Category Archives: sumo

“As if the heavens and the earth have been turned upside down”

To figure out what is different about regulation and ethics for deliberately adversarial institutions, we obviously need clear examples of (relatively) non-adversarial institutions.

If sports are the touchstone examples of deliberately adversarial institutions, then various physically challenging art forms (like modern dance, ballet, acrobatics, cheerleading, “pro” wrestling, a Bruce Springsteen concert…), ritualistic displays (including dances, running in front of bulls in Pamplona, standing on one leg for hours or days in India…), and forms of exercise (yoga, aerobics, sweatin’ to the oldies…) are the closest non-adversarial cousins.

The appeal of sports is that they put on display most of the physically beautiful or breathtaking features of those non-adversarial practices, but they add to it several elements derived from the competitive challenge: the incentive to innovate and improve, the uncertainty, the partisan affiliation of the spectator, the tactics and strategic rationality, defense, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. (And this is why we see so many attempts — some of them successful, alas — to move physical activities from the latter categories into the “sport” category, by using judges to decide whose yoga poses, dance routines, bodybuilding, skateboarding tricks, etc, deserve to “win.”)

And then there’s sumo wrestling.

Is it a sport or a ritual? Well it’s both, obviously. The Japanese public is said to consider “sumo — which traces its origins to rituals of Japan’s indigenous religion of Shinto — [to be] a venerable tradition. Wrestlers, their hair in samurai-style topknots, have been seen not just as athletes, but as upholders of a stoic work ethic and noble public behavior.” So how important is the “sport” part of this practice? Opinions are divided. But a recent match-fixing scandal suggests that the competitive element may be essential to maintain interest. (Police have found text-message evidence of two wrestlers orchestrating and fixing a match, as an article in the New York Times recounts. ‘“Please hit hard at the face-off, then go with the flow,” one of the wrestlers, Kiyoseumi, texted on the afternoon of May 10…’)

Some fans, it seems are not terribly worried about the draining away of the competitive element of sumo, as long as the illusion of competition remains. “It’s been going on from the old days,” Shintaro Ishihara, 78, Tokyo’s governor, told reporters Friday. “We should just let them trick us into enjoying it,” he said, adding, “It’s just like Kabuki theater.”

But other fans, especially younger ones, are voting with their feet (or their remote controls or smart phones) — deserting sumo in favor of baseball and soccer. There are surely plenty of reasons for sumo’s declining popularity in contemporary Japan. But the contempt of true fans in the face of cheating scandals is most telling — though we cannot be sure what it exactly it tells us. Is it that the ritual is just not interesting enough on its own unless we can believe that both adversaries really are doing everything possible to win? Or is it that by cheating, these guardians of ancient samurai traditions in the post-modern world are betraying the values of the “ritual” element of the sport?

The Japanese Prime Minister, Naoto Kan considers the scandals to be “a very serious betrayal of the people.” And the Chairman of the Japan Sumo Association, Hanaregoma, sighs that “It is as if the heavens and the earth have been turned upside down.”

Baseball in America is mostly sport, but also part national ritual. Still, the steroid scandal of recent years never prompted quite this reaction. So I suspect sumo is more ritual than sport — but that the deliberately adversarial nature of the ritual is an absolutely essential element.

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