Why I have always defended Asashoryu
As we sit here and wait for the latest Asashoryu "scandal" to play out, let me explain why I have always defended Asashoryu in the past and why I will continue to defend him when I feel he is being held to a double standard that didn't exist for other rikishi.
I'll rewind the tape back to 1994 when Kenji and I first met as we were both beginning new jobs in Fukuoka, Japan. If you've ever looked at the photos on Kenji's profile page, you'll note that in one setting he's eating chanko-nabe with Yokozuna Akebono. And in another photo he's posing outside of the then Futagoyama-beya with former Ozeki Takanonami. One photo that is missing is of Kenji actually being invited into the Futagoyama-beya to watch the morning keiko. That's because photos during the keiko session were forbidden not to mention actual entrance into the stable by anyone except for a select few. Those who watched sumo from the early nineties know that Takanohana and Wakanohana were like rock stars in Japan, and access to the two was as hard to get as access to...well...a rock star. Who was the hottest band worldwide in the early nineties? U2 perhaps? So imagine getting access backstage to a U2 show, and that's what it was like trying to get inside the Futagoyama-beya. I knew where the Futagoyama-beya was in Fukuoka, and I drove past there all the time in November in hopes of catching a glimpse, any glimpse, but the place was locked up tighter than a drum. You simply could not get in. So how did Kenji do it? Connections.
If you are a foreigner living in Japan, and you associate with other foreigners almost exclusively, and you always hang out at foreign bars, and you speak English at least 90% of the time (which is a perfectly fine scenario by the way), you likely haven't experienced what I'm going to explain shortly. For those who live in Japan and speak Japanese at least 90% of the time whether it's because you married into the culture or you work in an office setting that requires it or a combination of such things, then you can relate to what I'm about to say. It's no secret that Japan is like an exclusive members-only club, and the only way to gain admission is to have Japanese blood running through your veins. However, as tight-knit as they are, the Japanese are very appreciative of foreigners who try and understand their culture, and they especially get a huge kick when foreigners not only show interest in something that they think is understood only by the club such as sumo, but they are flabbergasted when a foreigner is able to carry on a coherent and knowledgeable conversation about sumo (hasta be in Japanese). The Japanese will immediately associate that person as someone who is knowledgeable about sumo (they use the word "kuwashii"), and they will mention that fact without fail to other coworkers, relatives, friends, and acquaintances.
Here's an example in Kenji's case. As dictator of Sumotalk, I was recently doing my duty by going through everyone's emails before I let them read 'em deleting this and embellishing that, and Kenji got an email from an old acquaintance he worked with in Fukuoka back in 1994. The very first thing the gal said after stating her name was that she remembered that Kenji loved sumo and that she was so glad she found him on the website. And I guarantee you that all of Kenji's other former co-workers and acquaintances associate him with being a huge fan of sumo. Kenji didn't gain access to Akebono or to the Futagoyama-beya by just showing up and talking his way in. He gained access because he had connections...somehow...someway...with a Japanese person who did have access or who knew someone else that could get him in. And the Japanese will go to that extent if it's for someone who genuinely shows an interest in their culture, and not just an interest in scoring with their chicks.
As for me, the first time I attended a hon-basho was day 1 of the 1994 Kyushu basho. The guy who took me? Someone I had never met before, but he was the uncle of one of the ladies who worked in my office. This co-worker was so tickled that I loved sumo, that she informed her uncle who was a well-to-do business man who had decent connections and could get great tickets for the dance. So day 1 came around, and I was sitting in about the seventh row on the Shomen side (the side the main camera angles show) with this guy named Hashimoto-san whom I had never met before. After enjoying the bouts, Hashimoto-san took me out for ramen at a yatai (outdoor food stalls that are very traditional Japanese and famous in Fukuoka) and of course mentioned to every guest and the guy operating the food stall that I was a huge sumo fan, and that I was very "kuwashii" about the sport. After eating ramen at the yatai, we next went to his favorite snack, which is sort of like a members only bar where you have to pay a few thousand yen just to enter and where they charge outrageous prices for everything just for the chance to have the lady behind the counter pay you some personal attention (it's not sexual). So there we were, me sipping a hard Kirin Orange (I don't drink), Hashimoto-san pounding whiskey on the rocks, and both of us singing karaoke all the while with Hashimoto-san telling everyone that I loved sumo and that I was really kuwashii. Without fail, Hashimoto-san would take me to several days of the basho each time the sumos came to Kyushu, and I don't think I actually paid for a ticket the first coupla years.
