which the Bulgarian belongs, defended Asashoryu. "He hasn't trained his heart — that's why there are such problems," he said, predicting, however, that he would become a great champion: "His spirit is going forward."

Mr. Sadogatake, a former grand champion, blamed younger Japanese for the ascendancy of foreign wrestlers. He complained that the country had grown soft in its affluence, that few Japanese were willing to undergo the rigorous training of sumo, which allows little private life and in which younger members are expected to serve the older ones in sometimes demeaning ways.

"The Japanese have forgotten how to work hard," he said. "You have to sacrifice yourself for your parents, other people and for yourself."

On a recent morning, in the Buddhist temple where wrestlers were training for the tournament, two foreign wrestlers, Mr. Mahalyanov, the Bulgarian, and a Mongolian, outshone the Japanese at practice.

Mr. Sadogatake rained his sharpest words on a Japanese wrestler: "Aren't you ashamed — losing like this? You're not getting any better. You idiot! You woke up so late this morning. You want to take it easier than everybody else."

His daughter, Machiko Kamatani, 31, hovered between the ring and the kitchen, where lunch was being prepared. Growing up in the sumo world, she had disliked its insularity, she said; to flee from it, she had even gone to college in the United States.

But eventually she married her father's top wrestler, Mitsuya Kamatani, 35, who is known as Kotonowaka.

The couple expect to take over Mr. Sadogatake's stable after he retires in a couple of years. They are aware that because of sumo's declining popularity, the stable has lost both wrestlers and backers. Foreign wrestlers offer one hope.

The Bulgarian said he became interested in sumo after seeing an amateur troop in Europe two years ago. Once he got to Japan, his habits, which included sending money home to his parents, impressed Mr. Sadogatake. Mr. Mahalyanov, who is not ranked very high and who makes only about $425 a month, said he had wired home $3,400 in prize money.

After the morning training session was over, he and the other junior members of the stable served lunch to their elders. The younger wrestlers ate when the others were done.

There was little time left before Mr. Mahalyanov's 1:45 p.m. bout in Nagoya, 13 miles away.

But at the appointed time, Kotooshu — who is 6 feet 6 inches and weighs 287 pounds — entered the ring to face his opponent.

"Kotooshu!" someone in the crowd shouted.

The wrestlers locked bodies. Within seconds, Kotooshu pushed his Japanese opponent out of the ring and triumphed.

Then he returned to his side of the ring and bowed solemnly before the judge. He remembered not to smile.


"Sumo is only one small world, and it has been taken over by foreigners, and Japanese people feel sad," said Hidetoshi Tanaka, 56, general secretary of the International Sumo Federation and a trustee of Nihon University in Tokyo."

>>is this the man to be incharge of anything "International?"

"The new fear is that neither the foreign wrestlers nor the rising number of foreigners in Japanese society will behave the way most Japanese traditionally do."

"The sadness has deepened with the prediction that no Japanese will become a grand champion anytime soon and with the perception that the state of sumo reflects larger, uncontrollable currents in Japan. Since restrictions on foreign wrestlers were first relaxed in 1998, their numbers have swelled to 50 of the 386 ranked wrestlers. Most are Mongolians, but the list includes wrestlers from 10 other countries."

My reaction: too bad. When someone comes into your sport, plays by your rules and beats you at your own game, the only recourse you have is to train harder. Sumo is no worse for having foreigners in the sport, nor is Japan a worse place for having 1% of the population act differently than "normal" Japanese (bad sportsmanship, like Asashoryu's, or poor manners, in general, are not limited to foreigners). I applaud the sumo governing body in their recognition of good wrestlers with promotion but it saddens me that people like Mr. Tanaka still feel sumo if worse off because of it.

In fact, I would say growing diversity makes living in Japan that much more colorful, exciting, and interesting. Hopefully the world of sumo, and, as the article implies, Japan as a whole will get over this little spat of xenophobia soon.
 

maji

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I think that you have to decide here what you actually want. Suppose you want an international sport or do you want a Japanese tradition. I personally don't know that much about sumo, but I've to admit that when I see german sumo-wrestlers on tv, they look rather strange and somehow not fitting into the picture of the german sportsman. I mean, sumo-wrestlers are respected in the Japanese society, while a german sumo wrestler would be mostly thought of as just being a fat man in Germany. It's not that way. Its sport and such, but I guess that's the german reaction to it. This doesn't mean that Germans don't know what sport is but japan and sumo is so far away that most people don't know anything about sumo and don't care about sumo.
 

Uncle Frank

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Women Sumo ?

