<%@ Language=VBScript %> <%response.buffer = TRUE%> Yankees in the Dohyo: American Ascendancy in Sumo Today
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Yankees in the Dohyo: American Ascendancy in Sumo Today

Never have I seen grouped together so many brawny men, giving a better idea of stall-fed bulls than human beings. One of them was especially brought to me that I might examine his massive form -- massive because his frame was covered with a mass of flesh, which to our ideas of athletic qualities would seem to incapacitate him from any violent exercise.

by Joshua Garoon
This article previously appeared in Reckon Magazine


American opinions of sumo wrestlers, or rikishi, haven't changed much since Commodore Matthew C. Perry logged his impressions in 1854. Those not completely blinded by ignorance see big fat men in loincloths. So how is it that Americans have caused such a stir in sumo? Two of the three current sumo grand champions, or yokozuna, are American, while a former US wrestler is one of the most popular celebrities in Japan.

What most bothers the head honchos of the Japanese Sumo Association isn't American sumo success. It's a matter of substance over style. While twin tower yokozuna Akebono and Musashimaru have earned their ranks, many believe that they've done it minus elegance and elan.

Those snickering over the idea of elegant sumo wrestlers should consider this: 604-pound Hawaiian rikishi Konishiki married Sumika Shioda, a former model widely considered one of the most beautiful women in Japan (they have since divorced). He is the rule, not the exception. Yes, successful rikishi are rich, but so are many Japanese men, most of whom weigh less than 600 pounds and dress in business suits. One marries a sumo wrestler for the cachet, not the cash.

Sumo has earned this prestige over a long history. According to the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters), the fate of the Japanese people was determined by a sumo bout between two gods. While it's easy to dismiss such legends, it's more difficult to separate religion from the wrestling. Fifteen hundred years ago, sumo began as a Shinto ritual designed to insure good harvests. These bouts were integral parts of an artistic smorgasbord that included music, dancing, drama, and poetry reading.

As Japan slipped into a succession of wars and shoguns, sumo became more violent and more practical. During the 13th century, sumo became part of standard military training, and the sumo-practicing samurai flourished. Sumo became a means to a battle's end, and employed elements of wrestling, judo, and boxing. Even after the Tokugawa shogunate united Japan and brought relative peace in the 1600s, sumo remained a fierce past time, with impromptu matches occurring on crowd-packed streets in major cities. Sumo had become a sport bereft of much, if not all, of its artistic underpinnings.

This was the impetus for the Tokugawa shogunate's ban on "unauthorized" sumo, and the creation of the recognizable elements of today's sumo tournament (basho) -- the circular, covered ring or dohyo; promoters, referees, and judges; sumo training establishments, or stables; and the Japan Sumo Association. Sumo tournaments were once again performed for the pleasure of the gods, and the rituals which still mark every bout of every tournament became institutions.

Two whose names were called stepped into the ring and began to eye each other with threatening looks, rather dramatic to be sure, stamping the soft ground with their naked feet, stooping down and grasping handfuls of the earth with which they rubbed themselves under the arm pits.

Staring, stomping, drinking water, staring, throwing salt, staring yet again, all this may well strike the sumo neophyte as foolish. The pre-bout rituals of sumo invariably take longer than the match itself. A typical fight lasts ten to 20 seconds before one wrestler is shoved, tripped, or thrown to defeat. Just one of the many ring-center niramai, or stare-downs, may last as long as the fight.

For fans of professional sports, this shouldn't come as a shock. Almost every major sport has its own version of the niramai, waged in newsprint and over the airwaves in the hours, days, or weeks leading up to a crucial showdown. The niramai, along with the other exercises, are sumo's pre-game show. They provide background and tension, building to the natural climax of the head-on charge that begins the fight, the tachi-ai. Just as important, niramai are psychological battles. Many sumo bouts are won or lost due to the building or shaking of confidence accomplished in these duels of nerves.

Size does not equal stupidity in sumo. Nor does it equal superiority. Sumo, at its most basic, is a matter of balance. Larger wrestlers must concede stability for force when pushing forward. Smaller, more agile rikishi can use this force against their opponents, and this is where technique and thinking enter the dohyo. Despite the simplicity of the rules -- first man out or down loses -- sumo is not a no-holds-barred free-for-all. As in most sports, strategy is key. There are 70 recognized winning moves in sumo, 48 of which are commonly used. Most feature one of a variety of belt holds. Even as the two giant competitors charge headlong into one another, they are maneuvering bodies and hands to establish even the slightest edge in grip and position. While sheer size is a definite advantage early in the match, it is no guarantee of victory.

