JIN-339 -- The Harp of Europe

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. 339
Thursday September 29, 2005 TOKYO

+++ VIEWPOINT: The Harp of Europe
1. Europeans Entering the Sumodom
2. The Nihon Sumo Kyokai's Restriction on Foreign Entrants


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+++ VIEWPOINT: The Harp of Europe
1. Europeans Entering the Sumodom

Not only does a Japanese grand champion ("yokozuna") not reign
in sumo, no Japanese has been a serious contender in recent
Grand Tournaments. At Tokyo's Kokugikan on the last day of
the Autumn Tournament, Asashoryu, the sole Yokozuna, from
Mongolia, was victorious for the sixth straight time. He snatched
the victory from Kotooshu, a Bulgarian wrestler and "sekiwaki"
(third highest rank in sumo), who had won 12 consecutive bouts
from the tournament's first day. The down-to-the-wire competition
between Asashoryu and Kotooshu highlighted dominance of the
sport by foreign grapplers over the past year, during which
Japanese "rikishi" have not won a single tournament.

There was the so-called "coming of the Black Ships in Showa
(1926-1989)," a metaphor for the preeminence of Hawaiian
wrestlers in sumo. Now Mongolians rule the ring. Kotooshu is
part of a third wave of foreign wrestlers, from Europe.

Asashoryu captured the Autumn Tournament, but it will be
remembered as a showcase for the handsome 204-centimeter-tall
rikishi from Bulgaria. Kotooshu let victory slip away, finishing with
a record identical to Asashoryu's (13-2), and then losing the
deciding match to the Grand Champion. However, the European
wrestler could reach sumo's second highest rank of "ozeki" with
an equal record in the Kyushu Tournament in November. Kotooshu,
rather than the present three underperforming ozeki, is the rikishi
with the potential to defeat Asashoryu.

As of the Autumn Tournament, there were 11 European rikishi.
The majority, Kotooshu included, are wrestlers from former Soviet
republics or satellites.

Which explains why wrestling cognoscenti say the resilient Kotooshu
fights like a wrestler. Indeed, his keeping his hips low in spite of
his height and his head bent forward, his weight on his tiptoes,
is a wrestling basic.

Wrestling's golden boys are entering sumodom for two reasons.
Kotooshu cited one of them when he arrived in Japan: money.
Olympic wrestlers received handsome allowances behind the Iron
Curtain, but Europe has no organization for nurturing wrestlers as
professionals. Sumo, where monetary rewards are proportionate to
results in the ring, beckons to ambitious European grapplers.

The other reason for the rush of wrestlers to sumodom was
the revision of the upper weight limit in the heaviest class. Amateur
wrestling lowered this limit from 130 to 120 kilograms from the 2002
World Championships in an effort to reduce risk of injury during
matches. However, Kotooshu and Kokkai (from Georgia) could not
make weight and decided to shift to sumo.

Amateur sumo, which aims to become an Olympic sport, has been
the receptacle for ex-wrestlers like Kotooshu. The International
Sumo Federation, whose driving force is the Japan Sumo Federation,
held the first world championships in 1992. The championships were
held abroad for the first time in 1999.

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2. The Nihon Sumo Kyokai's Restriction on Foreign Entrants

Sumo faces a stiff challenge in becoming an Olympic sport. Takahiro
Ono, the secretary general of the International Sumo Federation,
was quoted by the Asahi Shimbun, a major daily, as saying, "With
the global telecast of sumo, Kotooshu's good showing should trigger
interest [in the sport]." However, the Nihon Sumo Kyokai has limited
each stable to one new foreign-born entrant to ensure their "adequate
education." With a a new foreign wrestler in nearly every stable,
the door to foreign postulants has effectively closed.

The Nihon Sumo Kyokai's restriction explains a fan of my
acquaintance, is to allow the stable master sufficient time to
inculcate young foreign wrestlers in the way of sumo and teach
them the Japanese language and customs. The entrance to a stable
of five or six foreigners at one time, the fan explained, would
overwhelm the stable master such that he would not be able to
give each rikishi the necessary attention.

Or does the restriction smack of nativisim? Is "adequate education"
the "tatemae," stated reason, the "honne," naked truth, being
a desire to erect a barrier to foreign entrants to sumo? If the latter,
then it contrasts with the spirit of the nom de guerre adopted by
the Bulgarian sekiwaki who nearly walked away with the recent
tournament's trophy. "Kotooshu" is a portmanteau of "koto," the
thirteen-stringed horizontal Japanese harp, and "oshu," meaning
"Europe." Rather than separate, this new Bulgarian hero seeks
to merge Europe with traditional Japan.

--Burritt Sabin

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

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