14 September 2006

Sumo's Appeal for the Waka/Taka Brothers and Others

THE NAMES "WAKAHANADA" and "Takahanada" meant little of poetic significance. The "waka" and "taka" parts merely evoked their father and uncle, while "hanada" was their real last name. But among those watching in February 1988, it was understood that the boys would one day earn the right to take on the great names "Wakanohana" and "Takanohana."

Why a young Japanese would want to take up the severe life associated with the national sport, while far less bizarre than when applied to an American, is a question that deserves attention. The total number of the [Sumo] Kyokai's competitors usually hovers around only 800 in a country of some 120 million people, while baseball and soccer attract a far greater number of Japan's promising athletes. Some join sumo, believe it or not, because the sumo world is a place where big guys can exist honorably without being teased. Teasing and bullying go on far past adolescence in Japan. Much is made in cultural definitions of Japan as a place of social conformity, and pressure to conform is indeed very real there. But rather than through some kind of Orwellian fear tactics, in practice the social pressure comes in the form of people being relentlessly annoying any time they see something even slightly out of the ordinary. A bigger-than-aver-age Japanese man looks different from most people, and thus becomes the object of constant ridicule, both from those he knows (in the form of obligatory fat jokes at absolutely every social encounter) and those he doesn't ("Ah, Mr. Tanaka! It's nice to meet you. Wow, you sure are big. How much do you weigh, anyway?"). For many overweight Japanese teenage boys who may never have had an interest in sport and who find themselves at the age when teasing is at its fiercest, sumo is a way out of mainstream Japan. The saddest part may be that the middle of the banzuke ['rankings'] is clogged with nonathletic types with no hope of ever reaching the salaried ranks who've committed themselves to sumo as an alternative way of life: their topknots turn their size from points of obligatory ridicule to points of honor.

Other Japanese rikishi are recruited from rural areas with little economic opportunity. A former sekitori ['professional wrestler'] explained, "Some kids, they come to the stable, but the ones the oyakata ['stablemaster'] scout, they go to their house, they go to their parents, they give 'em a million yen. 'Give me your boy for sumo.' These boys are fifteen years old, and their parents are like, 'A million yen!' These guys are from the mountains; they don't see that much money. 'Oh, okay, okay! You go do sumo!'" They join sumo as a means of support and often toil for years in the lower ranks with no hope of making it, fortunate to be fed and housed. Other Japanese join in a rare show of national pride: "Because it is kokugi," the national sport, one boy in the jonokuchi [lowest] division told me. Still others join as Jesse Kuhaulua [raised on Maui] had, as a natural progression of their junior high, high school, and/or college sumo careers.

Masaru and Koji Hanada joined because they were born into the sport. Sons of the great Ozeki Takanohana (the first) and nephews of the great Yokozuna Wakanohana (the first), they had sumo in their blood. While Chad Rowan had not known the meaning of the term "sumo-beya" ['sumo stable'] until he was eighteen, the Hanadas had been raised in one. Young Koji Hanada entered his first sumo tournament when he was in third grade—and won. Six years after setting up his own Fujishima-Beya upon retiring in 1982, Fujishima Oyakata gave in to the relentless pleas from his boys by letting them formally become his deshi. Masaru Hanada's 2000 autobiography offers a poignant account of the boys declaring themselves no longer Fujishima Oyakata's sons, upon moving out of Fujishima-Beya's top-floor apartment and down into a big shared room below, but rikishi under his charge.

By official registration day, Takahanada weighed a healthy 258 pounds, bigger than most of the other boys and a full 40 pounds heavier and nearly an inch taller than his older brother. And unlike the rest of the shin-deshi ['new apprentices'] registering that day, Waka and Taka had already proved themselves on the dohyo [= 'in the ring']. Competing in high school, Masaru (Waka) had taken the All-Japan Senior High School yusho [tournament championship], while his younger brother had easily taken the Kanto District Junior High School yusho. Where Chad Rowan had come from nowhere into a sport as foreign to him as the language, these boys were sumo's Ken Griffey Jr. and Barry Bonds.
SOURCE: Gaijin Yokozuna: A Biography of Chad Rowan, by Mark Panek (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2006), pp. 122-123

Well, the money must hold considerable appeal for the foreign wrestlers. At the end of Day 5 in the September Basho: two Mongolians, yokozuna Asashoryu and maegashira-6 Ama, are 5-0. Just one loss behind, at 4-1, are Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu, Japanese ozeki Chiyotaikai, Mongolian ozeki Hakuho, Japanese sekiwake Kotomitsuki, Russian maegashira-1 Roho, Japanese maegashira-11 Homasho, and Korean maegashira-15 Kasugao. I would dearly love to see tiny Ama win the tournament.

UPDATE, Day 6: Asashoryu lost, leaving Ama (now 6-0) in sole possession of the lead!

UPDATE, Day 7: Ama lost, so now two Mongolians (Asa and Ama), one Russian (Roho), and one Japanese (Kotomitsuki) are tied for the lead at 6-1.

UPDATE, Day 8: Kotomitsuki loses, leaving the other three at 7-1.

UPDATE, Day 9: Tiny Ama (185 cm, 115 kg) went up against the giant Estonian Baruto (197 cm, 174 kg) and won! Well, technically, Baruto defeated himself by fumidashi, stepping backwards out of the ring while facing Ama. Asa beat Roho in the hard-fought final bout, so the two Mongolians still share the lead at 8-1.

UPDATE, Day 10: Asa and Ama now share the lead at 9-1, with Roho and Ama's Ajigawa stablemate Aminishiki one loss behind, at 8-2.

UPDATE, Day 11: Asa and Ama now share the lead at 10-1, while Roho and Aminishiki have both dropped back to 8-3, alongside Chiyotaikai, Futeno, and Hokutoriki. Unbelievable. Ama will certainly regain komusubi rank after this basho.

UPDATE, Day 12: Fellow Mongolian Hakuho lifted Ama up and out of the ring, leaving him at 10-2, one loss behind Asashoryu (11-1), who won his bout against Tochiazuma.

UPDATE, Day 13: Ama had the chance to get back into a tie for the lead if he managed to defeat Asashoryu, but he had no such luck, so Ama stands at 10-3, while Asashoryu lengthens his lead to 12-1.

Topix.net has two sumo photos of interest from a Sadogatake-beya tour of Israel in June: Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu in yukata and yarmulke at the Western Wall and stablemates Kotomitsuki and Kotoshogiku floating in the Dead Sea.

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