The ancient Japanese game of wedgie-pulling, sumo wrestling, is receiving criticism as foreigners currently dominate the sport.
Two Mongolians, Asashoryu and Hakuho, have been dominating the sport from 2007-2015, with a record of 25 and 35 wins in the top divisions. The last Japanese person to acquire that many wins was in 1961, and a native Japanese person hasn’t dominated the sport since 2006. Kublai Kahn could’ve avoided having his ass handed to him if he only had known that all he needed was a fleet of fat people–and the weather channel. It brings me to the questions: Can the future of the sport lay in the hands of foreigners? Can there be a counterbalance to E. Honda like Ryu and Ken? Is there enough room in bathroom for an E. Jonathon.
Sumo wrestling is a serious sport. Businessmen use sumo wrestling as a measuring stick for economic prosperity. Amidst a wary economy, referring to Abenomics, chief economist at Sumitomo Mitsui Asset Management Co. in Tokyo, Akiyoshi Takumori, says that the sport is “an eye into how successful Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been unleashing the animal spirit,” according to The Japan Times 1. By “animal spirit,” he means the void in your heart that needs to be filled with mochi, curry and the hope that one day she’ll come back. During the grand tournament he counted advertisements so investors could gauge how active they should be in the year. “The ads are like supplementary traffic lights to the main ones, regular economic indicators,” Takumori says 1, “If you watch them, you can tell whether the main lights will turn red or not.” But then watching traffic lights is waste of time. Because after having counted 1,872 sponsors, Takumori neglected his family and forgotten that his son graduated from college, his wife filed for divorce, and the tomato plant died in the backyard.
The problem is that the sport is losing its supporters. Intended to entertain the elites and celebrate a bountiful harvest in 710-1192 AD, nowadays, according to the International Sumo Federation, the dwindling number of supporters is due to the “lack of youth participation.” 2 Caught up in good health and long colorful hair that distorts his/her gender identity, the youth plainly isn’t into the sport. This lack of support is one reason why the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games is canceling sumo wrestling in the 2020 Olympic games, giving it a “thumbs down.”2 It’s as if critics already know the twist at the end where the killer has been pretending to be dead on the floor the whole time. Except in sumo wrestling, critics already know how dreadfully boring it can be to watch the pre-match, where two men squat for five minutes, throw rice around like they really hate pigeons, and meander around the corner like horses in a stable. When the actual match begins, when the competitors charge at each other, it only lasts for a couple of seconds. The match is really like two virgins having sex for the first time. But critics might not know what they’re getting all the time. Because the sport doesn’t have any weight divisions, you could pit a hundred-fifty pound 10-year-old boy against a third-grader. Then that aspiring sumo wrestler could legally give the third-grader a wedgie, and he doesn’t have to go down with the O’Doyle family in a burning car off a cliff. Instead he can celebrate his victory by tying the third grader to a flagpole in duct tape.
So we know the sport doesn’t seem to appeal to the youth, yet what about the adults? The sport loses a large portion of constituents as it fails to appeal to misogynists who watch combat sports for the eroticism. There are no ring girls, and the host is a late-middle-aged man in an effeminate purple or green dress waving two fans. Japanese women can’t participate in sumo wrestling because the organization strictly adheres to Shinto traditions. 3 The only meaty breasts pressed against each other in the arena are two men’s. It’s no surprise other combat sports garner more viewers around the world than sumo wrestling, capable of drawing 10 million dollars in pay-per-view a la the Pacquiao-Mayweather bout. If the Japanese youth doesn’t want to become sumo wrestlers, and the sport doesn’t appeal to every kind of sports lover, you will find some foreigners who want to join the league with the cult mindset of upholding Japanese tradition.
