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The Globalization of Sumo


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or "Why Fat Guys from Around the World Want to Wrestle in Diapers and Why That's a Good Thing".

Presented by Ethan Zuckerman at the Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium, January 2013.

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The Globalization of Sumo

  1. 1. The Globalization of Sumo orWhy Fat Guys From Around the World Want to Wrestle in Diapers and Why That’s a Good Thing Ethan Zuckerman (@ethanz) January 17, 2013
  2. 2. Its hard to think of a sport thats the butt of more jokes than sumo. People know enough about sumo - its about fat guys indiapers - to make fun of it, but not enough to actually appreciate it. So lets fix that.
  3. 3. Nagoya Basho, July 2012. Harumafuji defeats Okinoumi, uwatenageHeres what sumo actually looks like. This is a recent match between one of the very best sumo rikishi, Harumafuji - the little guyon the left - and an excellent up-and-coming wrestler, Okinoumi. That match lasted ten seconds, which is quite long for a sumomatch. And if youre curious who won, it was Harumafuji, both because he was the guy who initiated the final throw... andbecause, as a general rule, the Mongolians win. (More on that later.)
  4. 4. CC-licensed photo by Flickr user: Better than BaconThe rules of sumo are really simple. Two wrestlers - rikishi - face each other in the ring - the dohyo. When both rikishi put theirfists down on the dohyo, the match starts, and the rikishi charge at each other - the tachi-ai. if either guy steps outside the ringof straw, or if any part of the body other than the sole of the foot touches the ground, he loses.
  5. 5. over 80 legal techniques to win a matchWhile its incredibly simple, there is an enormous degree of subtlety: there are over 80 legal techniques that can be used to win amatch, including throws, trips, lifts and force-outs. You cant grab a guys hair, cant poke his eyes, and cant grab his junk. Butopen hand slaps and punches are legal.
  6. 6. Professional sumo doesnt happen very often. Amateurs compete all around the world, but professional sumo happens only inJapan under the auspices of the Japan Sumo Association, and revolves around 6 annual bashos, held every two months. These are15 day long tournaments, in which each rikishi competes once a day. A successful rikishi might win 8 or 9 matches over 15 days- a very successful rikishi is one who wins in the double digits.
  7. 7. Before a tournament, JSA releases the banzuke, the rankings of all the rikishi, which determines who will face whom, and also, thesalaries for each rikishi. At the very high levels, sumo is quite lucrative, paying six figures a year, plus sponsorships and "gifts"that likely mean a rikishi makes more than a million dollars a year. At lower levels, its not nearly as lucrative.
  8. 8. 11 of the top 25, four of the top six, are non-JapaneseSo, heres something interesting. Of the 25 top-ranked rikishi, 11 are non-Japanese. At the very highest ranks, the presence offoreigners is even more visible - the two grand champions, or Yokozuna, are Mongolian, and two of the four ozeki are foreign aswell. Its likely that there would be lots, lots more foreigners in the top ranks of sumo, but for the fact that rules were put intoplace in the mid-1990s restricting the number of foreigners in the sport.Theres something very strange going on. In a quintessentially Japanese sport, the Japanese arent doing very well.
  9. 9. Painting by Utgawa Kuniteru II 1867And sumo is quintessentially Japanese. It began during the Edo period, the age of samurai warriors and feudal lords. Fighting insumo tournaments was a way for ronin samurai to make a little money when they were between jobs. And until after WWII, noforeign-born competitors participated.
  10. 10. Musash Konishiki imaru Akeb onoSumo didnt see international rikishi arrive in force until the 1980s, when there was a wave of Pacific islanders, mostly Hawaiianand Samoans, who came into the sport. One thing you might notice about these guys is that they were huge - over 500 pounds,when the average rikishi is closer to 350 pounds. Their dominance generated a lot of debate about whether foreigners should bepermitted to participate in the sport, and whether they could properly carry out the ceremonial responsibilities of the most seniorrank, Yokozuna. But there was a sense in which they didnt threaten the essence of sumo as a Japanese sport. Obviously a 600pound guy was doing to manhandle a much smaller rikishi, and there was a limited supply of these massive yet agile dudes.
  11. 11. Kyokushūzan Noboru, Born Davaagiin Batbayar, Better known as “Gino Depato”In an odd way, this guy was much scarier for some fans of the sport. Kyokushuzan was one of the first truly great Mongoliansumo wrestlers. He was known as "gino depato" - "the department store" - because he used so many techniques, mostlytechniques common in Mongolian wrestling. The JSA finally made him stop using most his techniques because they were"concerned other rikishi might get hurt" - this made him a much less effective fighter and probably kept him from reaching theOzeki rank. Yet Kyokushuzan remained in sumo for 15 years, demonstrating another interesting phenomenon - these little, wiryMongolians had much longer sumo careers than the massive Islanders, who tended to injure themselves by carrying so muchweight on their knees.
  12. 12. Kyokushuzans success opened the door to a Mongolian invasion, and as weve seen through history, people are not alwaysexcited to welcome Mongolians on their borders.
  13. 13. CC-licensed photo by Flickr user Jerrold BennettThe primary reason Mongolians are great at sumo is that Mongolians are fucking awesome. Beyond that, wrestling is a core partof Mongolian culture - its the major sport along with horseback riding and archery. Mongolian wrestling is even harder thansumo, because theres no ring, which means you have to force your opponent down, not out. And mongolians are very interestedin becoming sumo rikishi because, despite a natural resources boom in their country, most Mongolians are quite poor, and thesalaries associated with the top ranks of sumo mean that successful competitors can return to Mongolia and become real estatemoguls or run successful political campaigns.
