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Asashoryu resigns. Will sumo ever globalize?

Here’s a story I missed while I was out with eye surgery: Asashoryu, one of the greatest sumo wrestlers in history, has retired. And needless to say, for anyone who follows sumo: it’s not quite that simple as that. Indeed, this retirement might lead to an international falling out between Mongolia and Japan. And it provides an opportunity for reflection on the challenges the sumo world – and, perhaps, Japan as a whole – faces in an era of globalization.

Since 2003, Asashoryu – born Dolgorsurengiin Dagvadorj in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, has competed in Japanese sumo as a yokozuna, the highest achievable rank in the sport. He’s won 25 tournaments, giving him the third highest win total in the history of the sport, and in 2005, he won each of the six tournaments, an unprecedented feat. Given his success, you might think he’d be celebrated as a pillar of the sumo world. You’d be wrong.

Asashoryu’s got some strikes against him with potential Japanese fans. His rap sheet is almost as long as his list of tournament wins. His “crimes” range from violations of sumo’s strict laws of decorum, to real transgressions. Here’s how I explained his complex image in sumo the last time he trangressed – leading to an unprecedented two-tournament suspension:

Let’s imagine for a moment that you’re Asashoryu, the sole yokozuna in sumo for three and a half years, a near-unbeatable champion of a sport that demands not just physical prowess, but ritual stoicism and dignity. You report an injury from the most recent tournament in Nagoya, where you won your 21st Emperor’s cup, and return to your native Mongolia to recouperate from your injuries. Then you appear in a charity soccer game in Mongolia, apparently well enough to run around on the field. Obviously, you’re a faker, a fraud, a charlatan, who deserves punishment, either by losing your rank (which would mean retirement from the sport) or by being suspended from tournaments.

Okay, now let’s pretend that you’re a 26 year-old Mongolian named Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj. You live and work in Japan, where people loathe you. You’re constantly accused of participating in match fixing, which seems a bit odd as you win almost all your matches – shouldn’t they be accusing your opponents of throwing matches and complaining about their lack of honor? You’re criticized for transgressions real and imagined – being “too aggressive” and “staring too hard” at opponents in a sport that demands that you throw them to the ground or out of the ring, but also for pulling hair and for scraps with fellow wrestlers outside the ring. Your appearance at bars is the subject of constant tabloid headlines. And you’ve got a temper, which complicates matters.

On the other hand, you’re a national hero in your native Mongolia, and – unsurprisingly – you do your best to spend as much time there are possible. Despite recouperating from a back injury, friends ask you to take the field with Japanese soccer star Hidetoshi Nakata at an event designed to promote soccer in Mongolia. When this causes a shitstorm in Japan, the Mongolian embassy formally apologizes on your behalf…

Unfortunately, Asa’s most recent (alleged) transgression was more serious than an ill-advised foortball match. Japanese tabloids report that Asashoryu got quite drunk in a nightclub during the January basho and beat up someone who’s been variously identified as a fellow patron, a nightclub employee, the bartender, the bar owner… Asashoryu hasn’t commented on the incident, except to say that the reports of the incident were “quite different” than what actually occured. Faced with a likely ban from the sport, he resigned and will be allowed a formal retirement ceremony… and will recieve a retirement allowance of over $1m USD.

I was pissed off at the Japan Sumo Association when they suspended Asa for playing football in Mongolia. I’m more sympathetic to their decision here… but I’m deeply saddened. I’m sad not just that I won’t get to see Asa shatter the record for tournament wins (the conspiracy theory in the Mongolian community says that JSA had to find a pretext to eject Asa before he surpassed records held by Japanese yokozuna). I’m sad that sumo and Asa couldn’t find a way to work together to allow the most talented man in the sport to continue a record-setting career.

