Gorgeous Asashoryu

Unlike pro wrestling in the United States and many other countries (including Japan), the ancient Japanese sport of sumo is steeped in dignity and restraint.

When I was a child we couldn't wait to gather around the black and white television to watch our fill of professional wrestling.   In those bygone days, wrestling matches were staged to look like serious competitions between down-to-earth, meat-and-potatoes individual and tag-team grapplers.  Judging from our own imitation matches, we all knew the action was fake, the so-called strangleholds couldn't harm a wet paper towel, and the judges were blind.   But we loved the 'sport' and thirsted for more.

To the top of the heap among that era's pro wrestlers rose Gorgeous George.  George, born George Raymond Wagner, departed from the anonymous uniformity of his competitors by introducing spectacle into his act.   He had an elaborate entrance ritual, complete with sequined robes, fawning attendants and flower petals strewn in his path.  Once in the ring, he strutted and pranced in a manner which the age defined as effeminate, including taunting his jeering audience by running his fingers through his long, platinum blond locks. Without doubt Gorgeous George was the model for today's generation of pro wrestlers.   As I hear from those who have actually seen them on television, today's pro wrestlers are all Gorgeous George's children, with acts as flamboyant as -- if not more than -- that of their spiritual father.   One doesn't watch pro wrestling today to see the excellence of its athletics.  One watches for the in-your-face attitude.

Japan has its own form of wrestling, sumo, whose roots are in the Shinto religion.  Sumo survived with exceedingly few changes over many centuries, allowing its contemporary adherents to brag that it is one of the purest forms of ancient Japanese lore to remain alive and still be breathing unto this moment in time.

But, alas, sumo is in trouble in Japan.  Few young Japanese men volunteer for the rigors of a rikishi's life  (the word rikishi can be translated as 'wrestler,' but that designation doesn't quite catch the essence of the word).  The exaggerated size of the rikishi disgusts many.  And enough scandal his entered into public notice to make a mockery of claims to sumo purity. 

Sumo tournaments (honbasho) are held regularly six times a year.  The Autumn basho (Aki basho) concludes today in Tokyo.  But this basho is different from those of the last few years.  The dominating presence among this generation's sumo rikishi, Asashoryu, is absent.  This big fellow, who over the last few years has masterfully bowled over his competition while barely raising a sweat, has been banned from this and the next tournament by his professional association. He is accused of bringing impurity and disgrace to sumo.

Earlier this year Asashoryu claimed to have back problems, so he asked for and received a dispensation from his professional association to bow out of some between-tournament exhibition matches.   During this break he returned to his native Mongolia, where he was videotaped playing in a charity soccer match.  When the professional association saw the tapes they hastened to the conclusion that Asashoryu lied to them about his back problems, an affront so egregious they slapped a ban and heavy fines on him.  

Asashoryu's reaction to these sanctions included falling into some sort of psychological funk, which has been variously diagnosed as depression and/or dissociative reaction (a condition which could range all the way from losing a grip on oneself to a 'split personality' a la Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde).  After a struggle noisily carried on in the press, Asashoryu again gained permission to return to Mongolia, where he is said to be recuperating, and likely watching today's basho on satellite television.

Asashoryu's fate says everything about the future of sumo in Japan. 

Like most traditions everywhere, sumo-- the people who organize and practice sumo, as much as the people who watch and support sumo -- is unsure whether and how much to adopt to modernity as modernity changes Japan.   

One camp says sumo has to change with the times, like almost everything else in Japanese society.  They say the guardians of the sport are stuck in the long-gone samurai past and are fighting a last-ditch battle against the calendar.  To them, tradition is colorful and nice and all that, but too much tradition can be stifling, boring, narrow. And embarrassing.

Over the last few decades the ranks of rikishi have been rounded out by gaijin (non-Japanese) from America, Mongolia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia and other far-flung lands.   Some, including Akibono, a Hawaiian, and Asashoryu, a Mongolian, have not only performed well, they have dominated their generations.  It is said that most of the gaijin rikishi have voluntarily submitted to the weighty rigors of Japanese tradition.  But there have been a few incidents which lead the sport's supervising authority to come down hard on wayward violators.   To the frequently-laid charge that authorities have shown bias against non-Japanese rikishi, it has been rightly pointed out that Japanese miscreants have been punished as severely if not more so than the stray gaijin rikishi.

