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The Globalization of Sumo
                 or
Why Fat Guys From Around the World
     Want to Wrestle in Diapers
   and Why That’s a Good Thing


         Ethan Zuckerman
            (@ethanz)
         January 17, 2013
It's hard to think of a sport that's the butt of more jokes than sumo. People know enough about sumo - it's about fat guys in
diapers - to make fun of it, but not enough to actually appreciate it. So let's fix that.
Nagoya Basho, July 2012. Harumafuji defeats Okinoumi, uwatenage
Here's what sumo actually looks like. This is a recent match between one of the very best sumo rikishi, Harumafuji - the little guy
on the left - and an excellent up-and-coming wrestler, Okinoumi. That match lasted ten seconds, which is quite long for a sumo
match. And if you're curious who won, it was Harumafuji, both because he was the guy who initiated the final throw... and
because, as a general rule, the Mongolians win. (More on that later.)
CC-licensed photo by Flickr user: Better than Bacon
The rules of sumo are really simple. Two wrestlers - rikishi - face each other in the ring - the dohyo. When both rikishi put their
fists down on the dohyo, the match starts, and the rikishi charge at each other - the tachi-ai. if either guy steps outside the ring
of straw, or if any part of the body other than the sole of the foot touches the ground, he loses.
over 80 legal
                                                                                                              techniques
                                                                                                            to win a match
While it's incredibly simple, there is an enormous degree of subtlety: there are over 80 legal techniques that can be used to win a
match, including throws, trips, lifts and force-outs. You can't grab a guy's hair, can't poke his eyes, and can't grab his junk. But
open hand slaps and punches are legal.
Professional sumo doesn't happen very often. Amateurs compete all around the world, but professional sumo happens only in
Japan under the auspices of the Japan Sumo Association, and revolves around 6 annual bashos, held every two months. These are
15 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.
Before a tournament, JSA releases the banzuke, the rankings of all the rikishi, which determines who will face whom, and also, the
salaries 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, it's not nearly as lucrative.
11 of the top 25,
                                                                                   four of the top six,
                                                                                   are non-Japanese

So, here's something interesting. Of the 25 top-ranked rikishi, 11 are non-Japanese. At the very highest ranks, the presence of
foreigners is even more visible - the two grand champions, or Yokozuna, are Mongolian, and two of the four ozeki are foreign as
well. It's likely that there would be lots, lots more foreigners in the top ranks of sumo, but for the fact that rules were put into
place in the mid-1990s restricting the number of foreigners in the sport.

There's something very strange going on. In a quintessentially Japanese sport, the Japanese aren't doing very well.
Painting by Utgawa Kuniteru II 1867




And sumo is quintessentially Japanese. It began during the Edo period, the age of samurai warriors and feudal lords. Fighting in
sumo tournaments was a way for ronin samurai to make a little money when they were between jobs. And until after WWII, no
foreign-born competitors participated.
Musash
                   Konishiki                                                                       imaru




                                                           Akeb ono
Sumo didn't see international rikishi arrive in force until the 1980s, when there was a wave of Pacific islanders, mostly Hawaiian
and 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 be
permitted to participate in the sport, and whether they could properly carry out the ceremonial responsibilities of the most senior
rank, Yokozuna. But there was a sense in which they didn't threaten the essence of sumo as a Japanese sport. Obviously a 600
pound guy was doing to manhandle a much smaller rikishi, and there was a limited supply of these massive yet agile dudes.
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 Mongolian
sumo wrestlers. He was known as "gino depato" - "the department store" - because he used so many techniques, mostly
techniques 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 the
Ozeki rank. Yet Kyokushuzan remained in sumo for 15 years, demonstrating another interesting phenomenon - these little, wiry
Mongolians had much longer sumo careers than the massive Islanders, who tended to injure themselves by carrying so much
weight on their knees.
Kyokushuzan's success opened the door to a Mongolian invasion, and as we've seen through history, people are not always
excited to welcome Mongolians on their borders.
CC-licensed photo by Flickr user Jerrold Bennett




