Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Grand Champion, or Grand Illusion?

(With apologies to Styx...)

Sumo is probably the only major spectator sport that is still considered uniquely Japanese. It was first established as an official institution by the Imperial Court during the Nara Period in the 8th century, but its origins are much older. It dates back at least to the 5th century, when it was known as "sumai" and was a Shinto ritual carried out by local shrines. Back then it bore little resemblance to what it is today. Until the Nara Period there were few rules; it was essentially unarmed combat, often to the death, fought as a form of ceremonial entertainment for the Shinto deities.

The Wikipedia entry about Sumo, which doesn't cite adequate background sources, makes a claim that the sport actually originated in China and was introduced to Japan in the 5th century by visiting Han Dynasty dignitaries. Not even the official Sumo website verifies this. It only mentions that, according to legend, the fate of the Japanese people was decided by a Sumo-like match fought between a deity and the leader of a rival tribe (though it does concur on the likely 5th century origin). I really wonder how most Japanese would react to hearing that their uniquely Japanese sport might not be Japanese after all.

In fact, along those same lines, I wonder how most Japanese feel about the fact that three of the last five Yokozuna (Grand Champion), including the current one, are non-Japanese! (In fact, I couldn't help but notice that detailed info on past Yokozuna on the official site ends with Asahifuji, the last one before Hawaiian Akebono was promoted to the rank in 1993!)

Now we are faced with a new controversy. Flash back to my first paragraph, in which I concluded by saying that Sumo was originally a form of ceremonial entertainment for the Shinto deities. It has long been said that politics play as much a role in Sumo as fighting skill. Well, according to a popular gossip tabloid, an insider claims that it's worse than that. Apparently Sumo is no more genuine a sport than so-called pro wrestling. Most people would probably say, "Gossip tabloid? Hah!" But a lot of people are taking this very seriously...enough for the Sumo Association to launch an official investigation.

The main complaint centers around current (Mongolian) Yokozuna, Asashoryu, who has seemed least till now. The insider claims that during the November 2006 Kyushu basho (tournament) only four of Asashoryu's fifteen bouts were on the level. The rest were "obviously" fixed. That is certainly a matter of opinion, but one can't help but wonder how Asashoryu has been able to maintain such an invincible winning record. The fact is that he almost never trains between competitions anymore. Instead, he usually goes back to Mongolia to see to his rapidly-growing business empire, funded by his enormous Sumo winnings. In this vein, the bloated sums he is said to be using to buy off his opponents amount to only a very small and well-calculated business investment.

Interestingly, right after the investigation began, Asashoryu appeared in the most recent basho...and lost his first two matches in succession, the first time that has ever happened in his entire career. Even worse, trailing the winning rikishi by one victory till the end, Asashoryu won his last regular bout by pulling a cheap shot that Yokozuna are never supposed to use. Skilled strategy or a sneaky act of desperation? Well, the audience and judges were shocked by his apparent mockery of the honor that is supposed to accompany the Yokozuna rank. I'm sure many saw it as poetic justice when his opponent used a very similar low blow to defeat him in the playoff match. (In fact, the smile on Asashoryu's face would seem to indicate he felt the same way.)


It gets better though. It seems to be widely accepted here that match-fixing has always occurred in Sumo, but not to the extent of which Asashoryu is accused. As I've said before, politics has always played a role in the sport, but most still believe that most matches are on the level. The insider making the accusation doesn't seem to agree. He claims that a number of rikishi have been rigging the majority of their matches since entering the top divisions. Interestingly, many if not most of the rikishi on his "black list" are the non-Japanese ones.

Ever since Akebono became the first non-Japanese Yokozuna in 1993 a lot of people have whined that gaijin should be banned from the upper ranks if not from the upper division (if not from the sport!). Now a guy has just come out and given a "concrete"(?) reason for such a restriction. After all, if all the foreigners are winning by means of wealth rather than skill, they should be eliminated to preserve the integrity of the sport, right?

Makes sense to me!

So...are the Shinto deities entertained by all this?

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  • Hmmmm... I'm wondering why these sumos want to make themselves FAT? It's just out of my mind since most people are trying to lose weight, starving themselves, being a hamster on those treadmills machine and pay a lot of money just in sake to be skinny...

    I just don't understand, are they not affraid of those cholestrerol level, muscle pains, uncomfortable because being fat, can't wear decent clothes?

    Well, I'm just an ordinary gal who is curious, hehehe

    By Blogger Selba, at 2:31 AM  

  • With out the weight, the sumo wrestler would be picked up and tossed out of the ring like a limp rag doll.