The charity soccer game that instigated Asashoryu's banishment should never have been made the causus belli it was, complain the defenders of modernizing.   The supervising authority hung its punishment on the narrow point that the videotapes of feats on the soccer field confirm that Asashoryu lied about his back injuries.   A sumo rikishi, like a samurai, never lies, they assert. 

Hey, wait a minute, say his defenders, this was a charity event to raise funds to benefit both Japanese and Mongolian children, which proves Asashuryu has a good heart.   And, as it turns out, he was invited to participate by a Japanese organization.  And so what if the videotapes show him running a few steps?   A back problem doesn't necessarily have to be totally debilitating.  For many conditions that would have kept yesterday's patients plastered in bed, modern medicine no longer prescribes absolute rest during convalescence.   Even someone with a back problem is encourage nowadays to ambulate a bit, although this vigorous-appearing movement does not necessarily mean the patient is also in shape to fling a half ton opponent around the dohyo (the sumo ring). 

Two recent defenders of tradition and critics of Asashoryu have made their voices heard in the din.  One, a frequent sumo columnist for a major Japanese news source in print and on the web, a man who no doubt knows more about sumo in his little finger than this author ever will in his entire body, asserts that the only proper course Asashoryu could have taken was to apologize for his soccer gaffe.  Since he didn't act promptly in such a proper Japanese manner, that columnist derisively and loudly dismisses Asashoryu and looks forward to the day he disappears from the scene.  

It might or might not be relevant to mention that the columnist, the staunch defender of Japanese virtue, is himself gaijin.

The other noted critic has pointedly suggested that Asashoryu should make the decision to retire.  As a member of the presiding authority of sumo, this critic admits she has no power to force a retirement, just the platform to make the suggestion.   Yes, this critic is a woman, the first woman to sit at the highest level of sumo authority.  As such, some wags have suggested she is a 'token woman,' a very modern invention.   In the past, all other members of the highest authority have earned their stripes by spending their careers wrestling or training sumo.

It is churlish of me to point out that this woman might wield great power in the halls of sumo, but she, as a woman, is not allowed to stand in certain places in the field of combat because her presence would be interpreted by traditionalist as contamination of that sacred spot.

After considering the facts about Asashoryu as disseminated in the English-language press on the web, my conclusion is that the real issue is not whether or not Asashoryu lied about soccer, whether or not Asashoryu is a non-Japanese astride a Japanese sport, whether or not Asashoryu is a bad example because he is supposed to have yanked an opponent's chonmage (the topknot of the sumo, a relic of the topknot of the samurai), received prize money in his left hand instead of his purer right hand, or because he is supposed to have mistreated his wife in a drunken rage.  

The real issue is that some people fear that unless a very tight leash is kept on Asashoryu, he will become the Gorgeous George of sumo.  

I suspect some people fear that once a small whiff of change is allowed into the room, all the doors and gates will blow open.   Consequently sumo will become a spectacle as bombastic and preadolescent as modern American professional wrestling.  Not that Asashoryu has betrayed any noticeable inclination to bring his sport down that slippery slope.   But who knows, the guy after Asashoryu might put on the wrong robe.  And the guy after him might spray the room with his own brand of flowery disinfectant.   And who knows where that will lead?  Some gal after them might bring the house down with her patented bump and grind. 

The powers-that-be have taken upon themselves the obligation to nip all such possibilities in the bud.   Thus the heavy penalties to Asashoryu, even though what he did might not really be so reprehensible in the grand scheme of things.  Organizations, especially organizations larded with centuries of traditions and arcane regulations, have never been good at accommodating to individual special cases. 

Whether that form of vigilance preserves or brings down the ship of sumo is very much an open question. Sumo's very survival is problematic.