The primary reason Mongolians are great at sumo is that Mongolians are fucking awesome. Beyond that, wrestling is a core part
of Mongolian culture - it's the major sport along with horseback riding and archery. Mongolian wrestling is even harder than
sumo, because there's no ring, which means you have to force your opponent down, not out. And mongolians are very interested
in becoming sumo rikishi because, despite a natural resources boom in their country, most Mongolians are quite poor, and the
salaries associated with the top ranks of sumo mean that successful competitors can return to Mongolia and become real estate
moguls or run successful political campaigns.
Asashoryu Akinori
                                                                            68th Yokozuna
The Mongolian invasion led the JSA to limit the number of foreign wrestlers in the sport - one per stable. But that didn't prevent
Asashoryu from becoming the most successful rikishi of the last twenty years. He became Yokozuna, the highest rank in the
sport, and held the title by himself for three years. He is the third-most successsful rikishi ever, in terms of matches won, and if
he hadn't been forced out of the sport, he would have won more. He won all six tournaments in a single year, an achievement
unprecedented 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 infuriated
sumo 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 soccer
in a charity game, it was a massive scandal within the sport.
Wakanohō Toshinori,
                              now Soslan Gagloev
Other foreigners have had a difficult time living up to the expectations of Japanese fans. Wakanoho, a very successful Ossetian
rikishi, was banned from the sport for possessing 5 grams of marijuana.
Now, there’s an argument that sumo is the only sport where marijuana is a performance enhancing substance. But you can also
argue that Wakanoho was exiled from the sport because standards are very high for foreigners to participate. (Wakanoho is now
at the University of South Florida, learning to play defensive tackle in US-style football...)
AP photo by Junji Kurakawa




There are lots of foreigners who’d like to compete in professional sumo. And, at the same time, there just aren’t that many young
Japanese excited about learning the sport.
photo by Paolo Patrizi

In part, that’s because training to be a rikishi is long, hard and painful. Rikishi join “stables” when they finish junior high, and
both train and serve as servants to the higher ranks. It’s a difficult, austere life to sign up for.
Misconduct by stablemasters has helped scare young Japanese from the sport - in a truly shocking scandal, a stablemaster
ordered other rikishi to beat a young wrestler with an aluminum baseball bat and with beer bottles. The young man died from his
injuries.
So we’re left with a narrative that sounds familiar about Japan. The country is aging, and there aren’t enough young people to
take care of the older ones. In other societies, we might expect immigrants to fill the gap. But Japan has proven pretty resistant to
widespread immigration and has been designing robots to care for the elderly.
The logical extension, of course, is robot sumo. In a few years, if there are no Japanese youth who want to compete and heavy
restrictions on foreign participation, perhaps we could just move to designing robots to fight each other.
That’s an absurd suggestion, of course. And it’s an oversimplification to consider sumo purely as a sport. It’s a cultural ritual as
well, and it’s not unreasonable for Japan to worry that sumo, conducted primarily by non-Japanese people, would lose some of its
essence.
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., once
television comes to Bhutan, what happens to local Bhutanese culture? We suspect that global cultures crush local ones - people
stop eating local food and eat McDonalds. And we fear a violent counter-reaction, like when the Taliban destroyed buddhas in
Afghanistan. Some of us hope for a positive encounter, a curry that incorporates international ingredients into a new whole. But
what 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 sports
for possible outcomes.
We could imagine sumo following the lead of Aussie Rules Football, a fine, enjoyable game that is popular domestically, but
basically unheard of outside the country.
We might imagine sumo turning into something like mixed martial arts, a sport that seems designed for a borderless world. It’s
all physicality, no culture, a melange of fighting sports ripped from cultural roots and remixed into whatever works best.
We might hope for sumo to become like baseball, where the sport is rooted in the US, but global in scale. Whether it’s baseball
with samba in the Dominican Republic or with fanatic fan clubs in Japan, it’s a global sport with local characteristics.
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 the
course of joining the team. (It’s worth mentioning that, while European football has passionate followers in Africa, African players
often face profound racism when playing in Europe. There may be some cosmopolitan connections in football, but it’s far from
utopia.)
Perhaps the hope for sumo is that it becomes like football - global, with very strong local cultural ties. But we have a long way to
go - this is the photo that marked the beginning of the end of Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu’s career.
Hatsu Basho: 1/13/13 – 1/27/13

                                                                         Goo Sumo – sumo.goo.ne.jp/eng

                                                                         youtube.com/user/Kintamayama

                                                                         Cibersumo.com

                                                                         SumoTalk.com




If you’re interested in learning more about professional sumo, this is an excellent time to do so. We’re in the midst of the first
tournament of the year, and you can see daily results on Goo Sumo. Kintamayama is an Israeli sumo fan who posts highlights of
each day’s action - thanks to him, we can watch four hours of a tournament in about 10 minutes. Once you get to know the
sport, join the folks at Cibersumo and SumoTalk in talking smack and participating in Fantasy Sumo leagues.
thank you

                                     どうもありがとう

                                              Баярлалаа


Thank you, domo arigato and bayerlalaa (thank you in Mongolian).

