Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003
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Sumo practice at Oguruma Beya

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.

But I’ve seen very little sumo in person. This past week was only my second trip to Japan, and while I was privileged to attend a day’s bouts in Ryuguko Kokugikan, Tokyo’s temple of sumo, I sat in the nosebleed seats, peering through the telephoto lens on my camera to follow the action.

I have a very different perspective on the sport after an incredible experience yesterday morning. On Monday, I gave a talk at Tokyo Midtown Hall, organized by Japan’s most prestigious newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, and by Dentsu, Japan’s leading marketing and communications firm. My friend Mr. Mori and his colleagues at Dentsu organized a morning visit to the Oguruma Beya, the dormitory and training academy where a dozen sumo rikishi live and practice.


Laamb and sumo – what would happen if Senegalese wrestlers came to Japan?

The New York Times had a great article yesterday on laamb, a style of wrestling popular in Senegal. Laamb, sometimes called “Lutte Senegalese” is enjoying a resurgence in Senegal, and is now more popular in that country than more global sports like football. The Times article focuses on a recent match where a rising champion unseated a legendary wrestler, and examines the finances of the sport, where hundreds of thousands of dollars can go to the top performers in the sport. The video that accompanies the story is particularly compelling and worth your time.

Yekini vs Balla Gaye II, the most anticipated Laamb match of 2012

Mentioned in, but not a major emphasis of, the Times story is the role of traditional magic in Laamb. Wrestlers enter the ring adorned with gris-gris, leather charms that contain verses from the Koran and mixtures of herbs, prepared by marabouts, who also bathe the wrestlers in herb-laced protective baths. In Ghana, the country I know best in west Africa, some similar practices take place, but they’re rituals practiced in secret. Some of the stranger experiences I had in Ghana in the 1990s involved visiting traditional healers with musicians I was studying with – magic (“juju” in Ghana) was something part of some people’s lives, but it was something not something for public consumption. Watching a few laamb matches online makes clear that very different rules apply, at least as concerns this sport.

For an interesting introduction to laamb, I highly recommend Dhani Jones’s “Dhani Tackles the Globe”. For two years of very compelling TV, NFL linebacker Dhani Jones spent his offseason visiting different countries and competing in a wide variety of sports. His visit to Senegal is pretty incredible – he trains with Bombardier, one of the legends of laamb, and competes against a Bombardier protege. He also goes through a pretty amazing pre-match ritual with a marabout which, to me at least, offers the somewhat uncomfortable spectacle of an intense mystical experience shown as entertaining television. It’s available as a $2 purchase from iTunes, and it really a fascinating hour of video. (The clip above is from the show, but is not one of the best moments – it’s Dhani’s discomfort at discovering the traditional wrestling loincloth, which is basically one extended dick joke… but it’s all I can find on YouTube.)

Watching the Yekini/Balla Gaye match, I’m struck by the parallels between laamb and sumo. Both sports have quite simple, and very similar rules: the major differences between laamb and sumo have to do with precisely which body parts can touch the ground before a wrestler loses a match (in sumo, one hand or knee on the ground means you lose, in laamb, it’s two…). In both cases, a fast-paced match is preceded by long rituals, and the framing of an event is similar, multiple matches, separated by rituals, constitute an event. And there’s some body-type similarity between successful laamb wrestlers, and the body types currently dominating sumo: guys who are big, but not huge, who balance mass in their lower body with well-developed upper bodies.

Sumo in Japan has been transformed by an influx of non-native wrestlers over the past few decades. First, the sport was revolutionized by Pacific Islanders, particularly Hawaiians, whose massive size gave them an advantage over smaller Japanese rivals. (Akebono, born Chad Rowan in Hawaii, stood 2.03m and massed 240kg, as much as 100kg heavier than some of his rivals.) Lately, it’s been dominated by small (okay, small by sumo standards – under 150kg), nimble and very, very strong Mongolians like Asashoryu and Hakuho. It’s been challenging for the sport to adapt to the foreign influx – some Japanese fans have expressed frustration at the absence of a Japanese grand champion or strong contenders. But it’s clear that the future of sumo includes an increasing population of international competitors, from Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and even Egypt.

So, why not Senegal? As the Times article explains, part of the allure of laamb is the opportunity for young men to make money in a country with very high unemployment. Similar factors led Mongolian wrestlers, experienced in Bökh, their traditional wrestling style, to begin competing in Japan. Pioneering wrestlers like Kyokutenho, who came to Japan in 1991 and just won his first Emperor’s Cup at age 37 in the May basho, are taking steps to ensure that Mongolians remain in sumo for decades to come. Kyokutenho just obtained Japanese citizenship (indeed, he won the Cup as a Japanese citizen!), probably so he can become a coach and stable manager when he retires from competition. What would it take for half a dozen Senegalese to come to Japan to compete? I can imagine a Senegalese yokozuna in two decades – can sumo?

