… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

January 22, 2013

The Globalization of Sumo – My talk at MSR SCS 2013

Filed under: ideas,Just for fun — Ethan @ 12:15 pm

Microsoft’s Social Computing Symposium is one of my favorite conferences of the year. It’s small, invitation only, curated by some of the smartest people in my field, and attracts a wonderful combination of smart folks I hadn’t previously known about and friends I’ve known long enough that they are becoming family.

Because it’s a small conference of people who know each other well, it can get pretty silly. People are encouraged to give talks not just on their current research, but on anything they’re interested in. When we introduced ourselves at the beginning of Thursday, I proposed a talk on sumo and globalization, which was one of the dozen chosen as the pre-dinner entertainment.

The talk went over well, and a few folks asked for the slides or more information, so I’ve posted it on SlideShare along with my notes. It was supposed to be a five minute talk, but it’s probably more like a 10 minute talk that could stretch to 15.

Here’s the talk:

The Globalization of Sumo from Ethan Zuckerman

The third slide features a great bout between Harumafuji and Okinoumi, but I couldn’t upload the video to SlideShare. The YouTube video features below.

Nothing here will be news for sumo fans, but this was an attempt to share the sport, and some of the controversies and debates that surrounds it with an audience used to thinking about the globalization of culture, but perhaps not about this specific instance.

My friends at MSR have now posted the talk, so if you’d like to watch me give it, here it is.


  1. I enjoy Sumo, however, one has to also appreciate that there’s a significant corruption in the sport. This isn’t about doping (as in many Western sports), but arranging matches (yaocho). Hints of this surfaced from Duggan and Levitt’s (2000) excellent paper that showed “wrestlers win a disproportionate share of the matches when they are on the margin” (of a division). Since then, there’s been out-and-out corruption scandals. However, the entrance of foreign sumōtori is probably despite the corruption rather than part of it. That is, I think it’s good for the sport.

    Comment by Joseph Reagle — January 22, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

  2. There’s no doubt that some match-fixing takes place. What the Duggan and Levitt paper makes clear is that it happens at a very particular point in tournaments – matches between rikishi who are 7-7 and in need of a final win, and rikishi who have no strong incentives to fight hard in their final matches. It’s been an issue in sumo for a very long time… but it’s a bit like watching a late season NFL game between teams heading into the playoffs – you might not get their best play. I think the scandals around training conditions and the absence of strong Japanese rikishi has been a much more significant factor in reducing interest in sumo.

    Comment by Ethan — January 24, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

  3. Ethan, the video from all of the SCS talks should be available online by next week; I’ll send email out to participants when it is. Your talk was absolutely one of the highlights of the event for me. So very glad you could participate this year!

    Comment by Liz Lawley — January 24, 2013 @ 12:58 pm

  4. I’ve watched the slides but not listened to your talk, so please pardon me if I haven’t quite gotten your point. A few things…

    Re athletes getting kicked out of a sport for pot, remember Ricky Williams in the NFL. Not kicked out, but harassed to the point that a fine career was basically destroyed. It’s not only in Sumo.

    MMA has a culture. It may be crass and simplistic, but it’s a culture.

    Re Joseph’s comment and your response, an unmotivated team/wrestler not giving their/his all does not amount to fixing. In the NFL it’s accepted that a playoff-bound team that cannot change its ranking in the last game or two may rest its starting quarterback or other key players. I have no idea what goes on in Sumo, but they’re just not the same, as you seem to imply.

    Comment by Andrew Burday — January 31, 2013 @ 12:14 am

  5. […] I like sumo. A lot. I follow the tournaments online, watching matches on YouTube a few hours after they’ve aired, then reading commentary on fan sites in English and Spanish. I have, one or twice, participated in virtual sumo leagues, performing dismally as there’s not always much overlap between the style of sumo I love (focused on agility and throwing techniques) and the style of sumo that wins. I show sumo matches to friends, hoping to turn them into fans, and I’ve been known to give talks at academic conferences on the globalization of this very Japanese sport. […]

    Pingback by Sumo practice at Oguruma Beya | ... My heart’s in Accra — June 6, 2013 @ 8:28 am

  6. […] We hear more from Ethan Zuckerman, who spends most of his time writing about technology and directing the Center for Civic Media at MIT, but who also happens to be a fanatical fan of Japanese sumo. […]

    Pingback by Egyptian Sumo Wrestler Osunaarashi Still at Top of His Game Despite Ramadan Fast | @pritheworld — July 10, 2013 @ 11:53 pm

  7. […] We hear more from Ethan Zuckerman, who spends most of his time writing about technology and directing the Center for Civic Media at MIT, but who also happens to be a fanatical fan of Japanese sumo. […]

    Pingback by Egyptian Sumo Wrestler Osunaarashi Still at Top of His Game Despite Ramadan ... - PRI's The World - Online News Egypt | Online News Egypt — July 13, 2013 @ 5:54 am

  8. […] My regular readers know that I’m a fan of sumo, and am especially interested in the globalization of the sport. The top three rikishi (wrestlers) in Japanese sumo are from Mongolia, and top ranks of the sport have recently featured competitors from Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia, Estonia and Brazil. On the one hand, this is helping a distinctly Japanese tradition gain global audiences, which is a great thing for the quality of the sport. On the other hand, the globalization is in part due to waning interest in the sport by Japanese youth (few of whom are excited about living the highly-regimented life of the sumo wrestler), and globalization may be contributing to waning interest in Japan, as it has been many years since a Japanese rikishi was the top competitor in the sport. (If this topic is interesting to you, you might enjoy a ten minute talk I gave on the subject to Microsoft Research in January 2013, available as video or as my notes. […]

    Pingback by Egyptian sumo wrestler bests a grand champion. Twice. While fasting for Ramadan. | ... My heart’s in Accra — July 18, 2014 @ 1:23 pm

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