Why is it that Japan's oldest and most traditional sport is suffering a huge identity crisis? Mark Edwards explains just how brutal the world of sumo really is, and why that's causing big problems for homegrown fans.

As we learnt in Part 1 of our guide, sumo wrestling is far more than just a sport: it’s a set of traditions that are inextricably woven into the fabric of Japan’s past. And yet, despite its innate Japanese-ness, there’s a fundamental shift in identity underway in sumo right now — one that has the sport in complete turmoil.

As it stands, of the seven top-rated sumo wrestlers in the world right now, just three are Japanese; the rest are all foreigners. Furthermore, of that seven, three have achieved the ultimate rank of yokozuna, and they are all Mongolian. To put that into perspective, just 71 wrestlers have achieved yokozuna level since 1749, and right now not a single Japanese one exists on Earth, and hasn’t done since 1998.

So why is such an ancient, sacred sport so linked to Japan’s sense of itself under siege from an invasion of gaijin foreigners? The answer involves scandal, dishonour and a brutal killing…

Image via The Guardian

Foreign competitors were first allowed to compete in sumo after WWII. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the sport saw a real influx of non-Japanese wrestlers. These came mostly from Hawaii, Samoa, and Mongolia — all countries with their own fiercely proud wrestling traditions.

The rising numbers of non-Japanese competitors can be explained, in part, due to a shortage of young Japanese wrestlers. Aside from the competition the sport faces from more modern careers, a large part of this dip is attributed to the way that young sumo wrestlers are trained. To become a sumo wrestler is to sign up to a lifestyle of extreme dedication and discipline. Wrestlers – known as rikishi – cut their teeth living in training “stables” – known as heya. These stables can be extremely tough, austere environments, particularly for the junior wrestlers.

The gradual climb through a sumo stable’s strict hierarchy means that younger wrestlers are sometimes ‘hazed’ in a way that would make your local frat house seem like a kindergarten. It’s not at all uncommon for youngsters to drop out, incapable of sustaining the emotional or physical pressures involved in reaching the upper ranks. In one notorious scandal, one young wrestler tried to run away from his heya after deciding it was all too much. On his capture and return, he was beaten to death. His stablemaster had allegedly ordered his peers to attack him with an aluminium baseball bat and beer bottles in a horrific ordeal that lasted two days.

This, perhaps, starts to account for the declining numbers of younger Japanese sumo wrestlers entering the ranks. It’s a sport with rigid, ancient rules that do not favour individuality or freedom of expression – and the brutal route to the top makes the average unpaid internship suddenly seem fairly attractive.

Image via Global Voices

But sumo is big business, particularly where sponsorship is involved, and successful rikishi can make serious money from the sport. Yet, with fewer and fewer Japanese names competing at the top tier, who is sweeping up all that cash? You guessed it: the foreigners.

The extent to which non-Japanese wrestlers have lain waste to sumo is perhaps best illustrated by the case of one former wrestler: a Mongolian named Asashoryu. This six foot tall, 146kg yokozuna-level brute is begrudgingly accepted to be one of the greatest sumo wrestlers of all time. At the peak of his 11-year career, Asashoryu didn’t just win tournaments, he annihilated them, destroying opponents across the board. He was the only wrestler to win all six of Japan’s biggest tournaments in one year. And yet, despite his unrivalled success, Asashoryu was a source of friction in the sumo world. The contradiction between his undeniable ability in the dohyo and his controversial behaviour outside it ultimately led to his downfall.

Image via RTBF

The Japanese have a word – hinkaku – that can be defined as “grace,” “dignity,” or “quality of character.” All of these are seen as being essential characteristics in sumo wrestlers — especially those at yokozuna level — where competitors are as much ambassadors or celebrities as they are sportsmen. To put it bluntly, Asashoryu’s hinkaku was all over the place, and for this both Japanese fans and the highly conservative Japan Sumo Association hated him.

Asashoryu was partial to drink. He was also pretty flashy outside the ring, and would turn up to events wearing a business suit instead of his traditional ceremonial robes. Furthermore, he wasn’t a huge fan of the extremely prescriptive rituals and etiquette inside the ring. He would accept his prize money with the wrong hand. He would bark impatiently at referees. He would turn up to tournaments hungover, and then win them anyway. He even once complained he couldn’t compete due to injury, and was then photographed playing in a charity football match back in Mongolia. Put simply, he was about as disrespectful as they come.

