Only In Japan

Friday, May 18, 2007


If all you know about Sumo is that it is a sport about fat men fighting, you might want to check this link. Actually, calling Sumo a sport is a bit misleading: it would be more correct to call it a religious and cultural wrestling tradition. There is a lot of mystique surrounding Sumo; it certainly has to do with the ancientness of its roots, but in that it is similar to many other traditions around the world, from Iceland to Mongolia and India. Sumo is unique in that it emphasizes body mass more than any other wrestling form, but there wouldn't be such a mystique around it if fat wrestlers were Sumo's only claim for fame. My guess is that it is the combination of tradition, outlandishness and physical prowess that keeps people interested in Sumo.

Or does it?

In Japan, interest in Sumo has been waning for years. The Japanese are less and less interested in the traditional aspects of their culture, which they regard as the exclusive domain of old people; and besides, the religious and cultural aspects of Sumo are only rarely emphasized nowadays, which makes most Japanese think of it as "just another sport".

But the really big problem with Sumo is that most of the highest ranking wrestlers have for years been foreigners, and the trend is accelerating. So it is getting harder for the Japanese to consider Sumo as their national sport, and it frustrates many to have to cheer on undistinguished Japanese wrestlers, knowing full well that their countryman will lose to some unwashed foreigner. The Japanese are not "hungry" enough anymore; wrestlers born in Eastern Europe or Asia are more determined and ambitious, and win everything. Or at least that's what many Japanese people say...

At the same time, Sumo is ever more popular in the West - no doubt in part because of the Internet. It used to be very difficult to just see Sumo in the West, but nowadays with sites like YouTube there's nothing easier. And it is true that Sumo is fun and exciting to watch: the ritualized aspect, the exoticism, the agility and craftiness involved in the wrestling itself, and the speed with which a bout is over (generally less than a minute) make for an interesting and intense viewing experience on many levels. Watching a Sumo tournament also seems quite popular with foreign tourists in Japan, and it is definitely an experience I would recommend to someone coming over on holidays...

...If Sumo weren't rigged to the bone, that is. It has been proved several times (most recently in the excellent Freakonomics book, but also in Japanese newspaper articles a few years ago, that many Sumo bouts are fixed. The thing is, most Sumo wrestlers often lose on purpose to help other wrestlers who are having a bad tournament - a favour they know will be repaid the next time they need a little boost...
The fact that cheating is very widespread in Sumo still isn't widely acknowledged in Japan; most Japanese people try to avoid this topic, since it is rather embarassing to admit that this most ancient and noble of Japanese institutions - Sumo - is actually not much cleaner than boxing in New Jersey. But everyone seems aware that there's something rotten in the noble wrestling tradition. And I guess that is also one of the reasons for the decline in interest in Sumo among the Japanese...

So what is in store for Sumo? Unless some new and motivated Japanese wrestlers crop up and the Sumo Federation acknowledges cheating and finds a way to circumvent it, I think Sumo will slowly fade out from the Japanese counsciousness. Too bad, yes; but that's Japan. "Saving face" is more important than solving problems...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

4 seasons

It might sound really strange, but most Japanese people are sure that only Japan has 4 distinct seasons. I never really managed to understand why, or to get a decent explanation; if you have a good theory, I'm eager to hear it!

Anyway, the seasonal cycle is very important to the Japanese; probably much more so than in the West. This, I think, derives from the influence of religion on culture: whereas for the religions of the Book, life and the universe move on a straight line from the Creation to Judgement Day, the Japanese religions both describe life and the universe as parts of a cycle. In Buddhism, everything dies and is reborn forever; and Shinto is an animistic cult of Nature, and as such obviously very concerned with the cycle of the seasons.

This importance of the seasonal cycle is visible in many different things: for example, most restaurants offer distinctly seasonal meals and menus, and place an emphasis on using mainly seasonal ingredients. It is common in the West to find any and all fruits and vegetables all year round, even those normally available for only a short period every year, like strawberries; but I don't think that trend will ever catch up in Japan.

Some foods are particularly strong symbols of each season: thus tangerines and hotpots are associated with winter, strawberries with spring, shaved ice and broiled eel with summer, mushrooms and chestnuts with autumn...

