The gatekeepers’ victory

Although ideas like transparency and accountability have taken their toll on the world of Japanese sports and the desire of their old-fart organizers to be truly Japanese, the Japan Sumo Association showed recently that its old guard is still capable of putting up a fight to protect the old ways.

On Sept. 27, we learned that Mongolian-born yokozuna Hakuho, the sport’s greatest-ever champion, intended to retire at the age of 36 due to knee injuries. When wrestlers of any stature retire, they are typically welcomed into the JSA as elders, who then serve as coaches and some eventually as stablemasters, and this was the rubber-stamp process many outside the sumo world expected.

To become a sumo elder, a Japanese citizen needs to have had some success in pro sumo’s upper ranks. The citizenship requirement was added in 1976, after Hawaiian-born wrestler Takamiyama became the sport’s first import to win a 15-day grand tournament. Another prerequisite is that a retired wrestler must obtain a share of the JSA’s elder stock, which can be extremely tricky.

Prior to Hakuho, the sport’s four greatest yokozuna were offered easier routes through a convention known as “ichidai toshiyori.” But once it was known in April 2020 that Hakuho was seeking Japanese citizenship, a committee was formed to close that avenue to him, and in May, with Hakuho’s retirement looming, the panel announced that the system did not in fact exist.

Another committee, that recommended Hakuho’s transition to sumo elder, was not unanimous in its approval and only did so with a recommendation that the JSA board of directors force Hakuho to agree to a laundry list of conditions in order to be approved as an elder.

“It was disgraceful,” said John Gunning, a Japan-based journalist with unparalleled connections within the sumo world. “Nobody else has had to sign that, and what’s in the actual pledge is nothing new. It’s basically, ‘Write things on the blackboard after class: I will follow the rules.'”

Hakuho’s first big misstep was speaking openly about a judging decision that forced him to refight a bout he thought he’d won in order to secure his record-breaking 35th championship. After that, you name it and Hakuho was guilty of it. His infractions, however, were always little things, like speaking out of turn or celebrating too much, or as age and injuries began to wear him down, some ring tactics that the old farts frowned upon but which are not technically illegal, essentially citations for jay-walking.

“If it’s not racist, it’s highly discriminatory,” Gunning said.

“The sumo association is not a monolith. It’s all these factions and shifting allegiances and alliances and personal beefs. There are people Hakuho rubs the wrong way in sumo and it’s kind of payback. It’s also providing a kind of sop for the ‘foreigners can’t be dignified’ crowd.”

All sports everywhere have cadres of old-school, managers, owners, journalists, and commentators, who see part of their jobs as preserving their sport’s distinctive cultural identity and dogma. But in most sports, they are part of the chorus. In sumo, they have a hand on the steering wheel.

The JSA is currently a public entity under the jurisdiction of Japan’s ministry of education, and is packed with numerous panels and committees, often filled with outsiders.

“These committees are made up of people who don’t actually know sumo,” Gunning said. “They know sumo in an academic sense. They’re from the world of academia or they’re authors. They don’t understand on a visceral level what it means to be a rikishi or what that life is about. They view it through a historic lens and it’s very black and white. A lot of what they think about sumo doesn’t match what sumo really is or perhaps ever was.”

At its essence, sumo is a sport, but the JSA has a mandate to maintain the sport as a national cultural tradition, and so it’s not surprising that its cultural guardians have so much sway and that unvarnished efforts are made to keep non-Japanese and naturalized Japanese citizens in their place.

When I first learned of the controversy surrounding Hakuho’s retirement, I thought it might teach me something about Japan and Japanese sports in general. If you put sumo, rugby, baseball, and soccer on a continuum, sumo would be the most willing to sacrifice best practices for the sake of preserving the Japanese way of doing things, with rugby next, then baseball, then soccer.

Pro baseball, soccer, and sumo all have limits on participation by foreign nationals. Rugby’s Top League used to, but it’s being replaced and I don’t know what the new establishment League 1, will do. Pro sports in Japan are marketed and maintained on the assumption that fans are less likely to support teams with lots of imports, that the design of their passports matters.

The excuse for those quotas is typically a mandate to “build domestic talent,” but I think the real reason is a belief among each sports’ elderly organizers that fans are as racist as they themselves are and so it’s best to limit outsiders and sell their sports’ “Japanese-ness.”

Making sumo’s greatest champion kowtow to authority like no other wrestler has ever had to is a bad look if sumo organizers really see their business as a sport. But for the xenophobe gatekeepers, who believe Japan would be better off if foreign residents had fewer rights, it is no doubt a point of pride, like spending billions of dollars on a wall to keep out immigrants that is more symbol than substance.

Gunning said that compared to Hakuho’s heinous offenses, like asking fans to cheer along with him after his championships, and pumping his fist after important victories, JSA members have been involved in far darker stuff, sometimes involving Japan’s organized crime syndicates.

“There are lots of guys who don’t follow the rules. Are we going to make everyone else sign it (that pledge) or is it just for him, and considering all the bad behavior that’s been going on from everyone else then it’s completely a targeted harassment,” Gunning said.

My guess is that it is the latter. If your job is to peddle some kind of made-up cultural purity based on Japanese exceptionalism, then targeted harassment is the message the JSA’s influencers are proud to send.

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