I’m on my winter vacation from now until January 5th, which means, according to the circular I just got in the mail from the International Bloggers Union, Local 137, I’m not required to post every day and I’m encouraged to post on topics my regular readers may not care about.
You know, like sumo.
(There’s now a sumo category on the blog, so that all those who could care less about the sport can make a point of ignoring any post on the topic.)
Like all of you (:-), I’m waiting with bated breath for the January Basho at Ryogoku Kokugikan. Will Asashoryu continue his amazing dominance of the sport, breaking more records in 2006? Will Kaio and Chiyotaikai, two of the most mediocre ozeki in history, get demoted yet again and make room for some of the young wrestlers to ascend? Just how good is Kotooshu, the new Bulgarian ozeki? Will he challenge Asashoryu? What would it mean for the sport to have two non-Japanese yokozuna?
If Japanese commentators are to be believed, Kotooshu’s success could be sumo’s downfall. If a Mongolian and a Bulgarian dominated sumo together, it’s possible that attendence at matches would fall even further from today’s disappointing numbers. A recent commentary in Kyodo News asks “Why can’t Japanese beat Asashoryu?“. The answer – because he’s really, really good – doesn’t appear to be satisfactory. Instead, there’s concern that Japanese wrestlers don’t train enough, don’t eat right, and generally aren’t offering Asa the sort of competition he would have seen a decade earlier, if he’d had to wrestle yokozuna like Takanohana and Wakanohana.
(It’s hard for me, as an unabashed Mongoliaphile, to understand how Asashoryu can be shown such contempt in Japanese sumo. Not all, but some, sumo fans have begun treating the three Japanese ozeki as yokozuna – when I attended a match this spring at Kokugikan, the smiling ladies of the sumo fan club were handing out folders emblazoned with images of ozeki Tochiazuma, not of Asashoryu. And when Asa beat ozeki Chiyotaikai to win his seventh consecutive emperor’s cup, some fans threw square cushions at the dohyo, which is traditionally done when a yokozuna is defeated.)
For anyone who’s worried about the increasing non-Japanese dominance of sumo, the event I watched on ESPN2 a few days back has to be worrisome indeed. “The World Sumo Challenge” – held on October 22nd in Madison Square Garden, New York – was advertised as “the first stop on the North American Sumo tour”. It’s unclear whether Big Boy Entertainment, the organizers of the event, were able to schedule any additional stops on the tour, or whether the 8,000 fans who watched a round-robin tournament of 24 rishiki from around the world fight have become sumo fans, or whether they simply enjoyed the novelty of big men wearing mawashi.
Some of the “additions” made to the format to make the sport more interesting to non-Japanese audiences were pretty absurd. The organizers decided to organize the wrestlers into four “timeless warrior clans” – “Black Tiger”, “Iron Mountain”, “Shadow Jin” and “Wrath of Heaven” – perhaps in the hopes of giving the audience teams to root for. The format didn’t really allow for this, though, as the playoff format forced wrestler to fight other wrestlers in their “clan”, before advancing the two most successful to the single-elimination finals round. And I’ve never seen a match in Japan begin with the announcer yelling, “Let’s get ready to sssssSUMO!”
(This wasn’t the only non-traditional aspect of the match. The wrestlers didn’t purify the ring with salt before the matches. The dohyo was a wrestling mat with a raised ridge, not straw bales and clay. I got the pretty clear sense that retired yokozuna Musashimaru, providing color commentary, thought the whole experience was a pretty pale shadow of actual Japanese sumo. Or he might just have been pissed off with his insipid co-anchor, Al Pawlowski, who appears to work as a soccer commentator most of the time.)
On the other hand, the actual bouts were pretty damned good. Most of the folks competing are high-ranked amateur fighters in Europe. I was hugely impressed by Sydney Carty, who’s been sumo champion of the Netherlands several times, and handily won his earlier matches with flawless uwatenage (arm throws). It was a great chance to see a number of terrific wrestlers from Eastern Europe, especially Bulgaria and Georgia, which appear to have deep reserves of small (roughly 130kg), strong, fast wrestlers. Bulgarian Petar Stoyanov was extremely impressive and stayed in competition until the last bout with Mitshuhiko Fukao, a massive Japanese wrestler who offered a clinic in slapping techniques, ending most of his matches with tsukidashi victories (pushing the opponent out of the ring with repeated thrusts).
Fukao was the crowd favorite, perhaps because he looks like Americans expect sumo wrestlers to look: Asian and profoundly obese. And there’s no denying he’s extremely talented… But if you’re looking for the future of sumo, there’s good evidence that there’s talent in Bulgaria beyond Kotooshu and in Georgia beyond Kokkai.
It would be exciting to see the two major experiments in popularizing sumo in the US – the MSG event, and the Grand Sumo Las Vegas tournament, which featured most of the leading Japanese rikishi – could be combined. Would any of the amateurs featured in New York have a fighting chance against the top competitors in Japan?
And if they did, how would that change the sport? Is it possible that sumo could become truly globalized, with a regular international match that pitted the top atheletes in the sport against one another? One intriguing possibility – if sumo became a sanctioned Olympic sport, we would likely see some of the world’s best face off every four years.
And that could lead to some interesting developments. Basketball was invented in the United States and has become a religion here, at the NBA and college level. And yet America’s Olympic team (which, admittedly, didn’t include many of the nation’s best players) got clobbered at the 2004 Summer Games… shortly after getting clobbered in the 2002 World Basketball Championships. If Japan shares sumo with the world, will they face a similar fate?
I’m crossing my fingers for a chance to find out.