Fashion is also very much a seasonal thing. Japanese women have it especially hard! If they want to keep up with their peers, they have to switch clothes, make-up, accessories, and shoes at least 4 times a year. Jeans all year round won't cut it... But if you enjoy looking at women, Japan is paradise: in spring, skirts get shorter and fresh colours reign; summer has everyone dressed very short and colourful, and many women wear yukata (light cotton kimono) to the festivals and fireworks. In autumn, earthen and natural colours are the norm, and boots are everywhere. It's a very nice season! Winter is a bit duller and there is no fixed fashion, but every year the fashion industry cooks something up; also, women feel freer to wear what they really like in winter, so there is more variety than in other seasons.

Each season also has its distinctive festivals and parties:
Spring has ohanami, very popular parties where people gather in parks to eat, drink, and admire the blossoming cherry trees.
Summer has many fireworks, and of course Obon, one of the most important religious events of the year, in which ancestor spirits come back to Earth for a few days and are honoured during various ceremonies. Obon is also a good occasion to relax for Japanese people: all companies close for a few days, and families can spend some time together, go to the beach, or have a barbecue.
Autumn has momiji, which might be translated as "red leaves parties": people go to the countryside and admire the maple trees in their autumnal colours. Of course, eating and drinking are also part of the fun... In September, the Japanese used to have otsukimi, moon-viewing parties, during which friends would meet in the evening, and drink and make poems in honour of the moon. But nowadays, most people live in big cities where the moon is rarely clearly seen, so that beautiful tradition is rarely heard of anymore.
Winter has only one major event: oshogatu, or New Year's Day. It is the year's most important celebration, a time when almost everyone is on holiday, and when families watch TV together for days on end, go to the local shrine, and eat oseichi ryori, traditional food prepared only during oshogatsu. Some people love that time of the year, some people hate it... Pretty much like Christmas in the West, I guess!

Much more could be said about the four seasons in Japan, but of course the best thing is to come and experience them firsthand! And then you will be able to answer one of the most common questions Japanese people ask, "what is your favourite season?"

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Golden week

This week's post is going to be very short... This being Golden Week, my post has to be submitted by Tuesday instead of the usual Friday, so please don't expect some War and Peace long story...

Talking about war and peace, there has been a lot of talk lately about the new rise of nationalism, negationism and militarism in Japan, with all the sinister implications this could have for world peace.
From my point of view, yes it is true that the far-right is on the rise, and to tell you the truth I don't lose sleep over it. Concretely, I think almost nothing will change.

The thing one should always keep in mind when thinking about Japanese society is that Japan has the world's oldest average population. So yes, there are plenty of old men, recently retired or nearing retirement age, who suddenly have a lot of time on their hands and a lot of nostalgia for olden times, when everything was simple and old men got more respect from society. It is understandable: they have worked their lives off to make Japan a strong and rich country, so now they feel they are due some respect, and they want people to be proud of the Japan they have helped build. I don't really know whether I should feel contempt or pity for those among these old men who turn to the far-right ...

Anyway, those far-right old men are a typical "noisy minority", i.e a relatively minor number of people but with enough coordination and political reach to disproportionately influence policy in their country. Their main objectives are threefold: whitewashing the horrors committed by the Japanese during WW2, restoring patriotism and confucean values, and rewriting the constitution to become a "regular" military nation again (the 1947 constitution, forced on Japan by the Americans, made Japan a pacifist nation largely dependant on America for its protection).

And yes, the far-right will probably manage some minor stuff like whitewashing the history textbooks children study at school, forcing the schools to give a more "patriotic" education to their students, censoring a few things here and there, regaining the right to a true army... But it will make no concrete difference. No-one can efficiently control information anymore, especially on topics like history and in countries where use of the Internet is so widespread. As to young people getting brainwashed by government propaganda, that sounds as preposterous to me as abstinence education having an impact on teenagers' sex life in America. After all, even in a seasoned dictatorship like China, young people are now cynical enough to realise when their government is trying to manipulate them, so in a free country like Japan I doubt "patriotic education" will make much of a ripple.

As to the rise of militarism, I think that's a pure joke. Japan has had one of the lowest fertility rates in the world for decades now; as a result, there are very few young people in Japan nowadays. Actually, there are not enough young people in the marketplace to replace all the seniors who are retiring in droves... And that country would be militarily dangerous? Errr, I think not. The hawkish old men who dream of a new Great Japanese Army just make me snigger. They live in a world that is about as real as that of my co-workers who have dates with their Sailormoon figures... And that says a lot.

So, my two cents? The world has enough real problems. Let's not get all hyped-up over mere fantasies. And enjoy Golden Week!