Behind the mask
Posted by ampontan on Thursday, February 3, 2011
We are all hypocrites. It is in our very nature to be so. So much so that even our protestation of hypocrisy is, in itself, patently hypocritical.
- Claire Worthington
THE CURRENT two-day teapot tempest blowing through the Japanese news media is the story that police, in the course of a gambling investigation, discovered evidence from cell phone messages that sumo rikishi in the sport’s second division fixed matches.
What a surprise.
Since this is just the sort of story that matches well with the sludge-colored glasses the Western journos wear when promoting their Japan narrative, scandal-mongering is the meat and potatoes of the news biz, and coverage requires little in the way of taxing research, the overseas media is filled with the reports as well. It’s no surprise that The Guardian’s Justin McCurry, who’s built a career on finding unpleasant things to write about the country, hopped on the story like a fly on stink. He’s even Tweeting updates to stay on top of events as they emerge. Perhaps his editors make him do it.
Roughly two-thirds of his story by volume is an attempt to parlay the revelations into a fugue on the general malaise affecting the sport. Among the incidents reprised for the article was one in which “several wrestlers were expelled following revelations of widespread marijuana use” two years ago. Readers who follow his hot link for “widespread marijuana use” will find one of his earlier stories about the bust of three Russian-born rikishi.
In fact, the police confiscated the cell phones because they were investigating the wrestlers’ gambling on other sports. He would have his readers believe this is a sensational revelation.
He saves more important information for paragraph 7 in a 17-paragraph story—match-fixing in sumo is not illegal, and none of the rikishi seem to have bet on the matches themselves. (In this case, they bet on baseball, but they also wager on golf, cards, and mahjong. Also, the law forbids match-fixing for profit for other specified sports, but not sumo.) He adds toward the end the information that the Sumo Association has never investigated match-fixing charges.
But he neglects to mention the most important information of all: The reason the association is so negligent is that everyone above the age of 10 in Japan not only knows there is match-fixing in sumo, they know there has always been match-fixing in sumo. They also understand that none of the people involved think they’re doing anything wrong.
The word for throwing a sporting event in Japanese is yaocho, said to be a portmanteau derived from sumo. While linguists caution the explanation cannot be confirmed, most accept the theory that the word was coined when a merchant named Chobei in the produce business (a yao-ya) became the favorite go partner of sumo stable master Isenoumi in the early Meiji period. (That began in 1868, and Isenoumi died in 1888.) The story has it that Chobei was a much better player than Isenoumi, but he often lost on purpose to ingratiate himself. Others put the man’s name and occupation together when they discovered Chobei’s real skills on their own.
The concept began much earlier, of course. Sumo was originally a Shinto ceremony (the referees’ uniform is still that of a Shinto priest), and there was a ritual in which a rikishi would enter the ring alone, mime a match with the divinities, and take a fall in the hope of receiving a blessing. The competitions in many Shinto festivals were a form of divination; a victory by a person or team meant that they had received divine favor, and their home district would enjoy a good harvest or catch of fish. Thus it was common for one rikishi in local sumo competitions to throw a match to another from an area where people were worried about a poor harvest.
During the Edo period, feudal lords became the patrons of individual wrestlers, who were given samurai status within that lord’s domain. An informal system of tradeoffs for wins and losses developed to allow the lords to maintain face. It included tie matches and simultaneous falls by the rikishi.
A modification of that system still exists today. There is a rigid system of promotion or relegation in rank, and the rikishi make arrangements among themselves to help those for whom a win or a loss could mean a rise or fall in their standing–and therefore, their income. Also, cash is said to change hands between rikishi of the two-highest ranks when they face the same situation. That’s what’s been reported in this incident. That those of a lower ranking are implicated may be the reason the Japanese media is taking a keen interest in the matter.
Indeed, Ikeda Nobuo, a professor at SBI Graduate School, titled a blog post “Yaocho is a Japanese Tradition”. He says it is praiseworthy (literally utsukushii, or beautiful) because it is a win-win proposition for those involved, and because it’s an arrangement through which they can help each other out when they’re on a losing streak. (Prof. Ikeda used yaocho in the post as an example to make a broader point about bandwidth use in Japan.)
In short, the news about match-fixing in sumo isn’t really news to the Japanese, and some of them even view it as a beautiful tradition. It isn’t really news for the Western media, either—for them, it’s just another excuse.
So why is this story being broadcast so widely?
If it weren’t for the fascination with the social lubricant of hypocrisy, the only news would be the weather report.
All sorts of things are exposed when you look behind the mask.