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Conspiracy or cultural imperative?

7 February 2010 Leave a comment

This post on cross-cultural misperceptions will appeal mainly to fans of Japanese sumo, or the enigma that many perceive Japanese culture to be – although, happily, anyone with a fondness for conspiracy theories will feel right at home.

There’s quite a bit of angst among Japanese sumo aficionados (as opposed to non-Japanese aficionados) over the dearth of yokozuna of Japanese origin. Yokozuna is the ¬†highest rank in the sumo hierarchy, usually translated as ‘grand champion’) ¬†The highest-ranked and best rikishi (sumo wrestlers to the rest of us) are all from Mongolia these days, except for the odd Bulgarian. Before that, it was Hawaiians of Samoan descent. Anyway, it’s been quite a while since the Japanese dominated their own national sport – back to the days of Takanohana II, one instance where the sequel was better than the original.

Speaking of Hawaiians, it was ozeki (one rank below yokozuna – I can’t remember what it’s usually translated as – champion, probably) Konishiki who first played the discrimination card when he was refused promotion to yokozuna despite compiling a record that would have earned it for a Japanese wrestler. There was a brief hue and cry, but the consensus (among all sumo fans, not only the Japanese ones) was that Konishiki didn’t really have the ‘right stuff’, and not promoting him was probably best for the sport after all. The Konishiki kerfuffle did pave the way for the subsequent wave of foreign-born grand champions with Konishiki ‘proteges’ Akebono and Musashimaru achieving yokozuna rankings. And then came the Mongolians.

Asashoryu, the yokozuna who won the New Year’s basho (tournament) with a 13-2 record, has always been a bit of a bad boy. He caused an uproar for playing soccer in his native Mongolia while on a break from wrestling. I can’t remember whether this tempest in a teapot was because he was risking injury while indulging in this frivolous pursuit or because he was supposed to be already injured and getting caught playing soccer was akin to someone on workman’s comp getting caught playing tennis when he was supposed to be in traction.

Anyway, speaking of the right stuff or the lack thereof, after the last basho Asashoryu went too far. Maybe it was because despite winning the basho, he lost to his arch-rival, fellow Mongolian yokozuna Hokuko for the 8th straight time. He ‘allegedly’ got drunk and got into a fight with some civilian, breaking the poor shnook’s nose in the process. The Japanese Sumo Association is one of the most hidebound and conservative entities in Japan – and that’s saying a lot because hidebound and conservative to establishment Japan is like rainy to Vancouver. And the JSA forced him to resign from sumo as a consequence because he had disgraced the rank of yokozuna.

But, as a student of Japan I would have to say ‘fair enough’. There is really nothing else they could have done because he really had gone too far. Forcing him to resign was a cultural imperative.

Popular sentiment in Mongolia, is that Asashoryu was forced to resign because he was getting too close to Taiho’s all-time record of 32 basho wins – and that the Japanese couldn’t stand to have a foreigner own that record. There is a precedent for that, unfortunately. In the ’80s, Randy Bass, an American who played for the Hanshin Tigers in the Japanese professional¬†baseball league, was closing in on Sadaharu Oh’s all-time single-season home run record. The Tigers’ last game was against the Yomiuri Giants (the New York Yankees of Japanese baseball) the team that Oh had played for throughout his entire career and then gone on to manage, and the Giants refused to pitch to Bass or to give him a legitimate shot at the record. He was intentionally walked every time at bat – an incident that, for my money, will live in infamy longer than Pearl Harbour. The irony is that Oh’s father was Taiwanese so, by Japan’s own citizenship laws of the time, he wasn’t actually Japanese himself . . .

This time, however, I’ve got to side with the Japanese. I think they (the Japanese) have come a long way from the days of Randy Bass and Konishiki. Taiho’s record may be sacrosanct (rumour has it that yokozuna Chiyonofuji was also forced to retire after he’d reached 29 basho wins on the pretence that he could no longer wrestle at the level required of a yokozuna. From the sidelines, he still looked pretty formidable to me).

So Asashoryu was not a victim of racism, he was the victim of his own lack of class and the Japanese cultural imperative that people take responsibility for their actions with public acts of contrition. I know that cultural imperatives are difficult to export, but if any Western politician is listening, the cultural imperative to actually take responsibility for one’s actions, would be a great import to start with.

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