Japan from the inside out

Trying to draw a foul in international relations

Posted by ampontan on Monday, February 8, 2010

LAST THURSDAY, many Japanese suspected the day would bring an end to the career of a well-known public figure. Their suspicions were justified—the career of a well-known public figure did end. It just wasn’t the one they expected.

Karma has yet to have its way with scandal-plagued Democratic Party Secretary-General Ozawa Ichiro, but it did smite down with a heavy hand the preeminent sumo rikishi of his time, Asashoryu.

Don't mess with Mr. D.

The Mongolian-born superstar, whose real name is Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj, announced his retirement from the dohyo at a Thursday press conference in the wake of the controversy caused by his involvement in the latest and most serious of a series of incidents unbecoming his position.

That he was a superstar is beyond question. Asashoryu ranked third with 25 career tournament victories, behind Taiho’s 32 and Chiyonofuji’s 31. He was the only rikishi with the top yokozuna ranking in competition for a three-year period. In 2005, he became the first rikishi to run the table and win all six tournaments of the year. He stunned fans and experts alike by winning one match last July with a technique that hadn’t been used successfully in an upper level match in 34 years.

His resignation was the subject of intense interest and commentary in Japan, but few people doubted either the fitness or the necessity of the resolution to his brilliant but troubled career. Public opinion surveys found that 52% thought Asashoryu should be allowed to retire with his pension, while another 29% thought he should have been tossed out, with the possibility that he would lose his benefits.

In contrast, 72% of the public thinks the scandal-plagued Ozawa Ichiro should resign his post as secretary-general of the ruling Democratic Party.

The view in his homeland

It’s a different story in his native Mongolia, however. This AP/Kyodo report brings to our attention the opinion of some Mongolians that the national sparkler was forced out by those old Japanese devil xenophobes.

Several Mongolian newspapers on Friday featured articles on their front pages, reporting that a conspiracy was behind former grand champion Asashoryu’s decision to quit sumo over his alleged assault of a man in downtown Tokyo…

(They stressed) that Japanese sumo officials had pressured him to retire for fear of the fiery yokozuna breaking sumo legend and former yokozuna Taiho’s record of 32 title wins.


Khaltmaagiin Battulga, who is president of the Mongolian Judo Federation and a minister in the government, said in an interview with Mongolyn Medee, “It appears that Japanese people were afraid of a yokozuna who has foreign nationality breaking a record in the country’s traditional sport.”

It appears that Khaltmaagiin Battulga was so afraid of facing up the facts that he went out of his way to wear blinders.

The AP/Kyodo report didn’t do much better. The only allusion to the real reason for his retirement came in a nine-word clause:

Most of them (Mongolian press) failed to mention Asashoryu’s problematic behavior…

Here’s what else they failed to mention:

  • The circumstances of the final instance of the “problematic behavior” that precipitated his career change.

Asashoryu got into a fight in his own car outside a Tokyo eating and drinking establishment at 4:00 a.m. (Some reports say Roppongi, some say Nishi Azabu). He punched the man responsible for managing that establishment in the face, breaking his nose, and threatened to kill him.

  • Sumo in Japan is not just a sport.

Here’s one of the reasons why it’s something more from the Nihon Sumo Kyokai (Japan Sumo Association), whose link is on the right sidebar:

According to Japanese legend the very origin of the Japanese race depended on the outcome of a sumo match. The supremacy of the Japanese people on the islands of Japan was supposedly established when the god, Take-mikazuchi, won a sumo bout with the leader of a rival tribe….
Its origins were religious. The first sumo matches were a form of ritual dedicated to the gods with prayers for a bountiful harvest and were performed together with sacred dancing and dramas within the precincts of the shrines.

For another perspective on the connection between sumo and Shinto, try this previous post.

  • Because of these associations, all sumo rikishi in general, and the highest-ranked yokuzuna in particular, are expected to comport themselves impeccably.

Victory totals alone are not the criterion for promotion to yokozuna. One of the official requirements for selection is “dignity”. As a living symbol of the sport/rite, yokozuna are expected to demonstrate virtue as well as professional skill.

Breaking someone’s nose in a drunken brawl is unlikely to qualify as virtuous behavior in Mongolia, either.

  • In July 2003, Asashoryu became the first yokuzuna ever to be disqualified in a match.

The tough guy yanked the top-knot of fellow competitor Kyokushuzan; i.e., he pulled his hair. There are reports they later brawled in the bath and that Asashoryu broke the exterior wing mirror of his car.