My guess is that it’s more likely that we’ll see former sumo and former laamb champions competing in mixed martial arts, a sport that’s increasingly popular in Japan. But there’s something very satisfyingly xenophilic about the idea that the rituals of laamb and sumo might someday come into contact.

Asashoryu resigns. Will sumo ever globalize?

Here’s a story I missed while I was out with eye surgery: Asashoryu, one of the greatest sumo wrestlers in history, has retired. And needless to say, for anyone who follows sumo: it’s not quite that simple as that. Indeed, this retirement might lead to an international falling out between Mongolia and Japan. And it provides an opportunity for reflection on the challenges the sumo world – and, perhaps, Japan as a whole – faces in an era of globalization.

Since 2003, Asashoryu – born Dolgorsurengiin Dagvadorj in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, has competed in Japanese sumo as a yokozuna, the highest achievable rank in the sport. He’s won 25 tournaments, giving him the third highest win total in the history of the sport, and in 2005, he won each of the six tournaments, an unprecedented feat. Given his success, you might think he’d be celebrated as a pillar of the sumo world. You’d be wrong.

Asashoryu’s got some strikes against him with potential Japanese fans. His rap sheet is almost as long as his list of tournament wins. His “crimes” range from violations of sumo’s strict laws of decorum, to real transgressions. Here’s how I explained his complex image in sumo the last time he trangressed – leading to an unprecedented two-tournament suspension:

Lets imagine for a moment that youre 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 Emperors 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, youre 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 lets pretend that youre a 26 year-old Mongolian named Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj. You live and work in Japan, where people loathe you. Youre constantly accused of participating in match fixing, which seems a bit odd as you win almost all your matches shouldnt they be accusing your opponents of throwing matches and complaining about their lack of honor? Youre 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 youve got a temper, which complicates matters.

On the other hand, youre 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…

Unfortunately, Asa’s most recent (alleged) transgression was more serious than an ill-advised foortball match. Japanese tabloids report that Asashoryu got quite drunk in a nightclub during the January basho and beat up someone who’s been variously identified as a fellow patron, a nightclub employee, the bartender, the bar owner… Asashoryu hasn’t commented on the incident, except to say that the reports of the incident were “quite different” than what actually occured. Faced with a likely ban from the sport, he resigned and will be allowed a formal retirement ceremony… and will recieve a retirement allowance of over $1m USD.

I was pissed off at the Japan Sumo Association when they suspended Asa for playing football in Mongolia. I’m more sympathetic to their decision here… but I’m deeply saddened. I’m sad not just that I won’t get to see Asa shatter the record for tournament wins (the conspiracy theory in the Mongolian community says that JSA had to find a pretext to eject Asa before he surpassed records held by Japanese yokozuna). I’m sad that sumo and Asa couldn’t find a way to work together to allow the most talented man in the sport to continue a record-setting career.

I don’t pretend to understand all the nuances of sumo decorum, but it always seemed to me that some aspect of Asa’s uneasy status in sumo circles had to do with his strong Mongolian identity. Non-Japanese have been a part of sumo for decades, and some have been embraced by Japanese fans… though generally to the same extent that they embraced Japanese culture. Hakuho, Asashoryu’s primary rival the past few years and fellow yokozuna, is also from Mongolia, but has been far more widely accepted in Japanese sumo circles, perhaps because he’s more soft-spoken and modest, perhaps because he married a Japanese girlfriend (a decision which angered some of his Mongolian fans.)

Geoff Dean has a thoughtful essay that tries to predict the future for Asashoryu. He notes that most retired rikishi look for work in the wider world of sumo: “He can become a stable master, open a sumo restaurant, become a sumo commentator, or in some way, stay connected to the sumo world.” That’s probably not an option for Asa. Instead, he might follow Akebono, a Hawaiian-born yokozuna, into the mixed martial arts and into less-dignified corners of Japanese pop culture. Underlying Dean’s essay is the point that former non-Japanese sumo wrestlers often have a better opportunity to maintain their status and fame by staying in Japan after their sumo careers have ended. It’s hard for me to imagine Asa doing this – I think it’s more likely that he’ll find a way to stay in combat sports while being based in his homeland.

Dean observes that the most recent golden age of sumo occurred when a Japanese yokozuna – Takanohana – faced off against foreign yokozuna Akebono. This could happen again if Kotomitsuki – one of two Japanese ozeki – makes a run for promotion to join Hakuho as yokozuna. (The other Japanese ozeki – Kaio – is older than I am and will retire soon.) But the real story of sumo this past decade has been the rise of foreign rikishi into the highest ranks – Hakuho (Mongolian, yokozuna), Harumafuju (Mongolian, ozeki), Kotooshu (Bulgarian, ozeki), Baruto (Estonian, sekiwake). There are some Japanese sumo fans who aren’t excited about the idea of a Mongolian/Bulgarian rivalry at the top of the sport. I attended the April basho in Tokyo a few years back and was stunned to see fans handing out colorful photos emblazoned with the image of Japanese ozeki Chiyotaikai… but no one handing out anything featuring the higher-ranked yokozuna, Asashoryu.