While Japanese yokozuna Takanohana gives away a great deal of weight to his fellow grand champions Akebono and Musashimaru, he has been far more successful in his career, due to his quick in-fight calculations, flexibility, and strength. These skills allow Takanohana to accomplish his most incredible moves.

Akebono and Musashimaru are heavier on their feet and more one-dimensional in their technique. Akebono favors quick, hard thrusts to his opponent's throat and head; Musashimaru tends to do whatever works. Both have drawn criticism for their lack of sumo artistry, and their ascension to the ultimate heights of sumo has done little to silence these critics. The Hawaiian yokozuna are often derided as practicing American-style sumo -- successful but soulless.

This is not the first outburst of anti-Americanism in the sumo world. Konishiki's success provoked howls of protests from conservative sumo factions that opposed not only the American's participation but that of any foreigner. Taking their cues from the countless ranks of Japanese nationalists that preceded and followed them, they declared gaijin incapable of understanding -- never mind possessing -- the quality of hinkaku, which can be poorly rendered as "humble dignity."

The six-foot, 600-plus-pound Konishiki cannot be credited with humility of any kind, and this certainly did not help his case with the traditional supporters of sumo. Konishiki was and is bold and outspoken, and while this has translated into a burgeoning post-sumo entertainment career in Japan, it did not sit well with the Japanese when the giant was a representative of the national sport.

Konishiki's sumo was also lacking in grace; the rikishi himself described his technique as "strictly offensive." As the largest sumo wrestler in the recorded history of the sport, Konishiki won when he was able to square up an opponent and drive him straight down or back. Konishiki's successful opponents were able to avoid such direct confrontation -- not an easy task given the confines of the dohyo and the importance of a strong tachi-ai, but well in reach of the more talented wrestlers.

As a result of both shortcomings, Konishiki never earned promotion to yokozuna. His performance in and out of the ring was not up to the standards by which a grand champion is measured. The conflict between Konishiki's American background and Japanese sport may have been responsible for his failure to scale the ultimate heights of sumo. The rikishi's unique personality may also be to blame. Whichever, few of his fans argue that the huge Hawaiian was shortchanged by the Sumo Association.

It's equally difficult to find convincing arguments against the yokozuna status of Akebono and Musashimaru. While both Akebono and Musashimaru have struggled to cope with the demands of Japanese culture and the sumo hierarchy, they have come to dominate the sport. The Americans' technique may not rival that of Takanohana, but they certainly lay better claim to hinkaku than the lone Japanese yokozuna. While both Akebono and Musashimaru have won praise for their dedication in learning the Japanese language and culture Takanohana has been mired in scandal, along with his older brother, recently retired yokozuna Wakanohana. The brothers' feud has been paraded across the headlines of every major newspaper in Japan, even as Akebono and Musashimaru have quietly established American dominance in the Japanese national sport.

For all its complications, this American hegemony could be turned to sumo's advantage. While non-Japanese professional sumo organizations hold regular meets around the world, the quality and popularity of internationally-sanctioned sumo is quite low. The Japanese dismiss such tournaments as bad sumo (with reason), and the rest of the world pays these awkward offspring even less attention than they grant the native species.

Those who lead and influence the Japanese Sumo Association should realize that the days of death before dishonor, and of the Shinto religion as national dogma, have long since passed. In fact, they were never good for sumo. World War II -- the height of such nationalistic furor -- resulted in the draft and death of many of the most promising rikishi of the generation, and sumo is still suffering the repercussions.

The Japanese people may value tradition as much as trophies, but they no longer believe that good sumo is critical to good harvests. Staunch sumo conservatives would do well to remember that once, street sumo was just as popular as "official" tournaments. With baseball, soccer, and even basketball threatening to sweep sumo from the radar of Japan's youth, the Sumo Association should be thankful for the success of the popular American rikishi.

No matter how many gaijin become yokozuna, sumo will always be a fundamentally Japanese phenomenon. It began as a Japanese art, and retains much of its ancient aesthetic in its present practice. Failure to recognize the value of both the form and function of sumo will result in the disappearance of the sport. If sumo wrestlers like Akebono, Musashimaru, and especially Konishiki can serve as ambassadors of sumo, it would be a victory for sports and art lovers around the world.

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