I don’t pretend to understand all the nuances of sumo decorum, but it always seemed to me that some aspect of Asa’s uneasy status in sumo circles had to do with his strong Mongolian identity. Non-Japanese have been a part of sumo for decades, and some have been embraced by Japanese fans… though generally to the same extent that they embraced Japanese culture. Hakuho, Asashoryu’s primary rival the past few years and fellow yokozuna, is also from Mongolia, but has been far more widely accepted in Japanese sumo circles, perhaps because he’s more soft-spoken and modest, perhaps because he married a Japanese girlfriend (a decision which angered some of his Mongolian fans.)

Geoff Dean has a thoughtful essay that tries to predict the future for Asashoryu. He notes that most retired rikishi look for work in the wider world of sumo: “He can become a stable master, open a sumo restaurant, become a sumo commentator, or in some way, stay connected to the sumo world.” That’s probably not an option for Asa. Instead, he might follow Akebono, a Hawaiian-born yokozuna, into the mixed martial arts and into less-dignified corners of Japanese pop culture. Underlying Dean’s essay is the point that former non-Japanese sumo wrestlers often have a better opportunity to maintain their status and fame by staying in Japan after their sumo careers have ended. It’s hard for me to imagine Asa doing this – I think it’s more likely that he’ll find a way to stay in combat sports while being based in his homeland.

Dean observes that the most recent golden age of sumo occurred when a Japanese yokozuna – Takanohana – faced off against foreign yokozuna Akebono. This could happen again if Kotomitsuki – one of two Japanese ozeki – makes a run for promotion to join Hakuho as yokozuna. (The other Japanese ozeki – Kaio – is older than I am and will retire soon.) But the real story of sumo this past decade has been the rise of foreign rikishi into the highest ranks – Hakuho (Mongolian, yokozuna), Harumafuju (Mongolian, ozeki), Kotooshu (Bulgarian, ozeki), Baruto (Estonian, sekiwake). There are some Japanese sumo fans who aren’t excited about the idea of a Mongolian/Bulgarian rivalry at the top of the sport. I attended the April basho in Tokyo a few years back and was stunned to see fans handing out colorful photos emblazoned with the image of Japanese ozeki Chiyotaikai… but no one handing out anything featuring the higher-ranked yokozuna, Asashoryu.

Writing in Forbes, Tim Kelly sees sumo’s resistance to accepting Asashoryu and other foreign competitors as a symptom of larger problems associated with a closed society: “Japan, like sumo, is closed, preferring to persevere through depopulation and economic stagnation rather than open its borders to the stimulus offered by opportunity-hungry foreigners. What they choose to ignore is that Japan is running out of money, people and ideas.” He makes that case that Japan needs to increase immigration to spur the Japanese economy and cultivate creativity, and suggests a good first step would be to figure out how to get used to controversial outsiders like Asa, rather than expelling him.

I’m not able to make sweeping generalizations about the Japanese economy or offer as strong a prescription as Kelly does for Japanese society. I will say that I’ve been very proud as a Red Sox fan of the way my team and its fanbase have embraced our two Japanese stars, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima. Shortly after the Sox paid an unbelievable sum of money to negotiate with Matsuzaka, local sportswriters started referring to the new star as “Dice-K”, a nickname designed to help Boston fans correctly pronounce the unfamiliar Japanese name. (I’d love to figure out whether the team started this practice, or whether a clever sportwriter came up with it.) The Red Sox played regular season games in Japan in 2008, and there’s now a third Japanese pitcher – Junichi Tazawa – on the Sox roster. It’s routine to see Sox fans in Fenway sporting Matsuzaka shirts in Fenway with the pitcher’s name written in Hiragana.

Things could have gotten very ugly for Matsuzaka in Boston this past year. He had a lousy season, in part because he showed up for spring training nursing injuries from the World Baseball Classic, where he’d represented Japan and won the MVP trophy (and beat the US in the semifinal round.) Boston was pretty sympathetic, actually – I heard more commentary about the danger of the Baseball Classic for all MLB players than I did specific criticism of Dice-K.

