Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re Asashoryu, the sole yokozuna in sumo for three and a half years, a near-unbeatable champion of a sport that demands not just physical prowess, but ritual stoicism and dignity. You report an injury from the most recent tournament in Nagoya, where you won your 21st Emperor’s cup, and return to your native Mongolia to recouperate from your injuries. Then you appear in a charity soccer game in Mongolia, apparently well enough to run around on the field. Obviously, you’re a faker, a fraud, a charlatan, who deserves punishment, either by losing your rank (which would mean retirement from the sport) or by being suspended from tournaments.
Okay, now let’s pretend that you’re a 26 year-old Mongolian named Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj. You live and work in Japan, where people loathe you. You’re constantly accused of participating in match fixing, which seems a bit odd as you win almost all your matches – shouldn’t they be accusing your opponents of throwing matches and complaining about their lack of honor? You’re criticized for transgressions real and imagined – being “too aggressive” and “staring too hard” at opponents in a sport that demands that you throw them to the ground or out of the ring, but also for pulling hair and for scraps with fellow wrestlers outside the ring. Your appearance at bars is the subject of constant tabloid headlines. And you’ve got a temper, which complicates matters.
On the other hand, you’re a national hero in your native Mongolia, and – unsurprisingly – you do your best to spend as much time there are possible. Despite recouperating from a back injury, friends ask you to take the field with Japanese soccer star Hidetoshi Nakata at an event designed to promote soccer in Mongolia. When this causes a shitstorm in Japan, the Mongolian embassy formally apologizes on your behalf, saying:
We put pressure on him to be on the field to allow children to interact with a national hero. The original plan was to let him leave the field after a brief while, but his presence generated so much enthusiasm that we could not allow him to do so. We apologize for having caused this serious incident and for putting both the Japan Sumo Association and yokozuna Asashoryu in an unpleasant situation.
The Japan Sumo Association has issued an unprecedented sanction against Asashoryu – they have cut his annual salary by 30% and suspended him from the next two tournaments. Many Japanese fans don’t think this is sufficient – 46% want to see Asa banned from sumo altogether, while only 7% thought this punishment was too harsh. Unsurprisingly, Asa is feeling a bit depressed – a JSA doctor describes him as being “days away from a breakdown”. The big man is locked in his apartment, and a 90 minute meeting with his stablemaster didn’t convince him to either return to training or to seek medical help for both physical and psychological ailments.
Sumo is an unusual sport, inasmuch as there’s really only one country where one can make a living as a rishiki… and in that country, the sport is viewed as vastly more than just an athletic contest. Simply being the best athlete in the sport is insufficient to be a celebrated Yokozuna – Asashoryu is expected to respect the ritual of the sport and to set an example for other wrestlers. His task is complicated by the fact that Hakuho, a new Yokozuna (and a fellow Mongolian) is respected for being quiet, unassuming and uncontroversial. The idea of throwing Asa out of the sport is likely more palatable given that there would still be a grand champion.
There’s been a meeting of cultures in sumo for years, since Takamiyama – the Hawaiian-born Jesse James Wailani Kuhaulua – won an Emperor’s Cup in 1972. Hawaii has a strong sumo culture , connected to Japanese emigration to Hawaii throughout the 20th century. While Takamiyama became thoroughly assimilated into Japanese sumo and ended up opening his own sumo stable, other rishiki have not had as smooth a path. Konishiki and other darker-skinned Hawaiian wrestlers were sometimes referred to as “the black ships” – a reference to Commodore Perry’s ships that forcibly opened Japan to international commerce in 1854. There’s some discomfort with the current Mongolian dominance of sumo, which some argue is turning Japanese fans off from the sport. I nearly provoked a fight at a baseball game in Chiba when I told a Japanese acquaintance that Asashoryu and Kyokushuzan (both Mongolians) were my favorite rishiki – he was deeply offended that I listed two Mongolian wrestlers as my favorites.
I realize that I’m biased and that I’ve got a big soft spot for Mongolian wrestlers in general and Asa in particular… but it seems like there’s a remarkable lack of compassion for Asashoryu in this situation. He’s in a difficult situation – unable to practice his sport except in Japan and unable to do so in Japan without a flood of criticism. Yes, many of his wounds are self-inflicted, and other Mongolian wrestlers have managed to assimilate more smoothly than he has. But it sometimes seems like Asa’s biggest crime is not being Japanese enough, a crime the patriotic Mongolian would likely confess to.