    Not as bloody as American wrestling, long since discredited as a sport when Hulk Hogan boxed the ears of a Sixty Minutes reporter who was doing a story on the fakery of American pro-wrestling, but I don't care how fake it is, getting tossed from the ring onto a table still has got to hurt somewhat.

    By Blogger Pa've, at 7:07 AM  

  • The Sumo Association is very concerned that Asashoryu didn't cut them in on the deal.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 2:18 PM  

  • It's a shame! Even though, I already lost interest in sumo when Waka-Taka bothers retired and heard about the scandal of Chiyonofuji.

    By Anonymous K, at 4:24 PM  

  • Selba
    Believe it or not, the average fat ratio of a rikishi is less than that of an average adult male! A lot of that bulk is muscle. Pa've is right; without adequate bulk a rikishi either has to have a phenomenal technique or he is dogmeat. At the tachi-ai (the initial charge that starts a bout) rikishi often slam into each other with a combined kinetic force of close to a ton. In the case of former Yokozuna Musashimaru (an ethnic Samoan Hawaiian), he alone was measured to have a tachi-ai impact force of 800 kilograms (0.8 metric tons or just under an English ton)!

    Yes, rikishi do tend to develop problems. Their legs tend to give out from under them. That's why they retire very young. Also, some do have problems fitting in in an everyday environment. For example, former Ozeki (second highest rank) Konishiki (another Samoan Hawaiian), who weighed over 300 kilograms (660 lbs.) at his peak, was known to shatter benches and Western-style toilets on occasion when he sat on them. (It was also widely said that he was unable to reach around himself, so he had to have an attendant wipe his backside after taking a dump!)

    It never ceases to amaze me that there are still people out there that vehemently insist pro wrestling is 100% genuine...even after a well-known wrestler suddenly freaked out and beat the living crap out of an underling, who wound up in the hospital for a long time. The well-known wrestler wound up being sued, and his explanation was, "The guy did something that wasn't in the script."

    At least Sumo appears to be on the level...most of the time...

    I think you probably got that right, but we shouldn't talk about it.

    Oh, I know. Sumo just isn't as interesting as it used to be. Back in the 90s there were so many rikishi with personality that were just fun to watch and root for. Now it seems like it's just "Yokozuna Asashoryu...and the other guys..." There's no one like the Taka/Waka brothers, Konishiki, Mainoumi, Mitoizumi, Terao, Musashimaru, or any of the others that had skill and character.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 9:39 PM  

  • I always assume any popular sport represents big money and therefore will have some corruption going on at some level.

    To me, Sumo would be interesting to watch if the contestants were more physically fit. Photos show that in the late 19th century that was the case. A weight limit rule would do the trick. (Fat chance!)

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 10:11 PM  

  • Panda-B
    Actually, back in the 90s the rikishi Mainoumi, Terao, and Kyokudozan were famous for the fact that they weren't quite so large. Mainoumi was a feisty, little guy who, it is said (by many including Paul Harvey and Rush Limbaugh), actually got a silicon implant on his scalp so he would pass the minimum height requirement! What he lacked in kinetic force he made up for with speed, technique, and cunning. Terao wasn't quite so tiny, but he had phenomenal upper body strength ("the mightiest pecs in Sumo" according to the Daily Yomiuri) coupled with excellent skill. Kyokudozan wasn't exactly small, but he was surprisingly slim. He wasn't as strong as Terao or as tricky as Mainoumi, but he was well known for his ultra-fast, snake-strike tachi-ai which often allowed him to knock his opponent off balance before the latter knew what hit him. On occasion he actually went airborne and landed on top of his opponent. (Of course, I often saw him simply bounce off of larger rikishi, who would glare at him with contempt before grabbing him and tossing him down like a rag doll.)

    Sumo just doesn't have interesting characters like that anymore.

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 11:09 PM  

  • The size of Sumo wrestlers always amazes me. Size does matter to me, huh?

    As for wrestling, I agree with Pa've that it's got to hurt. I've always wondered, won't those bones break being thrown about and pounded on? I'll just stick to chess.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 12:36 AM  

  • There I was going to say I think too hard about Sumo wrestlers because I end up thinking it is ridiculous.

    And then you mention Koneshiki who had to have a toilet attendant wipe his backside. The last time I heard of that it was for Henry VIII!

    By Blogger Olivia, at 10:40 PM  

  • Scrap that first paragraph. I meant to say I *can't* think too hard about them...

    By Blogger Olivia, at 10:41 PM  

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