It was at the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament 40 years ago that the U.S. ambassador to Japan stood on the dohyo and read out a congratulatory message from President Richard Nixon that started with the words “Dear Jesse.”
It was addressed to the winner of the tournament, Daigoro Takamiyama, a Hawaiian born as Jesse Kuhaulua.
A victory by a foreign-born wrestler was that much of an unprecedented event, and the only one during the Showa Era (1926-1989).
How times have changed.
Last month, Mongolian-born wrestler Kyokutenho, who has Japanese citizenship, won the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament. It was the first time in 37 tournaments for a “Japanese” wrestler to emerge victorious. The 37-year-old wrestler, who is much admired by younger Mongolians, defeated 25-year-old Tochiozan by hatakikomi in a playoff. He made the most of his long arms to slap down his opponent in fine style.
The last native Japanese to win a tournament was Tochiazuma, who stopped yokozuna Asashoryu from Mongolia from scoring eight straight wins in January 2006. It was also the year when Hakuho, also Mongolian, started to gain prominence. Sumo’s top division came to be dominated by Mongolians who passed the baton from one to the other. Japanese wrestlers also disappeared from the portraits of winners of the last 32 tournaments that adorn Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan.
The “Wimbledon Effect” is an economic term that refers to the way domestic companies give way to foreign competitors as a result of an open market. It is an analogy to the British tennis championships, which are highly successful despite the fact that modern British tennis is weak, and that Britain has produced very few Wimbledon champions.
Likewise, in sumo, which is a traditional Japanese sport, most of the top players in recent years are foreign-born.
Setting aside whether we count Kyokutenho as a foreigner or Japanese, his victory marked the 50th win by Mongolian-born wrestlers. Hakuho, who lost five bouts because of an injury, also expressed joy and volunteered to carry Kyokutenho’s championship flag at his victory parade.
It was a tough loss for two Japanese rikishi, Kisenosato and Tochiozan, who both tied with Kyokutenho on the penultimate day of the tournament, only to miss out on their first Emperor's Cup.
Twenty-year-old Osunaarashi from Egypt, who won the lowest jonokuchi division in this tournament, also attracted attention. The first African professional sumo wrestler said in fluent Japanese that his dream is to become a yokozuna.
The challenge is most welcome. Only when both Japanese and foreign wrestlers vie with each other can sumo become an international sport.
If it is dominated by foreigners alone, the situation will give rise to a “Kokugikan Effect.”
--The Asahi Shimbun, May 21
* * *
Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.
- « Prev
- Next »