Cleaning Up Sumo

Racked by scandal and an influx of foreign competitors, can Japan's most traditional sport keep up with the times?

  • James Whitlow Delano for TIME

    After practice, a young wrestler sweeps the ring, one of many apprentice chores in a sport governed by rigorous tradition and spirituality

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    The Age of the Blond Topknot
    Even in the nosebleed seats at the Nagoya tournament, where signs outside the stadium warn, "Gangsters keep out," one major change in sumo is immediately obvious. Here are the blond topknot of an Estonian ex-bouncer called Baruto (real name: Kaido Hoovelson) and the hairy chest of Bulgaria's Kotooshu (born Kaloyan Stefanov Mahlyanov). There is the telltale cellulite of a trio of Georgian wrestlers, whose bodies accumulate fat quite differently than those of the Japanese. And everywhere, it seems, are the wide cheekbones of Mongolian wrestlers. Since 2003, only two men have been promoted to the exalted status of grand champion. Both are from the land of Genghis Khan: Asashoryu (né Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj), whose career was cut short by that nightclub brawl, and 2010 Nagoya victor Hakuho (formerly known as Monkhbatyn Davaajargal). In just over a decade, foreigners have come to so dominate sumo that in Nagoya there was only one Japanese competing in the two highest ranks — and he is well past his prime. "The foreigners are trying very hard, so they deserve to win," says Koji Mizuno, a 67-year-old Nagoya spectator. "But watching my national sport, I do feel a bit forlorn that there aren't more strong Japanese wrestlers."

    The presence of foreigners is being felt in many sectors of society. Japan is getting older, but its young people spurn menial jobs, so foreign workers are one solution to the labor shortage. Already, Southeast Asians staff nursing homes, and Chinese swell the ranks of high-tech companies. Sumo has no alternative but to accept an influx of foreigners, since the number of Japanese recruits dwindles each year. "You look at the Mongolians who come today, and they have the hungry, strong bodies of kids who grew up doing hard labor on the farms," says Michinori Yamada, the coach of the Saitama Sakae high school team. "Japanese families used to send their boys to sumo stables to ensure they got enough food. Now, Japanese kids eat what they want, they go to college, and they don't want to work so hard."

    Yet the flood of gaijin, while undoubtedly raising sumo's level of athleticism, is also eroding its popularity. Sniffy sumo fans and journalists scrutinize foreign wrestlers and pounce on any sign of un-Japaneseness. Take recently retired grand champion Asashoryu, who was deemed by the local press as lacking hin , or dignity. Practically everything Asashoryu did reeked of a lack of hin : failing to defer to a sumo elder in a bathhouse hallway, tugging on an opponent's topknot, pumping his fist after a victory. "If Asashoryu had been Japanese, there would have been some criticism, but it would not have been as severe," says economist Nakajima. Hawaiian-born Konishiki (who started life as Saleva'a Atisano'e) was perhaps treated worse in the 1990s, when the 633-lb. (287 kg) wrestler was denied an expected promotion to yokozuna by the JSA, presumably because he was a little too individualistic — a little too, ahem, American.

    So how are the colossi of sumo supposed to act? "Like salarymen," kids Nakajima, referring to the faceless drones who toiled for Japan Inc. during the bubble years. Except it's not really a joke. Former wrestler Tououyama details a typical day in a sumo stable, where every athlete must live and train for the duration of his career: Reveille is at 5:30 a.m.; then comes a full morning of practice. Lunch is eaten in order of rank, followed by a session with a topknot stylist and a couple of hours of nap time. Then it's on to housework, a workout at the gym and dinner preparations. From 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., wrestlers are given free time. Then lights go out, with athletes all sleeping in the same room. Junior stablemates must act as glorified servants to their elders. "It was difficult until I got used to this life," recalls Tououyama. "The seniority system is absolute."

    The problem, of course, is that with fewer Japanese desiring to be salarymen, an even smaller number want to replicate that experience while wearing a fat suit. Nearly every facet of sumo culture is designed to encourage humility. While other Japanese athletes make gazillions of dollars blasting homers in the U.S. or scoring goals in Britain, the highest-ranked sumo star gets paid what a senior Japanese executive does — $300,000 a year. Low-level wrestlers get just a living stipend. Changing stables is not allowed. And the sumo workplace stresses stoic reserve over individual flair. After matches, there is no savoring of victory, no showboating — and certainly no displays of petulance from the loser. Even in postmatch interviews, the victor rarely expresses joy, just a few mumbled words and rote gratitude to his stable bosses.

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