Selling Sumo

By Kattoulas, Velisarios; Wehrfritz, George | Newsweek International, June 21, 1999 | Go to article overview

Selling Sumo


Kattoulas, Velisarios, Wehrfritz, George, Newsweek International


Salevaa Atisanoe never had much time for tradition. As a hulking adolescent in Hawaii, he was always playing the clown. "Sale" was the kid who got his friends in trouble by making them crack up in class, the teammate who sprayed shaving cream on his buddies at football camp, the extrovert who hammed up the school's Polynesian dance revues by improvising his own groovy moves. By senior year he was a 6-foot-1 giant, weighing 380 pounds. An average student, Sale shocked his football coach with fast footwork on the field. Born to a poor family, he thought he had a good future as a musician or a cop. But a few days before graduation, Sale cut class, headed to Waikiki and met a strange man selling trinkets on the beach. That vendor was Curtis the Bull, a retired professional wrestler, who took one look at him and asked: "Ever heard of sumo? Wanna go to Japan?"

Sale didn't just go to Japan; he smashed his way in. The young American challenged the country's most traditional enclave, the world of sumo wrestling; he forced sumo to accept gaijin, or foreigners, into its top ranks. And so he became Konishiki, the sumo star, and--since 1994--a Japanese citizen. Along the way, Konishiki battled the xenophobia and hierarchies of Japan's national sport--and provoked the wrath of sumo's powerful old guard. Then Konishiki really tested his masters' patience: he quit the sport, took his wrestling name with him and launched a new career as Japan's most famous pitchman, a goofy persona who dresses in everything from Suntory whisky bottles to pink bunny suits. Konishiki's behavior--and his brazen, Western-style commercialism--has shocked the sumo world. "If sumo wanted different or interesting performers, it would end up looking like professional wrestling," says Kazuyasu Kyokudozan, a 34-year-old former sumo star who is now a member of Parliament. "Let's not forget that sumo is a world of tradition."

And a world that is under siege. To get an insight into a Japan torn between its traditions and the global market, take a look at the troubles of sumo. A mix of martial art and Shinto ritual, the sport once embodied Japan's essence--its emphasis on order and hierarchy, its highly mannered behavior, its unyielding respect for elders and traditions. But over the last decade, that facade of virtue has crumbled in the face of new temptations--dope, fast cars, girls--as much as from the gaijin invasion. In 1986, baseball replaced sumo as the most popular sport on Japanese television. Tournament organizers now have trouble selling seats for the sport's six tournaments a year. Young Japanese, weaned on Western pop culture and MTV, have little interest in its quaint traditions.

The sumo establishment, meanwhile, still rues the fact that brutish foreigners now dominate the sport. The big guys (really big) use their sheer weight instead of the traditional techniques that made sumo akin to an art. Last month the final bout in the Spring Tournament was between two Hawaiians named Musashimaru and Akebono, with a combined weight of 941 pounds; finally, the huge Musashimaru knocked down Akebono, and became just the second foreigner (Akebono was the first) to reach the grade of yokozuna, or grand champion.

Watching over sumo's rituals with a protective eye is the ultraorthodox Sumo Association, made up of leading members of Japan's business, cultural and political elite. The association's deepest fear is that the fabled sport will go the way of judo, an indigenous martial art first internationalized at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and subsequently dominated by foreigners. And they have a wary eye on America's National Basketball Association, which they see as a freak show for flamboyant but undisciplined megastars. Konishiki's arrival in the early 1980s triggered an influx of foreign athletes that reinvigorated sumo. But the trend threatened the association so fundamentally that in 1992 it slapped an informal ban on new gaijin recruitment. …

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