Foreigners, especially North Americans, tend to fetishize the Japanese lifestyle when they’re at home. But when they arrive in Japan their fantasies of sex-robots, karate and middle-aged women dressed in high school clothes turn out to be the other stereotype of Japanese culture, strict laws and group-mentality. Sumo analyst John Gunning says this about foreign sumo wrestlers, “It’s not for everyone. The road to the top and lifestyles are much harder than people imagine. Usually, it’s stuff outside the ring and how well foreign rikishi deal with it that determines their fate.” 4 Rikishi is a communal training stable for wrestlers in the lower ranks. Because of rikishi, according The Japan Times, “many sumo purists say foreign wrestlers lack the culture and manners–often described as ‘hinkaku,’ or dignity”–to reach the higher ranks.” 4 20-year-old Canadian Brodick Henderson, who made his debut at 360 pounds in July, was tasked with menial chores, such as cleaning the toilet and washing clothes for senior wrestlers, and he can’t use the Internet. 5 Senior wrestlers think that all that masturbation would just ruin his concentration. Cleaning another man’s undergarment would surely rid anyone’s mind of Internet pornography.
But there are some foreign sumo wrestlers who naturalize, acquire sumo elder membership or become respected sumo wrestlers among their peers. Bulgarian Kaloyan Mahlyanov, who only reached the third highest rank in sekiwake, the third highest division and naturalized into a Japanese citizen 6. American Henry Armstrong Miller reached the second highest division, juryo, from 1988-2003 4. What both men have in common is that they are men, have never reached the highest division, yokuzuna, and both were given Japanese names. Kaloyan Mahlyanov changed his first name to Kotooshu and acquired his Japanese wife’s last name, Ando. Miller’s stage name was Sentoryu, which was given to him by his stable. The sumo wrestling organization seem like they really want to preserve the Japanese tradition by not tainting it with foreign identity. In their defense, most Japanese people already have difficulty pronouncing r sounds, let alone the sounds of unusual consonants put together. What the hell do you say when you see “hly” as in “Mahlyanov”? Americans wouldn’t even know how to pronounce it either.
Sumo wrestling is a serious sport that can’t be compromised. Like how Americans search for the groundhog in spring to know if it’ll come early or not, Japanese look at sumo wrestlers to see if it will be a good year for the economy or not. With high stakes involved, it’s important to know how the sport thrives. Sadly, with less youth support, Japan accepts more foreigners into the sport. But until Japan discovers a way to improve their sumo wrestlers, E. Honda will have to share the bathtub with E. Jonathon.
- Hasegawa, Toshiro, Kitanaka, Anna. “Economist says pre-bout parade of sumo sponsors gives clues to Japan Inc.’s Health.” The Japan Times. <http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/02/03/business/economy-business/corporate-ads-sumo-matches-give-clues-japan-inc-s-health/#.Vrb1wFh97IX> Retrieved 13 February 2016
- Buckton, Mark. “International Sumo Federation needs Major Reform, New Leadership.” The Japan Times. <http://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2015/08/28/sumo/international-sumo-federation-needs-major-reform-new-leadership/#.Vrbxp1h97IV> 13 February 2016
- Omori, Pele. “10 Things to Before becoming a Sumo Wrestler.”Matador Network. <http://matadornetwork.com/sports/10-things-to-know-before-becoming-a-sumo-wrestler/> Retrieved 13 February 2016
- Schreiber, Mark. “Does Sumo Commentary need to stress the Foreigness of the Wrestlers?” The Japan Times. <http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/02/06/national/media-national/sumo-commentary-need-stress-foreignness-wrestlers/#.VrbqnVh97IV> Retrieved 13 February 2016
- AP. “Canadian Sumo Wrestler Henderson set for Japanese Debut.” The Japan Times. <http://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2015/07/11/sumo/canadian-sumo-wrestler-henderson-set-for-japanese-debut/#.Vrbr41h97IV> Retrieved 13 February 2016
- Kyodo. “Sumo Wrestler Kotooshu becomes Naturalized Japanese.” The Japan Times. <http://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2014/01/16/sumo/sumo-wrestler-kotooshu-becomes-naturalized-japanese/#.Vrb3Alh97IV> Retrieved 13 February 2016