Racism in Sumo
I've had this blog entry rolling around in my empty noggin' for some time now, and the guts were originally written in July, so if it seems that my examples are outdated by a few months, now you know why. This is a blog entry regarding race, and whenever you talk about race--especially when you point out the racist behavior of a people--you must acknowledge your own past and accept that you also come from a country with a horrendous history of racism. And that acknowledgement is important because I can draw on the experiences of my own country to form my own analysis as I apply it to the current actions of the Japanese.
As if you didn't know already and couldn't tell by my vainglorious, belittling attitude, I'm from the United States. Now I know that we are not racist-free in this country. We still have that guy at right living in our borders. You all know him...he's fifty pounds underweight, he goes around shirtless most of the time, and he lives in a rural area probably without 'lectricity so he doesn't have to hold a job. In essence, he isn't in any sorta position to influence society. His agenda is so bass-ackwards that he has to tattoo it on his face. Now I fully understand that there are still racists in this country in prominent positions--always will be--but in terms of the general behavior of the white population and their reaction when a person of a different race is successful or contributes greatly to something, we've come a long, long way in looking past the color of his/her skin and embracing the accomplishment as it only raises the bar and makes everyone else better.
It'd be nice if Japan did the same.
Since this is a website that talks sports, we'll start with the sport of baseball and Jackie Robinson. If you live outside of the US, you may not have heard of Jackie Robinson, but anyone who grows up here and is a baseball fan knows who he is. Jackie Robinson is credited with being the black baseball player who broke the color barrier in the sport. I word it that way because there were others during his time as well who had to put up with a helluva lot of racism and antagonistic behavior against them simply because of the color of their skin. Jackie Robinson played roughly 60 years ago, a time when the African Americans were still segregated, and though I of course wasn't alive then, I can just imagine what those first pioneers had to go through. But over time, the American sports fan got it. He realized that letting blacks play baseball along with the whites made the sport better, so the racist attitudes have changed greatly from the outright discrimination in Jackie Robinson's days to the lingering effects when Hank Aaron (a black guy) was about to surpass Babe Ruth (a white guy) for the title of home run king in the mid 70's to the current day where an accomplishment from a black athlete is celebrated...not because he's black, but because he is great.
And that's not to say that black athletes are better than white athletes either. White hitters can hit the baseball just as far as black hitters...white pitchers can throw the ball just as hard as black pitchers...white players can steal bases just as well as black players...so why segregate? Hell, probably the best base stealer in the game right now--and definitely the best arm in the outfield--comes from Japan in Ichiro, and I haven't even mentioned the Latino players.
I know that baseball probably doesn't get a lot of pub outside of the US, but in July it held it's annual All-Star game in New York. As part of those festivities, the greatest moment came during the home run derby, where some of the sport's best hitters have a competition to see who can hit the most home runs. A guy named Josh Hamilton--a white guy--stood at home plate and put on a record breaking show, one of those rare performances where you're glued to the TV with mouth agape as if Pam Anderson is about to remove her top. Josh Hamilton's performance surpassed the previous record set just a few years ago by Bobby Abreu--a black guy. Now was anyone watching that thinking, "Yes! The white guy is better than the black guy again!" Of course not. They were enjoying the show...the same sorta record-breaking performance we'll subsequently get from a black guy again...or a Latino player. The point in all of this is it doesn't matter what an athlete's race is. They all make the game so much better, so they're all embraced. Let the best players perform their craft, and sit back and enjoy it.
This is where the Japanese need to understand that the current Mongolian domination of sumo is a good thing. It's simply making the sport better...and who doesn't appreciate a sport being taken to a higher level? Let me use another recent example from American sports...the European soccer championships held in June. Sports fans here followed the tournament closely, and all of the games were broadcast live nationally on ESPN. ESPN even ran commercials everyday hyping the event and pimping their website that was broadcasting every game online so us lazy Americans could watch them at work (not that I would ever do such a thing). Then when the final came around...on a Sunday...the biggest sporting day of the week, the final between Spain and Germany was broadcast on network television in prime time. After the match, the sports news shows of the day all lead off with highlights of the final because that's what we sports fans wanted to see. Now, the US sucks at soccer, and we're completely fine with that. But we appreciate good sport, and we watched because we knew it was the best athletes in the world (minus a few great Latino players) performing their craft. And while we watched, we were laughing at the television networks' feeble attempts to hype Major League Soccer here in the US. Nobody cares about MLS because it's second tier at best. Give us the best and we'll watch, but don't try and gravy train off of something like the success of the World Cup or the European Championships. We ain't stupid. Ratings for soccer events that don't even involve US players kick ass on ratings for the MLS because we just care about watching the best and appreciating the moment.
So in sumo terms, I just want Japan to appreciate what the Mongolian rikishi are doing right now. They don't have to root for them; in fact, I encourage them to root for their own, but what I hate to see is the Japanese discriminate against the Mongolians, and that is exactly what's happening with Asashoryu. Take away the furreners from sumo now, and here is your current banzuke:
The top three are your Yokozuna...the next three or four are your Ozeki...then the last guys start to fill in your sanyaku. Can you see how much better sumo is today because of the Mongolians?