I don’t mean to offer a facile comparison between Boston (which has its own complex history of racism and xenophobia to live down) and Japan and suggest that one’s open and the other closed. What I’ll say instead is that baseball’s become a global sport by embracing players from around the world at its highest level, the MLB. (And not just players – Ecuadorian radio personality Jaime Jarrin is a genuine celebrity in LA as the Spanish-language radio voice of the LA Dodgers.) Sumo could become a global sport by similarly embracing and celebrating this new wave of Asian and European talent. Instead, they’ve banned a pair of Russian wrestlers for alleged drug use and hounded the most talented man in a generation out of the sport. Not a great moment for sumo cosmopolitanism.

8 thoughts on “Asashoryu resigns. Will sumo ever globalize?”

  1. Don’t forget Takashi Saito. Not key to your point, I know, but I think the Japanese-Latino-“American” makeup of the Dodgers, from where Saito came, is fascinating.

    I think one main difference between the Sumo situation and baseball is the individual nature of Sumo – that is, there are no teams (as far as I can tell) around which fan groups can mobilize. Sure, there are a lot of white suburban kids with Matsuzaka and Ortiz t-shirts, but above all they’re supporting the Sox more than individual players, don’t you think?

  2. Unfortunately, I do not see Kotomitsuki joining Hakuho as yokozuna.For the past three years that I have been here in Japan, I have seen foreigners like Kotooshu, Harumafuji and even Baruto doing better than him. The other issue is that he is much older (33) than the three mentioned wrestlers. But their major problem is that they are inconsistent.It is, therefore, hard for all of them to join Hakuho at the top.

    Hakuho will become so dominant. Even Asa has had all sorts problems with him. Last year, he broke the record for the most wins in a calendar year, winning 86 out of 90 bouts. He has won 12 championships. He is still 25; he can easily become the most successful yokozuna.

  3. Excuse my bad english. I hope i can make it in a way that make sense. I’m an Asa fan. Despite of his abiguous personality (onestly, i dont wanna get really close to him) his was allway an inspiration for me going against the od’s. I’m mongolian. as many mongolians nowadays i’m forced to work and live in foreiign country. One thing i guess is common among mongolians abroad: sense for identity- to be mongolian (despite of wrecked image)is only thing keeping u doing job done and giving some dignity and sense what u doing-. if japanese society try to hard take away this aspekt- more resistance grow- this is just the way i feel.

  4. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Steph, I’d be very interested to know which Red Sox shirts sold the best. I suspect Ortiz is still a very strong seller – it’s exciting to me as a xenophile/cosmopolitan that the public faces of our team are Japanese, Dominican and American.

    Clement, for whatever reason, Hakuho has never captured my attention the way that Asa has… or Ama/Harumafuji, who’s my favorite. But I agree with you – he’s incredibly consistent, and given the inconsistency of Harumafuji and Kotooshu, I would expect to see Hakuho win four tournaments a year and the two strongest ozeki pick up the other two.

    Theo, I haven’t been to Mongolia since Asa became a widely known. I hope to come back soon and see what sort of impact these amazing atheletes have had on Mongolian culture. I’m glad that figures like Asa and Hakuho are giving Mongolians living abroad a chance to celebrate their identity as Mongolians – I hope that sumo will realize that it’s possible to be proud of your home culture and to embrace sumo culture as well.

  5. There is a globalization of sumo that has been going on, but mostly with the fanbase that has glommed on to this rather odd “sport” (see: WWE for analogue).

    Japan, as you mention, is neither closed nor open, in the same way it was before and after the arrival of Commodore Perry’s black ships. But sumo’s and Japan’s handling of Asa is in a lot of ways no different from the above Mongolian poster’s angst about their cultural identity being swept away by the seemingly more powerful forces of globalization.

