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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Sumo and an American woman's search for Hinkaku


By CONNIE MAY FOWLER
Special to The Japan Times Online

The summer basho is underway and I, an American woman who has never been to Japan, am so excited.

Will Asashoryu finally display both the strength and hinkaku worthy of his rank?

Will Hakuho clinch this tournament and, in his likely promotion to yokozuna, provide Asa with the ballast and humility he needs in order to become not just a good or great yokozuna, but a legendary one?

Will Kotooshu join the ranks of the consistently strong or will he become an elevator rikishi, waxing and waning along the swirling calligraphy of the banzuke?

And who will be the next great hope of sumo?

Will he come, as so many of us desire, from the sport's motherland?

Yes, I am a sumo fanatic. And that's not an easy thing to be in America. You have to work at it.

I can't access NHK's broadcast, a fact the drives me crazy. ESPN occasionally runs grotesquely edited versions of matches with color commentary by someone who, in my opinion, has no idea what he's talking about.

I often wonder, if the Japanese can so fully embrace our national sport, why can't Americans embrace theirs?

I know this probably won't come as a surprise, but Americans — at least those living in the 48 contiguous states — know nothing about sumo.

When I tell people I love Japan's national sport, they laugh and say something ugly-American-esque such as, "Yeah, right."

Once we get past the question of my sincerity, they ask something moronic such as, "What man got such a pretty little thing like you watching fat men in diapers?"

"Firstly," I snap, "they are not fat men in diapers. And secondly, it wasn't a man who got me interested. It was the culture. I first fell in love with sumo when I began reading about the Shinto religion."

If that doesn't convince them, it at least stops their prattle.

But the truth is, as I troll the Internet, looking for scraps of news about my beloved rikishi and the upcoming tournament, I find myself questioning the source of my devotion.

From what strange well does it spring?

After some serious head-rubbing, I think I have the answer.

In these early, fractious moments of the 21st century, I think a lot about honor, dignity, truth.

I live in a country where the top-rated shows are "reality" fare in which people get handsome financial rewards for shaking their booties and calling each other names.

We have a cowboy president whose tragic — some would say criminal — foreign policy has propelled a sovereign nation into civil war and chaos.

I think it is not unreasonable that given the current dearth of honor and leadership, some of us search for outlets that exemplify what we believe is currently lost in the American oeuvre but find present in sumo's steadfast traditions: courage, strength, discipline, dignity.

I'm not saying that the current state of sumo is without blemish.

Even I am concerned about the imbalance between native and foreign sekitori.

I refuse to believe that Asa paid off anyone to throw a fight and when I have my doubts, I look at old footage; my faith in him is renewed each time I witness for myself his enormous fighting spirit.

I worry about how much outside pressure the insular world of sumo can withstand because without a healthy insularity, sumo fundamentally changes, I think, for the worst.

Despite the challenges it faces, I find in sumo a guidepost as to how to live in the budding maelstrom of this new century.

The grace and honor that define the sport are the same characteristics that should define us individually.

So, even though I'm half a world away and asleep when the bouts begin, when I wake up in my own little corner of the world, I will rush to my computer to read the results from each day.

With steam rising from my tea, I will, with a watchmaker's eye, scroll though the stories, searching for signs of something sorely lacking in this new world: hinkaku.

I hope, given sumo's many changes, I still find it.

Connie May Fowler is the best-selling author of several novels.


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