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Sumo East and West

My Tivo periodically reminds me that I’m a sumo fan, recording random sumo-related TV shows. Because I live in the US, these shows rarely include actual sumo matches. ESPN used to show highlights of Japanese tournaments, but stopped some years ago. So most of the “sumo” I’m exposed to is like tonight’s, a cooking show that focuses in part on Chanko-Nabe, the protein-rich stew rishiki (wrestlers) eat to bulk up and generate energy.

So I rely on the Internet, which tells me that the Mongolian invasion of sumo is proceeding nicely. Asashoryu continues to be the sole yokozuna, despite two somewhat dissapointing tournaments this year. Hakuho had two great basho, and became the sixth non-Japanese ozeki, joining Bulgarian Kotooshu. Meanwhile, two of the three Japanese ozeki had a terrible March basho, dropping out with injuries. (My guess – Kaio gets sent down soon, while Tochiazuma is promoted to Yokozuna by year’s end.) In recognition of the increasing relationship between Mongolia and sumo, Mongolian prime minister Enkhbold attended the final day of the Osaka tournament, and the Japan Sumo Association is planning a “training tour” of Mongolia this summer.

IMG_2007.JPGAnd I rent movies, like the excellent Sumo East and West. Released in 2004, the film focuses on the last foreign invasion, the arrival of Hawaiian wrestlers in the top ranks of Japanese sumo. Akebono became sumo’s first foreign-born Yokozuna in 1993, following in the footsteps of Konishiki, sumo’s first foreign-born ozeki. Both men were from Oahu – Akebono is better known at home as Chad Rowan.

Also from Oahu is the central character of the documentary, Wayne Vierra. Vierra was working his way up the ranks of sumo in Japan, training in the same stable with Akebono when his pancreas burst. (This wasn’t strictly a sumo injury, but a congenital defect aggravated by sumo.) It took him long enough to recover that he was ineligible to continue wrestling in Japan.

This was a major tragedy, as Vierra was really, really good. He also fell in love with Japan, learning the language amd acclimating to the culture. Vierra tells us that he was capable of beating everyone in his stable other than Akebono… But Vierra hasn’t given up on sumo, becoming one of the most successful rishiki in the international amateur circuit, and coaching young wrestlers at home in Oah, including his wife, who’s competing in women’s sumo.

There’s a long history of sumo in Hawaii. The sport was brought from Japanese immigrants, who came as contract laborers to work in sugarcane fields. One of the most memorable bits of Sumo East and West is a short clip of film, shot by Thomas Edison in Hawaii in 1903, of a sumo tournament. After the second World War, many Japanese-Americans were anxious to assimilate, and gave up sumo for more “American” sports. But Polynesian and haole wrestlers took up the sport, inspired by Japanese goodwill tours and exhibition matches, which began in 1962.

After the first of these tours, Jesse Kuhaulua came to Japan from Maui and became Takamiyama, the first foreign wrestler to win the Makuuchi division championship. Takamiyama never became ozeki, but holds the record for competing in the most tournaments at the highest level. He took Japanese citizenship and opened a sumo stable – the stable ultimately responsible for training Akebono.

But it hasn’t always been an easy relationship between Hawaii and sumo. Many sumo fans believed that Konishiki deserved Yokozuna promotion at the height of his career and was held back due to racism. Some fans made reference to Commodore Perry’s “Black Ships”, which opened trade between the US and Japan – the reference was a not-so-subtle reference to Konishiki’s large size, and his dark skin color, as well as reference to Japan’s markets being forced open. Konishiki has had the last laugh – late in his career, he became extremely popular with Japanese fans, and has carved out a career as a singer and entertainer in Japan.

In the 1990s, it was popular to talk about how Hawaiian wrestlers were changing the face of sumo. Now wrestlers from the former Soviet Union former Soviet-influenced nations, especially from Mongolia, are transforming the sport. And it’s a good thing – as the filmmakers point out, very few Japanese schoolchildren are interested in learning sumo. I have high hopes that, in a few years, we’ll see “Sumo East and East”, a documentary about the rise of Mongolians in sumo and the links between bayirldax and sumo.

Or that ESPN will start showing highlights from the tournaments again. Or both.

A few months back, a friend asked me a wonderful question: “What have you learned about life from watching sumo?” I offered the following answers:

– The biggest and strongest don’t always win.

– When a huge man rushes at you with violence on his mind, stepping out of his way is sometimes the best option.

– Days are 86,400 seconds long. Most matches last about 3 seconds. Counterintuitively, the other 86,397 seconds are equally, if not more, important.

– It’s hard to maintain your composure and dignity when you lose. It’s even harder when you win.

– If you are centered, balanced and of good character, people will see your power, gravitas and grace, even if you’re wearing a silk diaper.

3 thoughts on “Sumo East and West”

  1. Hi, I just wanted to point out that Mongolia is not from the former Soviet Union, it was and is an independent country.

  2. Fair point, Zenee – but there was a great deal of Soviet influence in Mongolia prior to the crumbling of the USSR. Would probably be better to say “Warsaw Pact countries” or something similar…

  3. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Another reason 150kg men shouldn’t play football…

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