So why am I bothering going on like this? Because one day I got a call from the Fukuoka City Police. Well, actually my office got the call, and they were looking for a foreigner who spoke Japanese who would be willing to give a lecture at a town meeting on the topic of "Crime Prevention Through a Foreigner's Eyes." It was to be a 30 minute lecture, and they would pay me 12,500 yen for it, so of course I said yes. I'm a good public speaker (Japanese or English), and I know how to push the right buttons with the Japanese, so the lecture was a huge hit. Word spread and other groups started calling me, and it actually turned out to be a pretty good gig while I lived in Fukuoka. But the police department continued to call me and asked me to lecture their graduating classes of new police officers. I of course accepted, and they really liked me, and I knew how to make the lectures fun and interesting, so they kept calling me back and back. Word eventually spread from the Fukuoka City Police department to the Fukuoka Prefecture police, and it got to the point where I'd lecture for both organizations.
Every time I would give a speech, the drill would work like this: they'd pick me up from city hall in a black car with white curtains in the back. The guy with the best English in the department would always pick me up (usually a guy named Tanaka), and then we would drive to the police academy or wherever else it was that I would speak. Tanaka-san would take me to the highest ranking official in the academy or whoever was in charge, and we'd sit down to tea or coffee for about 10 minutes before the lecture. Inevitably, Tanaka-san would mention to the boss that I loved sumo and was very knowledgeable about it, and so it became known around the police department that Maikeru-san loved sumo.
I made some good friends among the police, and I went out to dinner with them from time to time, and seemingly out of the woodwork, guys would make me offers like this, "hey, I'm working security at the Kokusai Center on this day, and I can get you into the shitaku-beya (dressing room), are you interested?" In other words, I was beginning to make connections with members of the police department that allowed me great access inside the venue. I didn't have the sort of personal connections to the rikishi as Kenji did, but as I dined and talked and associated with the police department, I began to hear stories about sumo. Stories that included the greatest Yokozuna in the eyes of the Japanese people, Chiyonofuji.
Fukuoka is famous for very little, which was funny because working for the city hall and reading all of their brochures, you would have thought it was this thriving international city connected to the world. Outside of the city, Fukuoka is probably most famous for its red-light district, which is called Nakasu. Just east of the city center, the Naka river forks and then rejoins itself about a kilometer downstream. The island formed in the middle of the river is the area known as Nakasu, and it's loaded with theaters, pachinko parlors, a few restaurants, snacks, and sex entertainment establishments. Oh, and not in that order. To walk through Nakasu after dark is like...well, let me put it to you this way. I don't drink or smoke, I've never done drugs, I'm completely monogamous and abstained until I was married, I attend church every week, I volunteer about 15 hours a week to work with youth groups and needy people, I donate around 11% of my gross income to charitable causes, and I can kick your ass in a Bible bash. But having said that, even I get tempted when I walk through Nakasu at night. If you want debauchery, you got it in Nakasu starting with those three gals dressed in the Budweiser swimsuits and high heels.
Anyway, the long and short of all this is according to my friends in the Fukuoka police department, Chiyonofuji patronized Nakasu every night he was in Fukuoka. And we're talking for a month straight. He drank every night, he cajoled with the gals, and he usually returned to his stable in Tojin-machi just before the sun came up. And by the way, none of that is shocking. That's just a rite of passage for sumo rikishi, especially the Yokozuna. Clancy's blog entry was short, but it was excellent and right to the point. He was dead on when talking about sumo as being a celebration of excess living. I didn't hear any personal account of Kitanoumi in Fukuoka, but his reputation is that he was a huge womanizer. And of course like every other Yokozuna before him, he went out on the town and got drunk on a nightly basis. That's just the way it is, and the Japanese people don't have a problem with it. In fact, they envy it.
