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Internationalization of Budo (the case of Sumo)

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  • Internationalization of Budo (the case of Sumo)

    (originally from the Guardian)
    Big in Japan

    A young Mongolian wrestler is shaking up the rarefied world of sumo, with a combination of prodigious talent and bad boy antics, reports Justin McCurry

    Asashoryu was made for sumo. In less than four years, the 23-year old scion of a wrestling family has used his muscular, 140kg frame to twist, slap, trip, throw and bludgeon his way to the top of Japan's national sport.
    But since rising to the rank of yokozuna, or grand champion, Asashoryu has made enemies, and not just among the fellow grapplers he has left nursing bruises on the clay floor of the sumo ring.

    In victory, he eschews the normal stoicism and punches the air; he stares down referees, forgets his manners and thumbs his nose at centuries of tradition.

    Least palatable of all, at least to many sumo aficionados, is Asashoryu's background: he hails not from the sport's traditional recruiting grounds of northern Japan but from the grassland steppes of Mongolia.

    Nevertheless, far from being the scourge of sumo, Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj, as he is known to his family and friends, represents its best chance of emerging unscathed from one of the most difficult times in its modern history.

    It is over-dramatising things to talk about threats to the survival of a sport that was first performed in Shinto shrines at harvest time more than 2,000 years ago, but there is little doubt it is going through dual crises of identity and confidence.

    Thousands of tickets for the six 15-day grand tournaments held every year go unsold and prize money compares poorly with the salaries of Japan's professional footballers and baseball players. Several of sumo's biggest names have retired as the sport takes its toll on their heavier, but more injury-prone, frames.

    The declining birth rate has shrunk the talent pool, and the strict, sometimes brutal, way of life inside a sumo stable holds little attraction for today's Japanese schoolboys, who otherwise enjoy throwing their weight around.

    Perhaps the biggest sign that sumo is losing its place in the Japanese sporting consciousness was the removal, after 30 years, of Sumo Digest, a kind of sumo Match of the Day, from the nation's television screens.

    Asashoryu has ignited interest in sumo as much with his exceptional talent as with his much-publicised bad behaviour. And his recent victory in Tokyo, after winning all 15 of his bouts, was a reminder not just that he possesses unrivalled strength and technical acumen, but that sumo, finally, is being dragged into a new, more international era.

    Foreigners and sumo have had an uneasy relationship since Jesse Kuhaulua, a husky-voiced Hawaiian with Elvis sideburns, became the first non-Japanese wrestler to win a tournament, in 1972.

    Jesse paved the way for a succession of Hawaiian wrestlers, two of whom, Akebono and Musashimaru, went on to become grand champions.

    Although a rule was introduced restricting stables to one foreigner each (except those with two or three on their books when the rule came into force), there is no turning back the cosmopolitan tide.

    Mongolia, which has its own form of traditional wrestling, is the birthplace of seven wrestlers currently in the top two ranks. About 50 of professional sumo's 700 or so wrestlers are from overseas, from countries like Korea, Russia and Bulgaria.

    "Now you've got a very much wider variety of foreigners in sumo, and the Japanese are genuinely enjoying picking them out," says veteran sumo writer and broadcaster Doreen Simmons. "You can match Mongolian against Mongolian, or Mongolian against another nationality, and it greatly increases the interest."

    That much was in evidence last May when, having narrowly lost to his compatriot and nemesis Kyokushuzan, Asashoryu turned into a walking PR disaster. Having disputed the referee's call, he appeared to deliberately bump into his opponent as they left the ring, drawing gasps from the crowd.

    Two months later, he became the first grand champion in sumo history to be disqualified, for tugging the same opponent's topknot. They reportedly had to be pulled apart as they continued grappling in the bathroom. On his way home, Asashoryu completed a miserable day by breaking the wing mirror of Kyokushuzan's car.

    The sumo association ordered Asashoryu to behave, fans held up placards telling him to "go back to Mongolia" and a Japanese diplomat privately warned the pair that their public spat was doing Mongolia's reputation in Japan no favours.

    What irks many sumo fans is not so much Asashoryu's misdemeanours, but the absence of a Japanese grand champion capable of giving him a good hiding.

    Even other foreign wrestlers agree. "There is no Japanese yokozuna on the horizon and I think it's a problem for the sport," said Musashimaru, a Samoan-born former grand champion who retired injured last year. But he added: "I think we need guys like Asashoryu. To keep this sport alive we need people like him from all over the world."

    The sumo elders, though, cannot afford to ignore bad behaviour, Simmons says. "The higher you go and the better you perform, the higher the standards you're expected to hold to. If he (Asashoryu) shows good sumo and doesn't show bad sportsmanship, then he's one of the big attractions."

    The sport's long-term future also hinges on keeping retiring stars on to coach youngsters, but the time and expense involved in buying a stable master's name is forcing former champions to consider other careers.

    Akebono, the first foreign grand champion, left sumo in 2001 and, despite two dodgy knees, launched a new career in K-1, a vicious mix of kick-boxing, karate, kung-fu and tae kwon do that pulls in huge TV audiences and corporate sponsorship.

    His debut, against a former American footballer, Bob "the Beast" Sapp, on New Year's Eve, was improbably billed as "the fight of the century" and quickly descended into a freak show. The lumbering Akebono, still carrying much of the 230kg that had served him so well in sumo, hit the canvass inside the first round as his petrified wife and young children looked on.

    To complete the grotesque surrealism of the evening, "ringside" commentary was provided by that paragon of sportsmanship Mike Tyson, forced, thanks to a ban on the convicted criminal from entering Japan, to communicate via a satellite link-up from the US. His presence quickly put Asashoryu's perceived faults into perspective.

    Sumo's rebel, meanwhile, has begun reinventing himself, but not before missing the funeral of a former stable master and turning up late for New Year training. After his flawless victory in Tokyo last month, he dutifully sang the Japanese national anthem and gave a modest, good-natured live interview.

    The purists seem to have forgotten, too, that Asashoryu is hardly alone in indulging in bouts of bad behaviour away from the ring. Worse, several wrestlers over the years have slid into obscurity and obesity following rumours of violence, hard drinking and womanising. Shooting a Paddington stare at the ref and indulging in a spot of "afters" in a gymnasium bathroom seem tame by comparison.

  • #2
    Originally posted by mingshi
    Thank you, great article Mingshi. May kendo never reach the point where gimmicks are needed to keep it alive (not a stab against foreigners, I am one on many levels ). I'd love to get to watch more sumo. Maybe I'd be able to watch a real match at some point...

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