It seems women are getting into all "Men's" sports; some quite successfully. Has anyone heard of women training? Would Japan even think about a Pro tournement(sic) with a woman?

Frank
 

Iron Chef

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"My reaction: too bad. When someone comes into your sport, plays by your rules and beats you at your own game, the only recourse you have is to train harder. Sumo is no worse for having foreigners in the sport, nor is Japan a worse place for having 1% of the population act differently than "normal" Japanese (bad sportsmanship, like Asashoryu's, or poor manners in general are not limited to foreigners)."

I agree wholeheartedly. Reminds me of the rivalry that exists between Japan and Korea in the World Kendo Championships (All Japan Kendo Federation). Japan continues to dominate for the most part, yet the S. Korean men's team have really upped their game so to speak and have proven a very real threat to dethrone the Japanese team consistently over the last decade. Many in the Kendo world welcome this intense competition but like everything else, there will always a be a few vocal "purists" who fancy that "outsiders" learning the art is detrimental to the spirit of the tradition. Such an elitist attitude is pure rubbish imho (my former Kendo sensei would agree 8-p).
:)
 
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Dont want to be flamed here but when I think of Sumo I think of a Japanese tradation for Particapation of Japanese only just my .02 cents.
 

Maciamo

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Originally posted by Mandylion
"Sumo is only one small world, and it has been taken over by foreigners, and Japanese people feel sad,"

Why don't they care about other Japanese sports like judo, karate, aikido or kendo ? The 2 first at least have long been taken over by foreigners, especially since they've become olympic disciplines. Sumo isn't yet in the olympics, right ? (I admit I have no idea, as I hardly ever watch sports on TV).

But what's the point of having competition if it's to restrict people from it because they might be too good ? My opinion is that the "sad Japanese" are the very traditional-minded, almost nationalistic type who can't bear the idea of seeing foreigners defeating their half-god sumotori. Wouldn't be suprised if the same people still believed that the emperor is a descedant of Amaterasu and Japanese people superior to other peoples on earth. That must hurt to see that Japanese can't even keep to the top of their legendary sumo once a few foreigners come in.
 

Mandylion

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I think part of the problem is just what you hinted at Maciamo. There is so much of Shinto tied into sumo that it kind of sits on its own away from the other martial arts. There is a lot of myth and legend surrounding sumo, much of it invented in the Meiji era in a way to bring out the nationalistic spirit the modernizers needed. Other martial arts remained as they had through the Tokugawa era, something for warriors to kill time with or a road to personal development. They never had to carry the Nihonjinron thing. I think sumo now is much less tied to such Meiji constructs, but for some these ideas may have worked their way into the emotions the word "sumo" brings with it; Japanese-ness, links to the gods and all that.

I feel other martial arts, either due to their exposure or histories, have much weaker links to constructs of a unique culture and so can be accepted more readily when branches and deviations off the Japanese original appear.
 
J

Jian

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"When I think of sumo, I think of Japanese wrestlers" and other comments like it is no different from blatant racism. Whether its tied into culture or not, that doesn't mean people of non-Japanese ethnicity can't partake in it.

The problem here (just like the gaijin "problem") is that Japanese "nationalists" want to keep most aspects of Japanese culture ethnocentric. I think their outlook is if they let too many gaijins get into it, then you'll have a situation (like basketball, baseball, and golf in America) where non-Japanese individuals are giving them "too much competition." Well that's just too damned bad.. the same way racists got over the fact that Tiger Woods can play golf just as good as everyone else, Japanese "nationalists" will get over this one..
 

Ewok85

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As long as they stick to the rules and follow the ritualistic side of things theres nothing wrong by me. Doing sumo is a bit strict to star with isnt it?
 

Golgo_13

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If any foreign sumo wrestlers behave poorly, like Mongolian Asashouryou did recently, punish them like you would any Japanese wrestler, that's all.

Many foreignors could never deal with the harsh environment of a Sumo stable anyway. An example, Canadian John Tenta, a Greco-Roman wreslting champion, joined the Sadogadake stable and started off with like a 21-0 record but quit because he hated the living conditions.

Anyone who can stick it out should be welcomed and embraced.
 

kuchi

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i agree with golgo, ethnocentricity has no business in a sport or anywhere else. but sumo means a lot more too some people than just wrestling and people who wish too join said sport should respect that and act accordingly. this is not a sport for fat men too tussle, its a way of life.
 

Keiichi

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It's quite strange as I was thinking of this same thing two days ago out of the blue. They have a bunch of guys from Hawaii making it to the top, now this guy and it made me thought, why is Japan's favorite (or not) sport having foreigners winning?
 
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