So, let's get to the point of this blog entry. When I began watching sumo in 1989, everyone was talking about Chiyonofuji. He and Konishiki were the first guys I remember, but the Japanese public always talked about Chiyonofuji, and the word they used to describe him the most was kakko-ii, which could correctly be translated as "handsome," but it's really more a case of "manly" if said with emotion. And the gals talked about him with emotion. On the dohyo, Chiyonofuji was small of stature, but he was as muscular as they come and a complete ass-kicker. His signature moves were winning by tsuri-dashi or winning by uwate-nage using his non-belt hand to pull at the back of his opponent's head adding insult injury. Chiyonofuji was rough atop the dohyo. He didn't just beat his opponents, he humiliated them. He wasn't exempt from using dame-oshi, and he was a bully if there ever was one. And the Japanese absolutely loved him for it and idolized him as the perfect alpha male.
Off the dohyo, people were afraid of Chiyonofuji. Everyone was afraid of him. He was rough, a bully, an abuser, and he did anything he wanted to because he knew he was untouchable. In 1988, he disliked one of his stablemates, so he beat him up so badly that the kid needed plastic surgery to repair his face. It goes without saying the stablemate left sumo after that. And imagine if Asashoryu had done that to someone.
So, from 1989 to 1997, I was able to form an extremely accurate profile of who Chiyonofuji was both on and off the dohyo stemming from my personal experience in watching him in the ring, my personal experience in listening to those who knew firsthand where he went and what he did off the dohyo in Kyushu, and my picking up little pieces of information here and there from news reports, magazine articles, NHK clips, etc. And I also know how much the Japanese public admired him based on my frequent conversations with Japanese people on the subject of sumo.
I'm not here to pass any judgment on what kind of person Chiyonofuji was; I've only come this far to say I know exactly who he was, and I have plenty of sources with which to back up that claim.
Now, let's fast-forward to 2001 when a feisty Mongolian entered the Makuuchi division fighting from the Wakamatsu-beya owning a tsuppari attack that was so violent it would draw blood. Asashoryu cruised up the ranks in record speed requiring just two basho to reach the sanyaku, eight basho after that to be promoted to Ozeki, and two basho after that to reach the pinnacle of the sport. Like Chiyonofuji the last few years of his career, I was able to watch Asashoryu's every bout and determine what kind of rikishi he was on the dohyo. Unlike my experience with Chiyonofuji, I didn't have personal contacts who could reveal to me details about Asashoryu's life off of the dohyo. But I didn't need those contacts; the Japanese media did it for me. I have been able to form opinions about both rikishi over the years, and my conclusion is this: the sumo gods created them from the exact same mold.
In fact, I'm of the opinion that Asashoryu admired Chiyonofuji to the extent that he patterned his career after the dai-Yokozuna and determined to become just like him. To this day, I remember on day 6 of the 2003 Hatsu basho when it was clear that Asashoryu would assume the Yokozuna rank sooner rather than later, he was fighting Aminishiki with Chiyonofuji sitting in the head judge's chair. He locked Aminishiki up in a yotsu-zumo contest, grabbed an outside grip, and forced him to the side of the dohyo directly in front of Chiyonofuji where the Ozeki then proceeded to dump Aminishiki to the clay with an uwate-nage throw aided by a right hand yanking down at the back of Aminishiki's head, exactly the way that Chiyonofuji did it. To me, that was Asashoryu calling his Yokozuna shot and honoring Chiyonofuji by dispatching Aminishiki in that fashion while the former Yokozuna was on duty in the head chair.
Asashoryu was promoted to Yokozuna after that basho, and a couple years later when it became clear that none of the Japanese Ozeki would be able to thwart him, the media and Japanese public at large began to panic, scrutinizing his every move and conjuring up ways to discredit Asashoryu's accomplishments. Negative labels were assigned to Asashoryu and words like hinkaku were resurrected (see Clancy's blog...again) in an attempt to counter in the public eye what Asashoryu was accomplishing on the dohyo. Hinkaku? Exactly how did Chiyonofuji exhibit hinkaku?
Which brings me to my point of why I have always defended Asashoryu:
How can you damn Asashoryu for the exact same behavior and character for which Chiyonofuji was deified?
You don't think Chiyonofuji ever bloodied someone's nose? You don't think Chiyonofuji got dead drunk into the wee hours of the morning during the basho? You don't think Chiyonofuji hung out with members of the sex entertainment industry and patronized their establishments in the process? You don't think Chiyonofuji took basho off citing an injured shoulder? You don't think Chiyonofuji was a bully? You don't think Chiyonofuji injured guys due to rough keiko? You don't think Chiyonofuji thought he was above the established rules?
