Only In Japan

Friday, May 18, 2007

Sumo

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...

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