Let's look at another sport right now...golf. Tiger Woods--a black guy--has single handedly taken one of the most racist sports ever to a new level. Well, not just a new level but several levels. I was driving around on a Thursday afternoon after work in July listening to the radio when they mentioned the scores from Day 1 at the British Open. I had to stop and think to myself, "wait a minute...the British Open is going on right now?". Without fail, whenever a golf major comes around, the first thing I do at work is pull up the leaderboard and live streaming of the event so I can follow it. But I completely forgot about the start of the British Open...probably like a lot of other sports fans, and if it wasn't for Greg Norman's run (plus the fact that he's now bangin' Chris Evert) the tournament could have been cancelled and no one would have noticed. And don't even ask me who won the PGA Championships because I didn't watch. Why? Because Tiger Woods wasn't participating in either tournament. He is that important to the sport. Now, let's examine Tiger's attitude towards the fans and the press. He is a very private guy. He gives the obligatory interviews mandated by the PGA, but beyond that hardly anything. He fired his first caddy, Fluff, because Fluff said too much to a reporter for a golf magazine. After the final day at this year's US Open when Tiger was tied with Rocco Mediate meaning the two would playoff for the championship the next day, I watched Tiger's press conference, and I sat there in amazement at how unaccommodating and almost downright rude Tiger was to the reporters. His answers were short and crass, and he came across as extremely arrogant and bothered by the fact he had to sit there and answer stupid questions from the press. The point is that the reporters and the fans watching that could have easily formed the opinion that Tiger was a bad guy, a jerk, and disrespectful towards the sport because he doesn't give the fans and reporters as much time as say Phil Mickelson. Or Tiger is a bad guy because he doesn't provide the fan service of the other golfers. Oh, and Tiger is black, so that gives the racists extra incentive to take shots at him. But no one does. Why? Because he is the greatest to have ever played the game, and we can't get enough. We love the guy, so we put up with the arrogance...with the cold shoulder...and the constant redass attitude.
And I would appreciate the same respect from the Japanese fans and the Japanese press regarding Asashoryu.
I look a few generations back in my own family, and I can see the progression achieved regarding attitudes toward racism. I still remember my grandmother using the N-word in her everyday conversation as she made derogatory references to Negroes. Now I don't think that she was more of a racist than anyone else in her time, but back in that day, that's just the way it was. The prevailing attitude was that the black race was inferior. Hell, they were still segregated in all factions of society, so of course people are going to think like that. Then I look at my father and can see the progression he has made regarding his attitudes of racism compared to his mother. He was a boy when blacks were still segregated, and he even tells the story of a black kid in his neighborhood who was a great baseball player, but he couldn't play on the area little league team because when the team would travel to other cities to play other teams, the black kid wouldn't be allowed to stay in the hotel. That affected him and made him start to think, but I can still see where the attitudes of his mother rubbed off in the way he can tolerate a racist joke and even laugh.
Then there's me. Yeah, I thought the racist jokes told in the schoolyard were funny, and I retold them myself. But once I became an adult and started to form my own opinions, I realized that my actions and attitudes were mistaken. So now as my boys come of age, I'm sure they'll start hearing the same idiotic jokes, and when they tell them to me, their father won't laugh, but I'll grab them by the arm...squishing on the bicep muscle just so to make the boy squirm as I get in his face and sternly tell him that this is unacceptable and intolerable. In short, any racist attitudes or behavior in my family has stopped with me.
The point of this blog entry is not to call Japan racists as if every other country is racist-free. It's a call for them to get with the times. Every country has a history of racism, and I'm sure that deep down inside, a majority of the people still feel as if they are superior to another race even though common sense dictates that their outward actions and words would not reveal such. That's just human nature I guess. But is it too much to ask the Japanese press and even the officials in the Association itself, not to be so blatant in their racist attitudes? You may say that Asashoryu doesn't respect the sport, and you may say that he brings this treatment upon himself because of his attitude and not his race, but you'd be wrong. Chiyonofuji was far more of a bully than Asashoryu was, but the Japanese not only put up with it but swept it under the rug. Japanese rikishi and a Japanese oyakata at the Tokitsukaze-beya tortured and killed one of their own, yet they and even the Associaiton tried to hide it. How does that behavior not disgrace the sport to the fullest extent? The point is that everyone makes mistakes; everyone screws up; and everyone has their bad days. Just don't highlight the misdeeds of foreign rikishi over the sins of the Japanese rikishi. And furthermore, the Sumo Association does itself a huge disservice by blatantly discriminating against a dai-Yokozuna, by allowing the press to do the same, and by refusing to show any respect to the Yokozuna in the ring, especially when a precedent has been set in regards to the treatment of previous Yokozuna when it comes to close bouts.
