Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

Sumo and the cycle of nature

The leaves turn from green to gold, the days grow shorter, the nights grow colder. The seasons turn slowly from one to another. Large men with few clothes on shove each other out of a ring. The eternal cycle of nature.

One of the wonders of sumo is that it’s always there for you. Not like that fickle football (the American kind) that deserts you when the winters grow cold. Or my beloved baseball, which disappears for a long winter’s nap whether or not the Red Sox win their third world series in five years. Every two months, there’s a 15-day basho. You can set your watch by it, if you happen to have one of those watches that’s accurate only to the week.

And there’s excitement between the bashos as well for the lucky sumo fan. Traditionally, we’re entertained by the exploits of Asashoryu, the brilliant and controversial Mongolian yokozuna, who manages to offend the sumo establisment by glaring, getting into fights and playing soccer. But the backdrop to the current Aki Basho at Ryogoku Kokugikan is even more titilating: a drug scandal.

Russian sumo wrestler Wakanoho was arrested for possesion of marijuana, and the sumo association responded by banning him from the sport for life. His countrymen, brothers Roho and Hakurozan, tested positive for marijuana in a drug test administered to all rikishi. They demanded and failed a second drug test and they, too, have banned from the sport. Shamed by the drug scandal, sumo association chairman Kitonoumi has resigned his post.

(Roho, Hakurozan and Wakanoho all hail from North Ossetia. I mention this not because it has anything to do either with their marijuana use or their grappling prowess. I just don’t know anyone else from North Ossetia, and I always find it easier to pay attention to global news stories when I can say, oh yeah, that’s where Roho comes from. I would note, in passing, that Kokkai hails from Georgia, and that faceoffs between him and the three Russians might have made for interesting matches in the wake of the Ossetian war.)

Jordan, of the excellent 塵も積もれば山となる blog (my favorite spot for daily sumo updates), notes that these bans seem somewhat surprising to non-Japanese fans. In my home state, we’ve got a question on this year’s ballot which would turn possession of less than an ounce of marijuana into a violation, similar in severity to a traffic ticket, and wouldn’t put the charges onto one’s criminal record. Jordan points out that marijuana isn’t viewed nearly this casually in Japanese society, and that the expulsion of these three wrestlers is viewed as a shame for the sport.


Comic by Roberto Devido

Of course, there are less dark ways to view the controversy. Roberto Devido offers a wonderful trio of sumo comics on his blog, Politicomix, which help explain the motivations both of the Russian rikishi and the sumo association. Always good advice – if you’re getting your ass kicked by Mongolians, the munchies will help you put on weight.

Another wonderful thing about sumo: it may well be the only sport in which marijuana is a performance-enhancing drug.

Did I mention that Ama’s 4-1 so far? Or that you can watch excerpts from highlighted matches every day by following helpful links on Jordan’s blog? It’s a wonderful day to be a sumo fan.

2 Responses to “Sumo and the cycle of nature”

  1. Hans Strock says:

    Interesting! I never knew that marijuana was a problem in sumo wrestling. What is next, PCP addiction in full contact tournaments?

  2. Paul says:

    Greetings from Okinawa, Japan!
    I’m writing to let you know that I have been reading your blog close to daily for about a month now and I’m constantly glad I do.
    I had the great fortune to study, one summer, at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana and so I resonate with your blog at that level – but today I discover you have an entire category for discussing Sumo!
    There is going to be a tournament here in Okinawa in December (which is a rare thing) and so I will be consulting this blog to get more familiar with the sport. Many, many thanks! Medasi paa!

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