Japan wrestles with a troubled institution
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Japan wrestles with a troubled institution

Is sumo really a sport? asks Asia Sentinel’s Todd Crowell

Aside from vistas of Mount Fuji, cherry blossoms and sushi, nothing says Japan as much as sumo. Yet this quintessential Japanese sport, often called the national pastime, hasn’t had a home-grown champion in seven years.

This year looks to be no different, as the Mongolian-born Harumafui captured the Emperors’s Cup at the traditional New Year tournament that kicks off the sumo year. He won the trophy by defeating yet another Mongolian champion, not to mention some Bulgarians and Estonians.

Paradoxically, sumo is an international sport that steadfastly refuses to go international. It is international in that many foreigners participate in Japan. Of the approximately 700 professional wrestlers, about 50 are foreign-born, mostly from Mongolia but also from Eastern Europe and even the United States.

Aside from a few demonstration games, usually connected with some “Japan Week” promotion, however, the sport is not usually played outside Japan, not even in Mongolia. Sumo isn’t even in the Asian Games, which otherwise include such obscure Asian sports as Sepak Tekraw, Kaddabi and Wushu.

It seems that sumo is one of those sports – or “sports” – that are as much expressions of cultural identity as they are serious athletic contests. Sumo is actually closer in spirit to rodeo in America or bull-fighting in Spain, neither of which, with possible exception of bull fighting, have made much of an impact outside their home countries.

As a spectator sport, sumo and rodeo leave something to be desired. In sumo two behemoths stare at each other, leap forward and grapple until one steps outside the ring. It lasts about 10 seconds and then is repeated. Similarly in rodeo, you see one cowboy rope a calf, you have kind of seen them all.

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