Writing in Forbes, Tim Kelly sees sumo’s resistance to accepting Asashoryu and other foreign competitors as a symptom of larger problems associated with a closed society: “Japan, like sumo, is closed, preferring to persevere through depopulation and economic stagnation rather than open its borders to the stimulus offered by opportunity-hungry foreigners. What they choose to ignore is that Japan is running out of money, people and ideas.” He makes that case that Japan needs to increase immigration to spur the Japanese economy and cultivate creativity, and suggests a good first step would be to figure out how to get used to controversial outsiders like Asa, rather than expelling him.

I’m not able to make sweeping generalizations about the Japanese economy or offer as strong a prescription as Kelly does for Japanese society. I will say that I’ve been very proud as a Red Sox fan of the way my team and its fanbase have embraced our two Japanese stars, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima. Shortly after the Sox paid an unbelievable sum of money to negotiate with Matsuzaka, local sportswriters started referring to the new star as “Dice-K”, a nickname designed to help Boston fans correctly pronounce the unfamiliar Japanese name. (I’d love to figure out whether the team started this practice, or whether a clever sportwriter came up with it.) The Red Sox played regular season games in Japan in 2008, and there’s now a third Japanese pitcher – Junichi Tazawa – on the Sox roster. It’s routine to see Sox fans in Fenway sporting Matsuzaka shirts in Fenway with the pitcher’s name written in Hiragana.

Things could have gotten very ugly for Matsuzaka in Boston this past year. He had a lousy season, in part because he showed up for spring training nursing injuries from the World Baseball Classic, where he’d represented Japan and won the MVP trophy (and beat the US in the semifinal round.) Boston was pretty sympathetic, actually – I heard more commentary about the danger of the Baseball Classic for all MLB players than I did specific criticism of Dice-K.

I don’t mean to offer a facile comparison between Boston (which has its own complex history of racism and xenophobia to live down) and Japan and suggest that one’s open and the other closed. What I’ll say instead is that baseball’s become a global sport by embracing players from around the world at its highest level, the MLB. (And not just players – Ecuadorian radio personality Jaime Jarrin is a genuine celebrity in LA as the Spanish-language radio voice of the LA Dodgers.) Sumo could become a global sport by similarly embracing and celebrating this new wave of Asian and European talent. Instead, they’ve banned a pair of Russian wrestlers for alleged drug use and hounded the most talented man in a generation out of the sport. Not a great moment for sumo cosmopolitanism.

The Natsu Basho – the good, the bad and the cosmopolitan

It’s the third sumo tournament of the year, the Natsu Basho, held at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, and 13 days into the contest, the good and bad of contemporary sumo are on display. The good: both Yokozuna – Asashoryu and Hakuho – are at the top of their game, and my man, Harumafuji – formerly Ama – is kicking ass and taking names. The bad: they’ve got no competition.

Yokozuna are supposed to be dominant – you’re not allowed to assume that rank unless you’re good enough that you can win nearly every match you compete in. Hakuho is currently 13-0, having snuck past Harumafuji earlier today, and unless he loses to Asashoryu on the final day, he’s likely to complete a second consecutive zensho-yusho (perfect tournament.) The video below shows Hakuho’s last tournament, where he destroys fifteen progressively tougher opponents over the course of two weeks – it’s an excellent intro to sumo at the highest levels, practiced by a yokozuna with stunning power and technique. (Hakuho is on the right in all these bouts, dressed in black. For the several matches, he’s fighting lower-ranked rikishi – for the last half dozen, he’s fighting ozeki, and finally Asashoryu, the other yokozuna – you’ll see the matches get longer and far more difficult.)

But ozeki are supposed to be pretty dominant, too. You generally can’t be promoted to sumo’s second-highest rank without thirty wins over three consecutive tournaments, which suggests that you should be capable of ten wins in any given tournament. Ozeki who have losing records in two successive tournaments are stripped of their rank and reduced to Sekiwake – most retire from the sport rather than face this dishonor.

Chiyotaikai, who’s been ozeki for ten years, is facing demotion for the (record) 13th time in his career. He’s weak, injured, and struggling with diabetes, and it would be a good thing for him and for the sport if he retired. Of course, he’s telling the press he plans to remain fighting, even if relegated. The disturbing thing? At 6-7, he might just stave off elimination one more time – his fellow ozeki, who he fights the next two days, may be inclined to ease up in matches against him.