All of this would be unthinkable for a Japanese wrestler, and should’ve been evern worse for a foreigner supposedly making every effort to gain acceptance in a new country. Yet Asashoryu couldn’t care less. His bad-boy behaviour culminated in a drunken brawl outside a Tokyo bar, in which he broke the nose of a restaurant employee. It was the last straw. Sumo, a sport that requires its competitors to remain emotionless both in victory and defeat, stood ready to revoke Asashoryu’s yokozuna status. Pre-empting this, he announced his retirement, leaving the sport forever.

Image via Boston.com

Yet Asashoryu was not alone in his dominance of the sport, forced to share the limelight with another iconic Mongolian yokozuna named Hakuho who occupied the no.2 spot. In their prime, the rivalry between Asashoryu and Hakuho took over the sport completely, and it was only due to Asashoryu’s retirement that it ended.

The differences between these two top-level rikishi were fascinating. While Asashoryu was a hand-grenade waiting to detonate, young Hakuho was ice carving through a granite landscape: impossible to read, impossible to anger, and mostly impossible to stop.Where Asashoryu’s technique revolved around brute force, Hakuho’s was more technical. He could send opponents sprawling to the clay with no more effort than a slight pivot of his hips, and his approach was almost balletic. That isn’t to say Hakuho wasn’t strong. He was, after all, 6’2” – and weighed 154kg.

Image via Huffington Post

At the start of his career, Hakuho’s behaviour was impeccable. He would remain expressionless, both in victory and in (rare) defeat. He once said, upon winning, "when I am upon the dohyo, I have the spirit of Japan laced in my top-knot." And for this, Japan loved him, despite his foreign roots. But, in November 2013, all that changed. Hakuho’s stablemaster was hauled in front of the Japan Sumo Association over an illegal shove – a dame-oshi – that Hakuho had administered to a beaten opponent while he was already outside the ring. The opponent in this case was propelled into several rows of spectators. Hakuho, meanwhile, showed no remorse.

More recently, in January 2015, another incident grabbed the headlines. Hakuho won his 33rd tournament, breaking the record of the late, legendary yokozuna Taiho, which had stood intact for 44 years. He then stayed out drinking until 7am. The next day, he turned up to his press conference an hour late, and was described as “reeking of alcohol” and being “inarticulate.” Worse still, yet again he was unrepentant.

Image via Tengri News

Cracks in Hakuho’s previously inscrutable mask are, at this point, quite visible. Both the press, and Japanese fans, have started to turn on him. But if this widely-accepted foreign yokozuna falls out of favour with the Japanese public, who else do they have to idolize? Besides Hakuho, there are just two other wrestlers currently at yokozuna level, both of whom are also Mongolian. The nearest Japanese competitor is 29, and after a recent humiliating defeat looks unlikely to challenge their status.

So what specifically makes foreigners so dominant in the sport? Often from tough, hard-fought backgrounds, many foreign wrestlers hail from countries with strong wrestling traditions of their own. Mongolian wrestling is particularly gruelling. Contested without a ring, the rules are simple: knock your opponent to the floor, whatever it takes. It’s a robust preparation for the comparatively refined world of sumo.

Image via Japan Times

This is in contrast to the changing demographics in Japan. Where once young sumo wrestlers used to come from poor, large families, often hungry and from rural areas, the trend these days is for Japanese families to be smaller, wealthier, and often from more metropolitan areas. In short, youngsters have less need to join sumo from a financial point of view, and lack the hardcore upbringing that gives them an early edge.

All of which leaves sumo wrestling in a strange state of deadlock. This most symbolic of Japanese sports is now dominated by foreigners, and it has been overtaken as Japan’s national sport by an American import: baseball. Its identity, which was forged over centuries from ancient Japanese traditions and ceremonies, now fails to connect with the youth of Japan and, for many, that is the ultimate scandal of all.

If you missed Part 1 of our Guide to Sumo, find it here.

Words by Mark Edwards for Highsnobiety.com 

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