JIN-322 -- Asashoryu: “Number one in the world!”

T H E J @ P A N I N C N E W S L E T T E R
Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News

Issue No. 322
Monday May 30, 2005 TOKYO

+++ VIEWPOINT Asashoryu: “Number one in the world!”
1. "Doing sumo with great emotion"
2. Sympathy for the underdog

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+++ VIEWPOINT Asashoryu: "Number one in the world!"
1. "Doing sumo with great emotion"

When Asashoryu thrust Chiyotaikai from the ring on May 21,
clinching the May Tournament at the Kokugikan, in Ryogoku,
Tokyo, he became the first wrestler to win four consecutive
tournaments before the final day since implementation of the
15-bout system in 1949.

His strength is overwhelming, his speed of a different order.
"I prepared to thrust him," recalled Chiyotaikai. "Then suddenly
the Yokozuna's [Grand Champion's] left shoulder was right before
my eyes." The ozeki who would shove the Yokozuna from the
ring was himself thrust from the "dohyo."

Asashoryu did not enter the tournament in top condition.
"I'm lacking in intensity," he grumbled at the start of
the tournament. Thereupon he braced himself up and improved
his concentration. That is a testament to the sort of wrestler
he has become

He has burnished his skills, which were much reputed even while
he was rising in the ranks of sumodom. And he has trimmed down
to 143 kilograms, small by sumo standards, but fighting fettle
for him.

Stablemaster Taiho remarked at the post-tournament press
conference. "[Asashoryu] is doing sumo with great emotion.
He's progressed."

"Really?" responded Asashoryu, when in his dressing room he
was informed of the stablemaster's comment. "Thank you. I've
still much to learn." The Grand Champion from Mongolia would
also seem to have mastered the modesty so beloved by the
Japanese people. It remains to be seen what he has to learn.
He won the next day's bout for another undefeated tournament
and his 12th tournament victory.

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2. Sympathy for the underdog

What was curious during the final days of the tournament, when
the Yokozuna was far ahead of his rivals, was the ambivalent
tribute from spectators: "Number one in the world!" “You're too
strong!" "It's OK to loose once in a while!”

The sumo world gets pumped when there is a worthy opponent
of a strong Yokozuna. During the recent tournament only three
of the fourteen days drew sellout crowds. But perhaps there's
more than just a thirst for a good rivalry, such
as that between rival golf nymphets Ai and Sakura.

The Japanese have always felt sympathy for the underdog, an
emotion encapsulated in the expression "Hogan-biiki."

The "Hogan" was Minamoto no Yoshitsune, the gallant warrior for
whom the Japanese have felt sympathy ever since his death at
the hands of his brother Yoritomo in the 12th century. He is
the hero of the current yearlong NHK "Great River Drama."
Ratings will rise as Yoshitsune and his motley band of retainers
go to their well-known destruction at Hiraizumi in northern Japan.

In the sumo ring, however, everyone is Yoshitsune, all are
underdogs, as long as Asashoryu holds sway. A similar
phenomenon is found in Japanese baseball, once dominated by the
Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, who remain the most popular team, in spite
of mediocre play in the past few years. Their former dominance
was such that there arose the anti-Giants, a negative lot who
wouldn't know a squeeze from a sacrifice and whose relationship
to the sport is defined by Giants bashing.

There are no faction of sumo fans who are anti-Asashoryu. The
Grand Champion could curry favor with fans and perhaps boost the
promotion of a fellow wrestler through the old sumo tradition of
"yaocho," throwing a bout. But while Asashoryu may have adopted
Japanese humility and acquired fluency in their language, he can
hardly be expected to participate in bout fixing. He relishes
victory and would be unwilling to forgo the small flourishes in
which he indulges the moment he vanishes an opponent.

One attribute of the tragic hero and of Yoshitsune, the paragon
of Hogan-biiki, would seem to be immortality, if not in the flesh,
then at least in the collective consciousness and certainly in myth.

Yoshitsune is said to have survived the attack and moved to
Mongolia, where people now sing the praises of the native son who
crossed the sea and became invincible in Japan.

-- Burritt Sabin

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Written and edited by Burritt Sabin (editors2@japaninc.com)

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