Sumo’s foreign takeover

June 10, 2017 08:28 pm | Updated December 03, 2021 05:01 pm IST

Tickets for the penultimate day of Tokyo’s sumo championships last month were a tough find. Tournaments, each lasting 15 days, only take place three times a year in Tokyo. This writer was prepared to watch oversized men in loin cloths push each other about for a desultory couple of hours, mostly to tick sumo off a mandatory list of things-to-do-if-you-live-in-Japan. But instead she was mesmerized as the wrestlers, balletic in their bulk and coiled in their stillness, stomped metaphorical demons to the ground, scattered fistfuls of purifying salt and performed other sacred rituals that accounted for the majority of their time in the ring (the fighting itself was usually over before you could say sumo).

Sumo has traditionally been as much about religion and civilisational identity, as it is about sport. A critical sumo match won by the Shinto god of thunder, Takemikazuchi, forms part of Japan’s national founding myth. In its oldest form, sumo was enacted during the rice-planting season to beg divine favour for a good crop. Today, harvests have taken a back seat to the concerns of corporate sponsors.

It’s commonly believed that Japanese youth no longer possess the self-discipline and motivation required to live within the demanding environment of a sumo stable

Yet, when the wrestlers squared off, there was something in the long silence before they lunged that made one marvel, “how quintessentially Japanese”. But, in fact, hardly any of the wrestlers fighting that afternoon was Japanese. Almost every high-ranking sumo wrestler at present is Mongolian, although Brazilians, Russians, Chinese and Georgians make an odd appearance as well. When Ibaraki-native Kisenosato Yutaka won the January Tokyo championship and was promoted to the rank of yokozuna (grand champion), he became the first Japanese yokozuna since 1998. All the other three yokozuna active today are Mongolian. And since an injured Kisenosato withdrew from the May tournament, the highest-level matches were a predictable Mongolian monopoly.

Dominance of foreigners

The first non-Japanese to become yokozuna was Akebono, a Hawaiian who gained the honour in 1993. Since then, one more Hawaiian and four Mongolians have attained the rank. The dominance of foreigners has occurred despite restrictions that limit each of Japan’s 45 “stables”, or training schools, to only accepting a single apprentice born outside Japan. It’s commonly believed that Japanese youngsters no longer possess the self-discipline and motivation required to live and train within the demanding environment of a sumo stable. The typical recruit of earlier centuries was a poor youngster from a remote rural region. These days, most Japanese are prosperous and urban. In contrast, wrestlers from countries like Mongolia, which also have an indigenous wrestling tradition, often have hardscrabble backgrounds and see the sport as a way out of destitution. A generational shift towards “trendy” sports like baseball and soccer, combined with the health issues associated with the weight needed to wrestle (the life expectancy of sumo wrestlers is about 15 years less than that of the average Japanese male) have all contributed to the Sumo crisis.

Back at the stadium, a 200 kg wrestler toppled off the elevated ring and fell into the VIP crowd that sat up close to the action. The referee, a willowy man decked out in elaborate silk robes jumped about, the dagger protruding from his sash quivering as though in agitation. The dagger’s traditional purpose was to enable the referee to commit seppuku or ritual disembowelment of himself, on the spot, were he to make the wrong call during a match. Nowadays it is purely ceremonial.

May’s championship was won by Mongolian yokozuna Hakuho, who defeated fellow Mongolian yokozuna Harumafuji.

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