  • He was often criticized for unsportsmanlike behavior in the ring.

That behavior included giving extra shoves to competitors he had defeated and raising his arms triumphantly after a win.

This ain’t the NFL.

  • He begged out of a 2007 sumo tour claiming back pain

He submitted a medical report showing a stress fracture in his lower back that required six weeks to heal, and he did have several injuries that were likely quite painful.

But after he was filmed rehabilitating his back in Mongolia by playing soccer, he was suspended for two tournaments. He thereby added another first to his many accomplishments–the first time a yokozuna had been suspended from tournament competition. He had his salary cut by 30% for four months.

  • The consensus inside Japan is that while Asashoryu is a stupendous athlete whom no Japanese can beat, and that he earned his promotions in the ring, he was nevertheless promoted too quickly because of his popularity with the public.

The rapid promotions meant that he didn’t absorb the psychological outlook his rank requires, and may have felt that he was exempt. The revenue he generated made the sumo association reluctant to discipline him. Some people think he would have been expelled long ago if he were a less-successful Japanese, but the association flinched from such a drastic step. Indeed, some think he was the first yokozuna to be allowed to get away with such behavior only because of his abilities and his popularity.

This is xenophobia?

  • He has permanent residency status, so he is free to remain in Japan.

Expelled wrestlers lose their retirement allowance, but since he was permitted to retire without being expelled, Asashoryu will keep his and remain a man of means. Pensions for yokozuna start at JPY 15 million yen (about $US 168,000), and they get an additional JPY 500,000 for each tournament in which they appeared. He was in 39 as a yokozuna, which means he will receive JPY 34.5 million.

He will also receive achievement benefits. Some recently retired yokozuna were awarded from JPY 70 to 90 million in those benefits, but due to Asashoryu’s success, there is speculation he might get something close to 100 million yen, which is almost a million in dollar terms. Of course, this does not count the money he already has earned.

Yet another overlooked factor is the dim view Japanese take of other Japanese who dishonor their position by bad behavior. Those with a long memory will recall a similar incident with NHK TV announcer Matsudaira Sadatomo.

Mr. Matsudaira was NHK’s star on-air presence in the 1980s. Early one morning in 1991, the hanagata got well and truly liquored up and hailed a taxi for the ride home. So far, so unexceptional.

But apparently the motion of the cab on the streets caused him some discomfort in his intoxicated state, which he verbally expressed to the driver. The cabdriver tsked-tsked, and he wound up with a kick in the head for his footling impertinence.

The announcer was suspended from appearing on NHK. Since his reinstatement, he has served only as the narrator for special series. He now narrates a documentary series on 100 world heritage sites.

In other words, they’re finding make-work for him.

As adult Japanese will immediately understand from his family name, Mr. Matsudaira is a direct descendant of the Tokugawa shoguns that ruled Japan from 1603-1868.

That was the treatment meted out to a Japanese blueblood for one incident. Asashoryu was treated with kid gloves despite having trouble as his constant companion.

The Japanese attitude might be beyond the capacity of some in the West to understand, however.

For comparison, let’s look at the case of star NFL linebacker Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens. After a party in Atlanta on 31 January 2000, he too was involved in an early morning fight. Two people were stabbed to death. Lewis and two friends were indicted for murder and aggravated assault 11 days later.

Fans in Baltimore protested that the prosecutor was railroading Mr. Lewis because of his fame, and some trial testimony suggested he tried to act as a peacemaker. Yet he most certainly fled from the scene of a double murder without reporting it.

His attorney cut a deal by swapping a guilty plea for obstruction of justice—a misdemeanor—for his client’s testimony against his two friends. He was sentenced to a year of probation (i.e., a slap on the wrist), but fined $US 250,000 by the NFL.

One year later, Mr. Lewis won the MVP award at the next Super Bowl. He is still playing football and still earning money by the truckload.

Yet both of his friends were acquitted in June 2000 despite Mr. Lewis’s testimony, and no one else was ever arrested for the murders. How ever did those knives get inserted into those two bodies? We’ll never know.

Meanwhile, Mr. Lewis reached a financial settlement in 2004 with the families of the deceased. What praiseworthy generosity for an innocent man who was supposedly acting as a peacemaker–albeit compelled by attorneys representing the victim’s heirs.

Were Ray Lewis a sumo rikishi, not to mention a yokozuna, his career would have been over a decade ago. He might even be in jail.