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The Globalization of Sumo

  • 1. The Globalization of Sumo or Why 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. It's hard to think of a sport that's the butt of more jokes than sumo. People know enough about sumo - it's about fat guys in diapers - to make fun of it, but not enough to actually appreciate it. So let's fix that.
  • 3. Nagoya Basho, July 2012. Harumafuji defeats Okinoumi, uwatenage Here's what sumo actually looks like. This is a recent match between one of the very best sumo rikishi, Harumafuji - the little guy on the left - and an excellent up-and-coming wrestler, Okinoumi. That match lasted ten seconds, which is quite long for a sumo match. And if you're curious who won, it was Harumafuji, both because he was the guy who initiated the final throw... and because, as a general rule, the Mongolians win. (More on that later.)
  • 4. CC-licensed photo by Flickr user: Better than Bacon The rules of sumo are really simple. Two wrestlers - rikishi - face each other in the ring - the dohyo. When both rikishi put their fists down on the dohyo, the match starts, and the rikishi charge at each other - the tachi-ai. if either guy steps outside the ring of straw, or if any part of the body other than the sole of the foot touches the ground, he loses.
  • 5. over 80 legal techniques to win a match While it's incredibly simple, there is an enormous degree of subtlety: there are over 80 legal techniques that can be used to win a match, including throws, trips, lifts and force-outs. You can't grab a guy's hair, can't poke his eyes, and can't grab his junk. But open hand slaps and punches are legal.
  • 6. Professional sumo doesn't happen very often. Amateurs compete all around the world, but professional sumo happens only in Japan under the auspices of the Japan Sumo Association, and revolves around 6 annual bashos, held every two months. These are 15 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. Before a tournament, JSA releases the banzuke, the rankings of all the rikishi, which determines who will face whom, and also, the salaries 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, it's not nearly as lucrative.
  • 8. 11 of the top 25, four of the top six, are non-Japanese So, here's something interesting. Of the 25 top-ranked rikishi, 11 are non-Japanese. At the very highest ranks, the presence of foreigners is even more visible - the two grand champions, or Yokozuna, are Mongolian, and two of the four ozeki are foreign as well. It's likely that there would be lots, lots more foreigners in the top ranks of sumo, but for the fact that rules were put into place in the mid-1990s restricting the number of foreigners in the sport. There's something very strange going on. In a quintessentially Japanese sport, the Japanese aren't doing very well.
  • 9. Painting by Utgawa Kuniteru II 1867 And sumo is quintessentially Japanese. It began during the Edo period, the age of samurai warriors and feudal lords. Fighting in sumo tournaments was a way for ronin samurai to make a little money when they were between jobs. And until after WWII, no foreign-born competitors participated.
  • 10. Musash Konishiki imaru Akeb ono Sumo didn't see international rikishi arrive in force until the 1980s, when there was a wave of Pacific islanders, mostly Hawaiian and 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 be permitted to participate in the sport, and whether they could properly carry out the ceremonial responsibilities of the most senior rank, Yokozuna. But there was a sense in which they didn't threaten the essence of sumo as a Japanese sport. Obviously a 600 pound guy was doing to manhandle a much smaller rikishi, and there was a limited supply of these massive yet agile dudes.
  • 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 Mongolian sumo wrestlers. He was known as "gino depato" - "the department store" - because he used so many techniques, mostly techniques 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 the Ozeki rank. Yet Kyokushuzan remained in sumo for 15 years, demonstrating another interesting phenomenon - these little, wiry Mongolians had much longer sumo careers than the massive Islanders, who tended to injure themselves by carrying so much weight on their knees.
  • 12. Kyokushuzan's success opened the door to a Mongolian invasion, and as we've seen through history, people are not always excited to welcome Mongolians on their borders.
  • 13. CC-licensed photo by Flickr user Jerrold Bennett The primary reason Mongolians are great at sumo is that Mongolians are fucking awesome. Beyond that, wrestling is a core part of Mongolian culture - it's the major sport along with horseback riding and archery. Mongolian wrestling is even harder than sumo, because there's no ring, which means you have to force your opponent down, not out. And mongolians are very interested in becoming sumo rikishi because, despite a natural resources boom in their country, most Mongolians are quite poor, and the salaries associated with the top ranks of sumo mean that successful competitors can return to Mongolia and become real estate moguls or run successful political campaigns.
  • 14. Asashoryu Akinori 68th Yokozuna The Mongolian invasion led the JSA to limit the number of foreign wrestlers in the sport - one per stable. But that didn't prevent Asashoryu from becoming the most successful rikishi of the last twenty years. He became Yokozuna, the highest rank in the sport, and held the title by himself for three years. He is the third-most successsful rikishi ever, in terms of matches won, and if he hadn't been forced out of the sport, he would have won more. He won all six tournaments in a single year, an achievement unprecedented 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 infuriated sumo 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 soccer in a charity game, it was a massive scandal within the sport.
  • 15. Wakanohō Toshinori, now Soslan Gagloev Other foreigners have had a difficult time living up to the expectations of Japanese fans. Wakanoho, a very successful Ossetian rikishi, was banned from the sport for possessing 5 grams of marijuana.
  • 16. Now, there’s an argument that sumo is the only sport where marijuana is a performance enhancing substance. But you can also argue that Wakanoho was exiled from the sport because standards are very high for foreigners to participate. (Wakanoho is now at the University of South Florida, learning to play defensive tackle in US-style football...)
  • 17. AP photo by Junji Kurakawa There are lots of foreigners who’d like to compete in professional sumo. And, at the same time, there just aren’t that many young Japanese excited about learning the sport.
  • 18. photo by Paolo Patrizi In part, that’s because training to be a rikishi is long, hard and painful. Rikishi join “stables” when they finish junior high, and both train and serve as servants to the higher ranks. It’s a difficult, austere life to sign up for.
  • 19. Misconduct by stablemasters has helped scare young Japanese from the sport - in a truly shocking scandal, a stablemaster ordered other rikishi to beat a young wrestler with an aluminum baseball bat and with beer bottles. The young man died from his injuries.
  • 20. So we’re left with a narrative that sounds familiar about Japan. The country is aging, and there aren’t enough young people to take care of the older ones. In other societies, we might expect immigrants to fill the gap. But Japan has proven pretty resistant to widespread immigration and has been designing robots to care for the elderly.
  • 21. The logical extension, of course, is robot sumo. In a few years, if there are no Japanese youth who want to compete and heavy restrictions on foreign participation, perhaps we could just move to designing robots to fight each other.
  • 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 as well, and it’s not unreasonable for Japan to worry that sumo, conducted primarily by non-Japanese people, would lose some of its essence.
  • 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., once television comes to Bhutan, what happens to local Bhutanese culture? We suspect that global cultures crush local ones - people stop eating local food and eat McDonalds. And we fear a violent counter-reaction, like when the Taliban destroyed buddhas in Afghanistan. Some of us hope for a positive encounter, a curry that incorporates international ingredients into a new whole. But what 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 sports for possible outcomes.
  • 24. We could imagine sumo following the lead of Aussie Rules Football, a fine, enjoyable game that is popular domestically, but basically unheard of outside the country.
  • 25. We might imagine sumo turning into something like mixed martial arts, a sport that seems designed for a borderless world. It’s all physicality, no culture, a melange of fighting sports ripped from cultural roots and remixed into whatever works best.
  • 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 baseball with samba in the Dominican Republic or with fanatic fan clubs in Japan, it’s a global sport with local characteristics.
  • 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 the course of joining the team. (It’s worth mentioning that, while European football has passionate followers in Africa, African players often face profound racism when playing in Europe. There may be some cosmopolitan connections in football, but it’s far from utopia.)
  • 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 to go - this is the photo that marked the beginning of the end of Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu’s career.
  • 29. Hatsu Basho: 1/13/13 – 1/27/13 Goo Sumo – sumo.goo.ne.jp/eng youtube.com/user/Kintamayama Cibersumo.com SumoTalk.com If you’re interested in learning more about professional sumo, this is an excellent time to do so. We’re in the midst of the first tournament of the year, and you can see daily results on Goo Sumo. Kintamayama is an Israeli sumo fan who posts highlights of each day’s action - thanks to him, we can watch four hours of a tournament in about 10 minutes. Once you get to know the sport, join the folks at Cibersumo and SumoTalk in talking smack and participating in Fantasy Sumo leagues.
  • 30. thank you どうもありがとう Баярлалаа Thank you, domo arigato and bayerlalaa (thank you in Mongolian).