TOKYO - Aside from vistas of Mount Fuji, cherry blossoms and sushi, nothing says Japan as much as sumo. Yet this quintessential Japanese sport, often called the national pastime, hasn’t had a home-grown champion in seven years.
This year looks to be no different, as the Mongolian-born Harumafui captured the Emperors’s Cup at the traditional New Year tournament that kicks off the sumo year. He won the trophy by defeating yet another Mongolian champion, not to mention some Bulgarians and Estonians.
Paradoxically, sumo is an international sport that steadfastly refuses to go international. It is international in that many foreigners participate in Japan. Of the approximately 700 professional wrestlers, about 50 are foreign-born, mostly from Mongolia but also from Eastern Europe and even the United States.
Aside from a few demonstration games, usually connected with some “Japan Week” promotion, however, the sport is not usually contested outside Japan, not even in Mongolia. Sumo isn’t even in the Asian Games, which otherwise include such obscure Asian sports as Sepak Takraw, Kaddabi and Wushu.
It seems that sumo is one of those sports – or “sports” – that are as much expressions of cultural identity as they are serious athletic contests. Sumo is actually closer in spirit to rodeo in America or bull-fighting in Spain, neither of which, with the possible exception of bull fighting, have made much of an impact outside their home countries.
As a spectator sport, sumo and rodeo leave something to be desired. In sumo two behemoths stare at each other, leap forward and grapple until one steps outside the ring. It lasts about 10 seconds and then is repeated. Similarly in rodeo, you see one cowboy rope a calf, you have kind of seen them all.
This isn’t to say that there are not aficionados, people who can appreciate fine skill in calf roping, the toreador’s cape work, or finer points that come from watching two giants grappling in the sumo ring.
But I would say that most spectators of rodeo are drawn to it for the feeling of American-ness, or at least Westerness, that the sport imparts. Rodeo tournaments are more than just sporting events, at least in smaller towns; they are community cultural events, a time to put on your cowboy hats and boots and maybe join in a parade or a square dance.
Japanese feel much the same way about sumo. Everything about the sport is traditional, from the elaborate costume of the gyoji, or chief referee, that dates back to the Ashikaga Period (1336-1573). Pictures of sumo wrestlers on 19th century woodblock prints look no different from the wrestlers of today. Sitting in his box, eating a bento lunch, sumo fan basks in a comfortable feeling of Japan-ness.
Some fans worry that the influx of foreign wrestlers is subtly changing the game in ways they don’t like. This isn’t so much an expression of nativism, as it is the fact that many of the foreign wrestlers get their start in other forms of wrestling and are bringing to the sport new kinds of grips and turns. Japanese seem to leave the tricky moves to the judo hall.
Not that nativism doesn’t play a part in modern sumo. That was true when the first foreigners began to enter the ring 20 years ago. It seems rather quaint that one of the pioneers, a Hawaiian who goes by the name Konishiki, was denied grand champion status because he lacked the requisite hinkaku, or athletic dignity.
That has gone by the board as the last 70 or so grand champions have been foreign born without anyone questioning their “dignity”. In recent years the sport has had its share of “bad boy” champions, such as grand master Asashoryu, not to mention doping scandals (not steroids, just plain old marijuana).
So, Japanese fans wait patiently for the Great Hope that will return the championships to their native sons, without much expectation that this year will be different from the previous seven years and that the Mongolians will continue to dominate. That doesn’t seem to have dampened interest as this year’s basho was sold out.
It would appear that for a long time sumo will remain a “sport,” tradition-bound and insular. And that is probably the way that most Japanese like it.