But the Mongolian media is trotting out the old Japanese-are-xenophobes trope. It’s understandable—Asashoryu is the native son who made very good indeed. How much easier to blame someone else than to admit his faults and accept the shame of his humiliation. And with the way the dinosaur media has stacked the deck, that charge is all too likely to stick for those who don’t pay close attention.

Alas, the story has now been picked up by Business Week, and who knows how far out of proportion it will be blown in the next few days. Is this also to be glommed by the Huffington Post types as an excuse to parade their extensive knowledge about what they don’t know about Japan?

Counting: 5…4…3…2…


The public opinion survey in Japan showed that 43% of males in their 20s and 29% of males in their 30s thought it wasn’t necessary for Asashoryu to resign.

Maybe they should raise the voting age to 30 instead of lowering it to 18.

There’s not much information about the incident with Matsudaira Sadatomo on the Web. It was almost 20 years ago, before the Internet became such a force, and no Japanese newspaper has put its archives on line that I know of.

One Japanese wag on the web did make a reference to the Shogun descendant’s anger at the failure of the kumosuke to curb his tongue. That word is usually written with the characters for “cloud” and “help”, and it was used starting in the mid-Edo period to refer to men of no fixed residence who worked as palanquin bearers between stations on public highways.

NHK announcer Kitazawa Yoshiyuki interviewed Asashoryu after the press conference at which he announced his retirement. Here’s a brief excerpt:

Q: What did you think of Japanese society?

A: They keep saying “democracy, democracy”, but it’s surprisingly socialist.

Maybe I shouldn’t have revealed that. If some people can’t get off on bashing the Japanese for forcing out the foreigner, now they can claim Asashoryu’s a right-wing thug.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

4 Responses to “Trying to draw a foul in international relations”

  1. Rick said

    They keep saying “democracy, democracy”, but it’s surprisingly socialist.

    As if the two terms couldn’t co-exist in the same place! 😉

    Just so you know, Ampontan, I agree that Asa had to retire. As much as I enjoy sumo, I’m far from an expert in its traditions. But the fact that he was allowed to go as far as he did against sumo’s traditions is surely a sign of the times. And, in this case at least, there are no grounds for accusing anyone of xenophobia/racism/etc.

  2. Timber Wolf (?) was awesome! Healthy looking too. I never had the chance to see Taiho, but surely he was not as good?

    There is no excuse for bad manners and it shows a poisonous spirit. If the charges are true then it is the correct decision and sadly, allowing him to progress was a mistake but possibly one that was made after exquisite calculation. Balance will be restored.

  3. Bender said

    How do you think of Asashyoryu, Bill? Just curious. I don’t follow sumo that much, but I’m kind of concerned when supposedly respected people say that he wasn’t Japanified enough…I don’t really know how that would have helped at all….

    Skipping lessons and playing soccer at home is hardly anything to be angry about…can’t say much about his last ordeal ’cause most of the information are probably inaccurate junk. Anyways, without him, we might be heading back to the dark age of sumo with not-so-strong yokozunas who won’t appear in matches because they’ll lose bad and have their tsuna be taken away.
    Well, he chose to live in the sumo world, and he chose not to conform to its unwritten rules despite knowing them. I didn’t include the story that Taiho supposedly tried to explain to him the facts of sumo rikishi life, but he gave up because Asashoryu wouldn’t listen.

    As for the weekly magazine, a couple of years ago another weekly magazine claimed he was throwing matches, and he and the Sumo Association successfully sued. If the story about breaking the guy’s nose was not true, I think they would have sued again.

    I haven’t paid much attention to sumo since Chiyonofuji retired, to be honest (I liked him), and Takanohana remined of the Pillsbury Doughboy for some reason, but despite the physical contact, sumo traditions are more like baseball than football in how they expect people to behave.

    There was a thing in Japanese baseball too with Americans getting really irritated by guts poses after home runs, that sort of stuff, the way Kuwata wore his hat. They only allow big team or individual celebrations in baseball if its something that wins the game in the ninth or extra innings.

    Last year, a rookie on a team I follow hit for the cycle (single double triple HR same game) and he was young and excitable, and he started jumping up and down on third base after his triple (the last hit of the four) and pumping his fist in the direction of his dugout. The manager of the other team got really angry, and he had to apologize after the game.

    It’s not so much being Japanized, as following the customs of the sport for players. People all around the world play baseball, but only Japanese do sumo, so to follow the customs of the sport they use the word or concept Japanized, which might not be accurate.

  4. bender said

    I do sense a trend in Japan for intolerance. Older folks have always complained about the misbehavior of the young. But with older folks comprising a greater bulk of the population, they might be strangling the nation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: