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Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010

SUMO SCRIBBLINGS

Where were the Japanese voices when the overseas fans declared Asa innocent?


Special to The Japan Times Online

In the last issue of Sumo Scribblings following the Hatsu Basho, mention was made of Asashoryu's self-destructive mindset in relation to the then recent allegations that he had up and punched somebody following a night on the beer in a plush neighborhood of Tokyo.

Asashoryu strikes a controversial 'guts pose' at the 2009 Aki Basho in Tokyo
Asashoryu strikes a controversial "guts pose" (victory pose) at the 2009 Aki Basho in TokyoKYODO PHOTO

While the exact circumstances surrounding the case are still unknown, many Japanese fans have been left guessing as to what happened during the infamous mid-basho kerfuffle. The Japanese Sumo Association has remained largely silent on the matter, and Asashoryu himself scooted off to Hawaii the first chance he got. He is, depending on which claim you believe, still on the fairways, back in Mongolia or perhaps over in Vancouver supporting his countrymen there.?

Wherever he is, he is not helping his own case by staying silent, ignoring those that have long supported him and providing his foes with a soap box from which to air their views, unchallenged. Asashoryu had of course long been regarded as the nail sticking up that so many conservatives in and around sumo wanted to hammer down. Many in Japan did try, with comments criticizing his repeated run-ins with that all elusive concept of "hinkaku" so often bandied about as something non-Japanese fail to comprehend.

Few ever really got close to Asashoryu, though, and those in Japan that did, arguably those who knew him best, have offered little in the way of defense of his actions — if he did actually take a swing at anyone. Problematic in the eyes of many has been the claim that he supposedly settled with the presumed victim — to the tune of several million yen. (The numbers vary, as do so many details, depending on who you ask.) For many this suggests an automatic admission of guilt, but even today, nearly two weeks after his resignation, the vocal foreign fans on the Web remain as divided as ever.

For most with no up-close experience of sumo, the fact that he was not Japanese and had shown no direct interest in obtaining Japanese citizenship (necessary to remain in the sport as an oyakata) was being held against him. The usual cries of discrimination rang out with little in the way of evidence offered. The fact that this had never prevented him (or others) from succeeding in sumo was almost completely ignored. Others have claimed the winner of 25-yusho, and thus third on the all time list, had been forced out as part of a botched cover-up that also saw his manager fall on his sword. That he had jumped before being (unfairly — see first reason) pushed. A smaller group, consisting of those with significant experience in Japan and more aware of the inner workings of Japanese society, saw his demise as unfortunate but, in the end, unavoidable. It was simply the straw that broke the camel's back.

Noticeably absent from the majority of debates were Japanese voices. For that reason, and as the Japanese are so intertwined with all things sumo regardless of whether or not they follow each basho day in, day out, Sumo Scribblings asked the opinions of five locally born Japanese. To add a twist to this commentary on this traditionally male-dominated sport, all the selected fans were women.?

Photographer Haruna Miyashita from Chiba Prefecture, whose photos of the sport run in several publications, had mixed feelings regarding his actual timing of the intai (retirement) announcement: "In part I feel he shouldn't have retired like he did. Now that he has gone it will be impossible to get (to all) the details surrounding the case," she said. "It has been claimed that the man (allegedly) punched by Asashoryu was simply seeking a pay-off. We will never know. On the other hand, he is still a hero (to so many) here and in Mongolia, so perhaps his decision to go before he was pushed was the correct thing to do after all. He can now live the rest of his life."?

Toshiko Suzuki, a teacher from Tokyo's Adachi Ward, was of a similar mindset: "I would like to know all the details before passing judgement. Asashoryu should not have retired before it was all cleared up," she said. "I think he stepped down because he would not otherwise have received his post-retirement benefits (had he been forcibly kicked out)."

Rika Hayashi, an adult student, also from Adachi Ward, had harsher words, saying, "Asashoryu behaved badly on many occasions. He was not disciplined strongly enough by his stable master throughout his career. I am happy he has now gone."

Hayashi's was an opinion shared in part, but also added to, by up-and-coming sumo writer Michiko Kodama: "In my opinion (his retirement) was a good thing, but I don't like the fact that he resigned. He should have been fired. In addition, the fact that he will retain his retirement benefits is not acceptable (given the circumstances surrounding his departure from the sport)."

Most sympathetic of all those asked, and the youngest, which might bode well for the future in as far as many foreign fans view the sport, Kanako Sakai, an IT worker from Yokohama, saw the Mongolian as a victim of sorts: "If he (had) continued longer he would (have been) attacked even more by the Japanese media and the general populace, so I feel his departure was well timed as I actually felt some sympathy for him."?

The question thus remains: Was Asashoryu a victim of circumstance, or a man unwilling to accept full responsibility for his own actions, a man given a chance in Japanese society who then failed to live up to expectations?



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