Sumo wrestler behaving badly

29 January 2010

For many people, there’s something amusing and faintly ridiculous about sumo (pronounced more like smoh), the ‘national sport’ of Japan, in which heavily-built men try to push the opponent out of the ring or force him to the ground. There are regular tournaments throughout the year, and the major matches, involving the highly ranked wrestlers, are broadcast live on the public service broadcaster NHK. Each match doesn’t last that long, and usually it finishes within a minute, and it’s not as dull or silly as it may sound.

In terms of popularity, money involved and tribalism of the fans, baseball is the king of sports in Japan, however, sumo still represents to many people the essence of being Japanese. Sumo is bound by traditions, discipline, hierarchies, rites and rituals. It demands of the wrestlers certain decorum in their demeanour.

One sumo wrestler from Mongolia, Asashoryu, has dominated the sumo scene for a number of years, and rightly holds the position of yokozuna, the highest rank. He has his dedicated followers, but his detractors are perhaps more numerous. The main reason for his unpopularity is his attitudes and actions that contravene what the sumo hierarchy and the public want to see from the wrestlers. In other words, he behaves badly, and habitually so, on and off the ring.

Some of the criticism towards Asashoryu can be explained by xenophobia and racism in Japan. Some Japanese people don’t like foreigners taking part in sumo, whose line of argument basically boils down to ‘foreigners don’t get it’ or ‘they’re in it for the money, and money alone’. Others are angry that no Japanese sumo wrestler has come close to becoming a yokozuna for a while. Indeed the other yokozuna is also Mongolian, but Hakuhou conforms to the rules and rites of the sumo, and generally receives a good press.

Asashoryu’s behaviour is notorious. For example, he was found playing football while he was supposed to be ill and therefore did not participate in the tour of the country. He was suspended for two tournaments. The rural, older population in Japan are more likely to be interested in sumo, and the sumo assocation takes such tour very seriously. There is a paradox in that no Japanese-born sumo wrestler would have got away with what Asashoryu has done. According to this argument, Asashoryu is an outsider, and as such would not understand the many invisible lines that no Japanese person would cross without fear of disapproval and ostracization. Not much, therefore, can be expected from him. It’s that curious form of xenophobia that permit foreigners – who are no longer temporary guests, but yet to be part of the host culture – do thing that they would not allow their fellow folk to do.

Until now, much of the problem with Asashoryu concerned his demeanour, speech and behaviour. Things are changing. He is alleged to have assaulted a person in a drunken brawl. He also gave a false account initially, claiming that he had hit his manager, but it became apparent that the victim was another person. The victim is yet to press charges, but if he decides to do so, calls for Asashoryu to be suspended or even be thrown out of the sport will become louder, irrespective of criminal investigation. Sumo wrestlers, most poeple think, should not use their prowess outside the ritualized and formalized space of the ring. Misbehaving is one thing, but punching someone in the face, and lying about the incident, takes it to another plane. Asashoryu’s acts are seen as denigration of the sport, and he may be fast losing support from his once-loyal followers.