September 28th, 2009 12:12 EST
Happy Birthday, Asashoryu, Sumo Champion
Coming to Japan without bothering to learn the language, I immediately faced a major problem. What should I watch on TV?
I soon settled on sumo broadcasts. They were the one program that I could watch, knowing nothing of the language, and still get the picture. Two big guys in a circle. One pushes the other out of the circle or down to the dirt surface. He is the winner. It didn`t take long to catch on.
Twenty years later, I still live sumo and perhaps for much the same reasons. What other sport is as simple as sumo? No equipment, no special footwear, basically no clothing at all, rules kept to a minimum, bouts frequently lasting only a few seconds, no excessive victory celebrations. If simple is best, I can`t think of any other sport that comes close.
Still, over the past twenty years, there has been a sea change in sumo. When I began to watch sumo, it was the "Chiyonofuji Era". He was the pre-eminent grand champion at that time and one of the best of all time. He made victory look effortless, most of the time. He beat much bigger and heavier wrestlers through his superior technique. He showed that sumo was indeed a martial art. And, he was wildly popular.
At the height of his success, he fought and lost to a young upstart named Takahanada, later to become Takanohana (successful wrestlers are often given new names). It was the third day of a fifteen day tournament but just like that, he retired. He had apparently decided not to allow himself to decline, although he surely could have continued for much longer. He went out on top.
Thus began the "Takanohana-Akebono Era" as it was often referred to. Takanohana was young and handsome, almost a perfect athletic specimen. And contrary to most notions in the West, like Chiyonofuji, he was, by no means, overweight. Akebono, his chief rival, played the heavy in the media and most tournaments ended with the two facing off against each other for the title. People loved it and sumo reached an all-time high in popularity. There was a change, however. Akebono was (and is) Hawaiian, the first non-Japanese to reach the highest rank of yokozuna (grand champion). The internationalization of sumo had begun.
When Takanohana and Akebono retired, the sole remaining grand champion was Musashimaru, also a Hawaiian. It was the first time in history to have no Japanese yokozuna. It was just the beginning.
The current yokozuna are Asashoryu, a Mongolian and Hakuho, also Mongolian. The two wrestlers considered most likely to become yokozuna in the near future are Harumafuji, yet another Mongolian, and Koto-oshu, a Bulgarian. In the up and coming category, perhaps the two most notable wrestlers are Baruto, of Estonia, who in the latest tournament took the Fighting Spirit Prize and Kakuryu, Mongolian, of course, who took the Technique Prize.
The tournament came down to a playoff between the rival yokozuna, Asashoryu and Hakuho, who both finished with 14-1 records. Hakuho who had held the upper hand of late versus an Asashoryu who was still recovering from some injuries. Asashoryu versus the same Hakuho whom he had encouraged to come to Japan, had encouraged sumo stables to take a chance on, and whom he had gone to great lengths to train with. A classic master vs. disciple showdown and on Asashoryu`s birthday no less and with new Prime Minister Hatoyama and his wife in attendance. It should be the stuff of wild popularity but it is not.
Japanese people are just not as interested in seeing sumo with fewer and fewer Japanese stars. And the trend is getting more and more in that direction. The sumo highlight show which is played at night for those who cannot see the afternoon bouts, was shown at 10:30PM when I first started watching sumo but now it is on at 2:30AM most nights. Sumo tickets no longer sell out and televised sumo is no longer a big hit. Stables have responded by trying to limit the number of foreigners accepted into the sumo world, increasing the number if Japanese wrestlers while diminishing the quality of the bouts.
Will Japanese young people get involved in sumo again? I don`t see how. Sumo clubs, once popular at middle and high schools, have been replaced by soccer and basketball clubs. The sumo world is one of rigid discipline and life in a sumo stable often involves bullying and abuse. The chance of success is small and dwindling while general interest in sumo is in steep decline.
All that said, I wish Asashoryu a happy birthday and congratulations on his epic victory. May he and sumo be around for many more years to come!