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?