If you don't think that, you don't think.
I'm not condoning the behavior or practices of either of these Yokozuna nor am I justifying the things they did as acceptable nor am I defending their actions. I'm just saying they are one and the same, which means I condemn those who hate Asashoryu simply because he's Mongolian.
And if you say inside "I don't hate Asashoryu because he's Mongolian but because of his behavior and the things he does which disgrace sumo," then I sure hope you hated Chiyonofuji too and assigned the same labels to him as you do to Asashoryu and make posts on your chat boards that Asashoryu is yet another troublesome Yokozuna just like Chiyonofuji.
I am on record in my post-basho report as saying I can't defend Asashoryu's latest actions. I don't agree with the obvious double standard that he has been forced to deal with throughout his career as Yokozuna, and I've ranted against it many times. But that's just the way it is, so if Asashoryu continues to do things that will incite the media and usual culprits who call for his head justified or not, he does it at his own peril.
Now, at the time of this writing it is in the middle of the night in Japan between February 1st and February 2nd. Takanohana has just been elected to the board of directors in a revolutionary move where he refused to abide by the established rules (so much for hinkaku), removed himself from his Ichimon, and threw his hat into the ring despite threats and other attempts like having officials of other Ichimon inspect ballots before they were cast.
So if Takanohana was added as a director, who got booted off? None other than Oshima-oyakata, Asashoryu's biggest critic on the board. In anticipation of the next board meeting on Wednesday where the current Asashoryu controversy will be addressed, here are the pros and cons regarding Asashoryu and his survival in the sport:
* No complaint has been filed with police and none will be because Asashoryu settled for a monetary sum
* Asashoryu does not remember the events of the evening (wink, wink) and both he and Takasago-oyakata were given misinformation by Asashoryu's manager, which they then conveyed to Musashigawa Rijicho
* Oshima-oyakata is off the board
* Kokonoe-oyakata (my beloved Chiyonofuji) is on the board representing the Takasgao Ichimon, which has just lost one of it's Ozeki and can't afford to lose its Yokozuna
* The NSK knows the financial impact of kicking Asashoryu out of sumo. Head of the YDC, Chairman Tsuruta of Nikkei Shimbun fame (Japan's financial times), said, "If Asashoryu leaves, we'll lose 30% of the fans, which means the financial effect for sumo is a decrease in income of 30%. Remember, I am a financial reporter."
* Musashigawa Rijicho is a softie
* The NSK can't afford to botch this one and take a PR hit in they way they botched Asashoryu's two-basho suspension for that soccer thing
* There's no such thing as bad publicity, especially when you can smear a foreigner to save face
* It's Asashoryu
* The NSK has not quelled the furor in the press meaning Asashoryu will have to pay something
* Asashoryu's already been given plenty of chances
* False information was given to the commissioner from the Asashoryu camp
* The police were called and are thus involved
* They've already suspended him once for two-basho, so this next punishment would have to be more severe
From Saturday (Oldtsukasa's danpatsu-shiki) to Sunday (Ushiomaru's danpatsu-shiki), I sensed a change in Asashoryu from one of acute depression syndrome or whatever that was called to a demeanor that was as calm as a summer's morning. Perhaps a deal has been struck and Asashoryu will survive.
Regardless, I can't wait to see how this plays out. The Association has to do something; they just have to in order to save face, so the question will be what do they do? I'm fine with either decision, but I hope Asashoryu stays for two reasons:
* Sumo's popularity would take a nosedive without him. It'd be like Black Sabbath doing another reunion tour with Dio at the helm instead of Ozzy. With Dio, you play state fairs. With Ozzy, you sell out arenas.
* 34 of the last 36 yusho were taken by Hakuho or Asashoryu with the rest of the field rarely coming close. Take Asashoryu out of that formula and Hakuho will average 11 yusho every two years with the average number between him and the jun-yusho rikishi being 2-3 bouts. As Homer Simpson would say... "Mmmmm, day 12 yusho."
If Asashoryu somehow survives this one, he'll not only be number three on the list of career yusho, but he'll move into third place on the all-time escape artist list following Harry Houdini and Bill Clinton.