    The US is a culture that defines itself by its dynamism, and its ever-changing nature. (Ironically, baseball fans love the fact that baseball stats are almost an unbroken chain back to at least the deadball era, so we don’t abandon all our old culture to the dustbin of history.)

    Japan, and most other nations, still have a part of their identity that is firmly tied with their historical culture. Despite gathering new fans from far off places, sumo is one of those things that for some Japanese defines Japan. The sumo powers-that-be may enjoy the revenue from the new “foreign” fans, but they’ve long resisted opening things up, in the same manner that US sports have. Globalization represents their xenophobic nightmares come true: That ethnic Japanese will no longer dominate sumo, and that foreigners will change it.

    Similarly, Mongolians are angry that Hakuho would discard his native heritage and take to Japan. That he isn’t, like Asa, defending his culture from change plays upon the fears that Mongolian ex-pats will lose the cultural aspects of what makes them Mongolian.

    As the naive American, it’s easy for us to say that change is no big deal, for we are defined by our changes. Also, a version of our current culture is generally what ends up as “progress” for the rest of the world in the global economy, and that is exactly what other cultures do not want their nations to become. Even a country that seemingly has embraced our culture like Japan.

    But as far as the question you put in your title, “will sumo ever globalize?” The answer is that they will resist bitterly until it is clear that economically they must. Given the level of corruption in sumo (which is why I can’t refer to it as a legitimate sport), and the traditional stubbornness that is celebrated in the traditional culture that will be a long time in coming.

  6. btw: A not so naive american would point out that perhaps our comfort with changes in culture stem from our immigrant experiences. Every immigrant family faces the challenge of preserving their homeland’s culture against the might of american media. Many immigrant parents lament the fact their children cannot speak their language fluently or remember the important parts of their culture. But it must also be said that when those children become parents, many of them lament it too.

  7. I was a HUGE fan of Akebono in his day, but haven’t followed the sport since news of his post-retirement treatment.

    Anyhow – “Sumo is an unusual sport, inasmuch as there’s really only one country where one can make a living as a rishiki… and in that country, the sport is viewed as vastly more than just an athletic contest. Simply being the best athlete in the sport is insufficient to be a celebrated Yokozuna – Asashoryu is expected to respect the ritual of the sport and to set an example for other wrestlers.” to quote Ethan.

    And to paraphrase –

    Golf is an unusual sport, inasmuch as there’s really only one country where one can make a living as a Professional Golfer (well, maybe)… and in that country, the sport is viewed as vastly more than just an athletic contest. Simply being the best athlete in the sport is insufficient to be a celebrated Player one is expected to respect the ritual of the sport and to set an example for other Golfers.

    So do you USAmericans treat your sports celebrities vastly differently? I’m an Asa fan, as well as a Tiger Woods fan, and have absolutely no interest in what goes on outside the ring. But the issue here of course is the closedness of the Japanese sport.

    It would seem to me that there is considerable international interest in the sport of Sumo, and that there are some very able people available to create leagues in their own countries. Rather than expecting Japan to change their ways (which is rather imperialist), I hope to see leagues and international competition develop between stables from Mongolia, Hawaii, Bulgaria, et al comers.

    A “World Championship” of Sumo (to borrow the baseball term) with competitors who are ex-yokuzuna, ex-ozeki level to bring respectability to the “foreign leagues” could not be ignored by Japan for very long. We might then see an envigorated sport.

  8. Well, now that Asashoryu has officially “cut the knot” as of today, there’s a whole world out there for him to mess around in. He’s charismatic, smart, photogenic, business-minded and (as strange as this sounds) highly disciplined when it comes to things where he needds to be. Sumo made a huge mistake in kicking him out, and after all the recent Yakuza scandals in Professional Sumo, one can only think he left at just the right time. At present, there’s no onw to replace him on the dohyo, and it looks like there won’t be anytime soon. Thank God for YouTube. The Asashoryu legend lives on…

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