Protecting a National Sport or Out-And-Out Racism?

Sumo Grand Champions Celebrate The New Year

Unless you live in Japan or are by chance a big fan of sumo, you probably didn’t hear about the recent changes to the rule book made by the Japan Sumo Association. It may surprise you to hear that, before the changes, a sumo stable was limited to only one foreign wrestler. And you’ll probably be even more surprised to hear that the recent changes didn’t abolish this prejudiced rule, but rather made it even more restrictive.

There has been some concern among the members of the Japan Sumo Association that sumo is coming to be dominated by foreign wrestlers. The only current yokozuna, Hakuho, is from Mongolia, as is the recently retired yokozuna Asashoryu.  Among the current members of the Makuuchi, or the top division, one can find a handful of Hakuho’s countrymen as well as wrestlers from Georgia, Russia, Estonia, Korea, and Bulgaria. They are not the majority, but there are certainly a good number of non-Japanese, and more importantly, they are good wrestlers.

In the past, some stables have gotten around the one foreigner rule by getting their foreign wrestler to apply for Japanese citizenship. The new rules, however, have closed this “loophole” and state that each stable may only have one “foreign-born” wrestler. So much for assimilation.  One stable master offered this gem of a comment, “‘You get the impression it is a severe measure but if the brakes are not applied somewhere, there will be more and more stables overrun with foreign wrestlers, so it can’t be helped.”

I understand that sumo is considered to be a national sport, and it can’t be a great feeling when someone comes from the outside and does better than someone who supposedly has it “in their blood,” but I have trouble understanding why the Japan Sumo Association can’t see the rise of foreign-born wrestlers as a positive thing. They learn the Japanese language and the history and rules of sumo, because, unlike most Japanese, they are actually interested in sumo! In their home countries, there is usually a boom in interest when a wrestler does well. For a sport that has been waning in popularity at home, that is no small thing.

The change in the rules just makes the Japan Sumo Association sound like sore losers. After all, no more than a few wrestlers in the last couple of years have opted for naturalization. The overall number of foreign wrestlers currently active is not going to change much either way. It sounds more like they would just like to reserve some places in the ring for  Japanese. And really, if you don’t get there on the strength of your own skills, how can you  claim to be the true representative of the sport?

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2 responses to “Protecting a National Sport or Out-And-Out Racism?

  1. Thank you very much for this very accurate report. Many sumo fans have been harboring this same feeling for a number of years now, irrespective of the preponderance of foreign grand champions (yokozuna) over the past 10 or so years. These men were promoted to their ranks because of the “rules of promotion” which the JSA had to observe. When American Konishiki got too close to the top, they copped out of promoting him to the highest rank because of his outspokenness – unbecoming to a grand champion. With Mongolian Asashoryu, he threatened to become the greatest, winning-est yokozuna in the record books (currently at #3), so the JSA blew up every alleged “transgression” to give him no alternative, but to retire. As a left-handed person, using his left hand to accept the prizes. A short turn in a charity event in Mongolia while on sick leave. Victory poses after winning a tournament (See Takanohana over Musashimaru if you want to see a victory pose to end all victory poses). The latest incident of “allegedly “breaking someone’s nose in a street brawl” has not even been substantiated and no charges have been filed, but the JSA still wants the police to investigate? I could go on, but I guess I’m just trying to say thank you for telling it like it is. JSA, as well as the so-called “Yokozuna Deliberation Committee”- xenophobes all.

    • jessicaocheltree

      Hi, Barbara Ann. Thanks for the comment. It’s actually not even just sumo that has these kind of rules in Japan. There are limits to the number of foreign players the pro baseball teams can have. High schools have been forced to limit the participation of foreign runners in the popular ekiden races. The list goes on and on, but the new sumo rules strike me as particularly problematic because they are completely illegal. You cannot discriminate against nationalized Japanese. (Discriminating against actual foreigners seems to be OK, though…) I doubt that any of the wrestlers, nationalized or otherwise, will challenge this though, since raising a stink about the issue would no doubt be seen as “unbecoming to the sport of sumo.”

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