  14. 14. Asashoryu Akinori 68th YokozunaThe Mongolian invasion led the JSA to limit the number of foreign wrestlers in the sport - one per stable. But that didnt preventAsashoryu from becoming the most successful rikishi of the last twenty years. He became Yokozuna, the highest rank in thesport, and held the title by himself for three years. He is the third-most successsful rikishi ever, in terms of matches won, and ifhe hadnt been forced out of the sport, he would have won more. He won all six tournaments in a single year, an achievementunprecedented in modern sumo. And many Japanese fans - and the JSA - HATED him.Asashoryu was constantly criticized for showing too much emotion inside and outside the ring. And some critics had a point -Asashoryu was fond of having a drink now and again, and he finally lost his title for getting into a bar fight. But he also infuriatedsumo fans who wanted rikishi to dedicate their lives to the sport, without having other priorities. In a muchh-discussed incident,Asashoryu skipped a JSA promotional tour, citing injury, and went home to Ulanbaatar. When he was photographed player soccerin a charity game, it was a massive scandal within the sport.
  15. 15. Wakanohō Toshinori, now Soslan GagloevOther foreigners have had a difficult time living up to the expectations of Japanese fans. Wakanoho, a very successful Ossetianrikishi, was banned from the sport for possessing 5 grams of marijuana.
  16. 16. Now, there’s an argument that sumo is the only sport where marijuana is a performance enhancing substance. But you can alsoargue that Wakanoho was exiled from the sport because standards are very high for foreigners to participate. (Wakanoho is nowat the University of South Florida, learning to play defensive tackle in US-style football...)
  17. 17. AP photo by Junji KurakawaThere are lots of foreigners who’d like to compete in professional sumo. And, at the same time, there just aren’t that many youngJapanese excited about learning the sport.
  18. 18. photo by Paolo PatriziIn part, that’s because training to be a rikishi is long, hard and painful. Rikishi join “stables” when they finish junior high, andboth train and serve as servants to the higher ranks. It’s a difficult, austere life to sign up for.
  19. 19. Misconduct by stablemasters has helped scare young Japanese from the sport - in a truly shocking scandal, a stablemasterordered other rikishi to beat a young wrestler with an aluminum baseball bat and with beer bottles. The young man died from hisinjuries.
  20. 20. So we’re left with a narrative that sounds familiar about Japan. The country is aging, and there aren’t enough young people totake care of the older ones. In other societies, we might expect immigrants to fill the gap. But Japan has proven pretty resistant towidespread immigration and has been designing robots to care for the elderly.
  21. 21. The logical extension, of course, is robot sumo. In a few years, if there are no Japanese youth who want to compete and heavyrestrictions on foreign participation, perhaps we could just move to designing robots to fight each other.
  22. 22. That’s an absurd suggestion, of course. And it’s an oversimplification to consider sumo purely as a sport. It’s a cultural ritual aswell, and it’s not unreasonable for Japan to worry that sumo, conducted primarily by non-Japanese people, would lose some of itsessence.
  23. 23. CC-licensed photo by Flickr user Marcus Sixtus CC-licensed photo by Flickr user Elsie Esq.Pippa Norris wrote a very smart book about what happens to small cultures when they encounter global cultures - i.e., oncetelevision comes to Bhutan, what happens to local Bhutanese culture? We suspect that global cultures crush local ones - peoplestop eating local food and eat McDonalds. And we fear a violent counter-reaction, like when the Taliban destroyed buddhas inAfghanistan. Some of us hope for a positive encounter, a curry that incorporates international ingredients into a new whole. Butwhat happens most often is the firewall - societies tend to hold onto their traditions even in the face of outside influence.But what happens when a large and dominant culture tries to assimilate outside influences. We might consider some other sportsfor possible outcomes.
  24. 24. We could imagine sumo following the lead of Aussie Rules Football, a fine, enjoyable game that is popular domestically, butbasically unheard of outside the country.
  25. 25. We might imagine sumo turning into something like mixed martial arts, a sport that seems designed for a borderless world. It’sall physicality, no culture, a melange of fighting sports ripped from cultural roots and remixed into whatever works best.
  26. 26. We might hope for sumo to become like baseball, where the sport is rooted in the US, but global in scale. Whether it’s baseballwith samba in the Dominican Republic or with fanatic fan clubs in Japan, it’s a global sport with local characteristics.
  27. 27. Perhaps the best example of this is football (soccer), where teams have global rosters, global audiences, and fierce local loyalties.FC Barcelona has a long history of bringing in players from the outside world who become passionate Catalan nationalists in thecourse of joining the team. (It’s worth mentioning that, while European football has passionate followers in Africa, African playersoften face profound racism when playing in Europe. There may be some cosmopolitan connections in football, but it’s far fromutopia.)
  28. 28. Perhaps the hope for sumo is that it becomes like football - global, with very strong local cultural ties. But we have a long way togo - this is the photo that marked the beginning of the end of Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu’s career.
  29. 29. Hatsu Basho: 1/13/13 – 1/27/13 Goo Sumo – SumoTalk.comIf you’re interested in learning more about professional sumo, this is an excellent time to do so. We’re in the midst of the firsttournament of the year, and you can see daily results on Goo Sumo. Kintamayama is an Israeli sumo fan who posts highlights ofeach day’s action - thanks to him, we can watch four hours of a tournament in about 10 minutes. Once you get to know thesport, join the folks at Cibersumo and SumoTalk in talking smack and participating in Fantasy Sumo leagues.
  30. 30. thank you どうもありがとう БаярлалааThank you, domo arigato and bayerlalaa (thank you in Mongolian).