With the exception of Harumafuji, the other ozeki aren’t making real strong showings either. Kaio, who’s almost as decrepit as Chiyotaikai, is 8-5, as is the often impressive Bulgarian Kotooshu. Kotomitsuki hasn’t yet guaranteed himself a winning record at 7-6, and none of these four have been a serious threat throughout the tournament. And so we’ve got three strong, relatively small, Mongolian wrestlers setting the base, and a whole lot of mediocrity throughout the rest of the ranks.

It’s not news that sumo is having trouble attracting new athletes in Japan. The horrific training death of seventeen year-old Takashi Saito (who was beaten to death by training mates on the instruction of his stablemaster, to correct his “vague attitude” about sumo… which the Japan Sumo Association covered up as a death from heart failure… which was finally prosecuted as manslaughter) has certainly not helped attract new converts. In the meantime, sumo is gaining global popularity, not just in Mongolia, but in countries like Bulgaria, where Kotooshu’s success is driving young people to try the sport.

The JSA continues to restrict the number of foreigners who can compete in the sport, despite a strong pipeline of new talent from Mongolia and increasingly from Russia and eastern Europe. I can’t help reading the expulsion of Roho, Hakurozan and Wakanoho – three talented rikishi from Ossetia – for marijuana posession and positive drug tests as having a subtext: it’s another way to keep some of the gaijin off the dohyo.

In the meantime, Kotooshu, the lanky Bulgarian ozeki who’s become popular both in Japan and in his home country, announced that he’ll be marrying a Japanese woman who he’s been dating for five years. Like Kyukutenho, a Mongolian sekiwake who became a Japanese citizen and is now in line to become the head of the Oshima stable, Kotooshu is changing sumo the slow way, diversifying Japanese society and helping broaden and open one of Japan’s most traditional institutions.

I’m following this tournament via CiberSumo – yep, in the cosmopolitan world that is sumo, the best coverage at the moment is put together by Spaniards. They have a small, but excellent, video library that’s very much worth your time. And like SumoTalk, they run a virtual sumo league.

On starting well

When taking on an important, highly visible, challenging new job, it’s a good idea to perform well on your first couple of days. You know, something impressive like radically overhauling regulations regarding lobbyists, or ordering the shutdown of a prison associated with shameful miscarriages of justice.

Losing your first four matches as an ozeki? Not the recommended way to start a new job.

Like most sumo fans, I’d been looking forward to Harumafuji’s (née Ama) first basho with his heavyweight new name. Who knew? Adding four syllables and two kanjii was enough to slow down the lightweight yet badass Mongolian sufficiently for him to lose his first four matches as an ozeki. That’s a lot of losses, especially for a guy who went 12-3 in his last tournament.

Given my fondness for the dude, I’ve kept my head down, only posting about this tournament now that the little big man has recovered to a 6-6 record and a winning tournament looks to be in sight. I’m vaguely reassured by the fact that he’s not the most embarrasing Ozeki in the tournament – that dishonor goes to Kotomitsuki, who’s 2-10, and who got thoroughly spanked by Harumafuji yesterday. Indeed, Harumafuji has – as is his sometimes ugly pattern – kicked the asses of high ranking rikishi (Ozekis Kaio and Chiyotaikai as well as Yokozuna Hakuho) while losing to mediocre ones.

The one high-ranking rikishi Harumafuji was unable to handle was Yokozuna Asashoryu, who’s 12-0 and thoroughly in charge, as Jordan notes. This is a big surprise to the sumo establishment. Asa’s sumo last year was pretty dreadful, and he pulled out of two tournaments with injury and sat out the November basho. As recently as a couple weeks ago, the wise men of sumo were predicting he’d pull out of this tournament and be pressured towards retirement. His training bouts were weak, and he looked unprepared for the tournament “Based on his performance [at my stable, training with top wrestlers], he won’t last the 15 days,” Isegahama (former yokozuna Asahifuji) said. “It would probably be better for him not to take part.”

Right. The truth may be that Asashoryu is so phenomenally good that, when he’s focused and uninjured, he’s a force of nature, even when he’s not training well. Or perhaps sumo – like most things in life – is wonderful in part because it defies the experts. You’d be hard pressed to find an NFL analyst who would have predicted the Arizona Cardinals to make it to the Superbowl. One of the most successful yokozuna in recent memory seems like a much safer bet than a 37-year old Kurt Warner.

Three days left. My fingers are crossed for kachi-koshi for Harumafuji, a 14-1 tie between Hakuho and Asashoryu leading to a playoff match, and for Obama’s next 98 days to be as impressive as his first two. Oh, and not finishing last in SumoTalk’s virtual sumo league.

A guy can hope, right?

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