Now some will surely ask the question, "If Japan/the Japanese press/the Sumo Association discriminates against Asashoryu, why don't they discriminate against Hakuho?" You will point out that the reason that Hakuho isn't on the end of mistreatment is because he is always on his best behavior. But it is not an apples to apples comparison. Not even close. Asashoryu paved the way for Hakuho and in doing so became the primary target for the Japanese press. Hakuho has watched and learned, and he's smart enough not to make the same mistakes. He's also a different guy. The apples to apples comparison is pairing Asashoryu with Chiyonofuji and Hakuho with Takanohana. Asashoryu patterned his style and demeanor in my opinion after Chiyonofuji, and their personalities are strikingly similar. Rough keiko? Chiyonofuji was the king. Bullying people who irritate you? Gunbai to Chiyonofuji. You may recall my 2007 year-end report where I talked about an incident in 1988 where Chiyonofuji beat a stablemate up so badly, the kid was hospitalized for a month and needed plastic surgery to repair his face. Chiyonofuji's punishment? Nothing. The Japanese press criticizes Asashoryu's every move and bullies him with exaggerated headlines while officials appointed by the Sumo Associaiton constantly bring up the dignity required of a Yokozuna, but they didn't do the same thing to Chiyonofuji, even though that Yokozuna's behavior was more unbecoming. Why the difference? Figure it out.
Onto Hakuho who can closest be compared to Takanohana...a quiet, dignified rikishi, who is as boring as live coverage of the Japanese diet during a debate. Hakuho may be a boy scout right now spared from the media bullying, but what if he retires and decides to remain with the Associaiton? What kind of treatment will he receive? Let's just review two other foreign rikishi who retired and remained with the Association as oyakata.
Taiho: Taiho is not considered a foreign rikishi, at least not when the numbers are given of all-time foreign sekitori or all-time foreign Makuuchi rikishi, etc. But Taiho was half Russian, which explained his almost non-existent status as an oyakata. You had probably the greatest rikishi of all time...the career leader in number of yusho in the modern era. Yet, Taiho never held a prestigious position in the Association because he wasn't pure-blooded Japanese.
Takamiyama: Takamiyama was actually considered the first foreigner in sumo as he hailed from Hawaii. Takamiyama scored one career yusho and is on most of the charts when considering records for feats of longevity. He's done what very few oyakata ever do, which is raise a Yokozuna, so how has Takamiyama been treated by the Association? Like an alien. He'll turn 65 here shortly and retire from the Sumo Association, and what kind of prominent position has he ever held? Absolutely none. The only reason us foreigners know about him is he occasionally makes an appearance on the NHK English broadcast as the color analyst speaking in a voice that sounds as if he's eaten gravel for breakfast the last 40 years of his life.
Hakuho is basically a clone of Takanohana, and the rate things are going now, he will surpass Takanohana's record for career yusho despite the fact that he has zero stablemates helping him out in the Makuuchi division while Takanohana had two Ozeki and a handful of sanyaku mainstays he avoided every basho. Fans are already calling for Takanohana to occupy a place on the board of directors and become the eventual commissioner of the sport. Will Hakuho receive the same attention if he retires and remains with the Association? No. He'll be ostracized in the same class that the current Musashimaru-oyakata is now, just like Takamiyama and Taiho before them.
Let's take the conversation beyond sumo in Japan and turn to baseball. Who is the home run king in Japanese baseball? Of course...it's Sadaharu Oh who hit 868 lifetime home runs (I didn't even have to look that up the feat was so great). Oh played for the prestigious Yomiuri Giants along with Shigeru Nagashima, a full-blooded Japanese player. Nagashima was a good player for sure, but Oh was superior and put up the better numbers. But which player has been more celebrated over time? You can't even compare...it's been Nagashima. Why? Because Oh is half-Chinese and half-Japanese. He was born in Japan and speaks no other language than Japanese, but dude doesn't even own a Japanese passport. Nor is he celebrated as he would be if he was full-blooded Japanese.
Once again...I get it that no country can escape its history of racism, but countries have come so far in the last 40-50 years that it'd be nice to see Japan do the same. If you want to be taken seriously on the world stage, you need to lose the blatant racist behavior. This year at the Olympics, the flag-bearer for team USA was an African American...literally. Lopez Lomong was born in Sudan and kidnapped at the age of 6 by rebels. After escaping to Kenya, he finally immigrated to the US in 2001. His is an incredible story...the kind of story you're proud of. Who cares about where he was born or the color of his skin?
And how about Cathy Freeman, the Australian of aboriginal descent who lit the torch for Australia at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and then carried the Oceania flag two years later at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City? There is a history of cruelty and discrimination of the indigenous people in Australia not unlike the treatment of African Americans in the USA. So for Australia to tout Cathy Freeman as the final torch bearer for their Olympics and then as a flag-bearer was a symbolic move for the nation that looks to acknowledge and overcome the sins of its past.
We will never rid this world of racism, but people and nations have made great strides the last few decades to acknowledge their pasts and purge the behavior from the mainstream culture. For Japan not to do the same is embarrassing and shameful. If you let foreigners into your sport and then expect them to live up to your standards by using such terms as dignity and respect, you need to treat them as equals providing every opportunity, every judgment, and the same respect you would show to a native rikishi. Failure to do so is racist behavior, and judging by the current actions of the Sumo Association, the Japanese press, and the general public at large, Japan has decades to go.