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Daily Archives: June 18, 2009

Sumo: Foreign wrestlers take on ancient Japanese tradition

by Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura

Sumo may be as Japanese as samurai and sushi, but foreign-born wrestlers have entered the ring to steal the show in the 2,000-year-old national sport.
Sumo hasn't had a home-grown champion in more than three years, and in the latest national tournament more than one third of competitors were foreigners, including the Mongolian who won the title.
As fewer young Japanese sign up for the harsh life of the sumo stable, the sport's 700-strong elite now include men from China, South Korea, Eastern Europe and as far away as Brazil and the Pacific island state of Tonga.
The presence of foreigners has also opened the secretive world of sumo to rare scrutiny, and details are emerging of just how tough it can be.
Many Japanese were shocked by the 2007 case of a stable master who ordered the "hazing" of a 17-year-old wrestler, who died after being beaten with a beer bottle and baseball bat.
A study by the Japan Sumo Association found that 90 percent of stables allowed violent beatings of trainees, and punishments such as forcing salt or sand into their mouths.
The stable master who ordered the deadly beating was imprisoned last month, but the scandal has further tarnished the prestige of the sport, already hurt by allegations of bout-fixing and a series of marijuana arrests.
As sports such as baseball and football have gained ground, the number of Japanese sumo recruits has more than halved since its peak in 1992 of 223 local wrestlers.
Mongolian star Harumafuji, 25, who was signed up to a Tokyo stable nine years ago, in May became the eighth foreigner since 1972 to win the top "makuuchi" division.
The 1.85-metre (6.1-feet) wrestler, a relative lightweight at 126 kilograms (277 pounds), could reach the top rank of grand champion if he wins the next tournament in July, a title now held by his countryman Hakuho.
"I entered the sumo stable when I couldn't afford to eat," Harumafuji said after a recent morning training session. "I came from far away Mongolia so I could do nothing but my best."
Harumafuji embarked on a diet that comes to about 10,000 calories a day.
When he vomited from eating vast amounts of fish and meat hotpot, his fellow wrestlers forced even more food down his throat, he said.
Traditionally, young wrestlers were recruited from farming and fishing communities in the remote north and south, said Doreen Simmons, a veteran English-language sumo commentator for national broadcaster NHK.
Simmons, who has lived in Japan for more than three decades, said only the toughest survive life in the sumo stable, where roll call is at 3am, daily workouts are gruelling, and juniors cook and clean for their elders – and even wash their hard-to-reach body parts.
"Too many Japanese school boys [are] … only exercising their thumbs on computer games, and they have more options," she said.
"But the Mongolians, they have what the Japanese call a hungry spirit. If they can earn even a modest sum in Japan, take it back to Mongolia, it's worth at least ten times as much."

– 'Foreigners must to do it the Japanese way' –

Most sumo bouts are over in seconds. A wrestler wins by forcing his opponent out of the ring or making him touch the ground with any part of his body but the soles of his feet.
Shrouded in Shinto ritual and first performed at shrines to appeal for a good harvest, sumo evolved into a professional sport in the 17th century.
Japanese love the ritualistic, male-only sport, regarding it as a slice of life from ancient Japan where the contestants wear white loincloths and toss salt to purify the ring.
Sumo opened its doors to foreigners decades ago, and spectators still delight when "gaijin" wrestlers exhibit what are seen by many as the essential Japanese characteristics of modesty, endurance and diligence.
American wrestlers came before World War II, and a fresh wave in the early 1970s was dubbed the "kurofune" or "black ships" – a reference to the fleet of US Commodore Matthew Perry who forced Japan to open its doors in 1854.
In the 1990s, two Argentines arrived, followed by what has been branded the "second Mongol invasion" after Genghis Khan's failed 13th century attempt to conquer Japan. Mongolians remain the strongest outside force.
European wrestlers debuted in 2004, paving the way for wrestlers from Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Russia.
A recent newcomer is 21-year-old Georgian Levan Gorgadze.
"It was really hard when I first entered in a lot of ways," he said, sitting in a loincloth on the steps of his stable, his hair in a traditional topknot.
"The hardest thing was learning Japanese, since I didn't have a clue. When I first arrived I was homesick," he said.
Some sumo purists would like to see the foreigners go, and the influx prompted sports authorities in 2002 to impose a limit of one foreigner per stable.
"There's been a very great mix. But there is resentment, especially among the old men who always resent foreigners," Simmons said.
"Now there is pressure on a successful foreigner to take Japanese citizenship. They will make room for another foreigner."
The presence of foreigners will not lead to the internationalisation of the sport, she said, as the newcomers must assimilate, learn Japanese and adapt to the local diet, dress, customs and training regime.
"Any foreigner who succeeds in sumo must do it the Japanese way."


Judo: Russia aims for Olympic comeback

Once taught to Soviet secret policemen, before being outlawed by the communists, judo is desperate for a new Russian revolution.
Failures by the country's judokas at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the world championships in Brazil, have forced the national federation to reset its sights on youngsters with medals the target at the 2012 London Games.
Judo has endured a colourful and sometimes bloody history in Russia.
The sport first appeared in Czarist Russia in 1914 when a Japanese citizen, of Russian origin, Vasily Oshchepkov set up a dojo in Vladivostok, having studied in the famous Kodokan school, which was established by judo father Jigoro Kano in Japan.
After the communists came to power, Oshchepkov was teaching local police officers and secret servicemen the judo basics.
In the late 1930s, the communists condemned judo as "bourgeois" and alien to the Soviet people, while Oshchepkov was accused of espionage and executed in 1937.
The revival of judo in the Soviet Union took place in 1962, when the sport was included in the Olympic programme and the national judo federation was set up.
Judo enthusiasts in the USSR enjoyed immediate success winning four bronze medals at 1964 Games in Tokyo. Its popularity soared, especially in the Caucasian republics where wrestling was already established.
After Shota Chochishvili, the first Soviet judoka to win Olympic gold at the 1972 Olympics at Munich, Soviet judokas won medals at Olympics, world and European championships on a regular basis, providing Japan with a tough challenge until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
At the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, David Khakhaleishvili of Georgia and Azerbaijan's Nazim Guseinov, who were members of the unified team, won the last Olympic golds for the desintegrating country.
Since those Games, judo gold has eluded Russia.
Even the support of former Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is a passionate judo fan, could not inspire any of the country's judokas to an Olympic title.
Last year, a dozen Russian judokas were ranked among the best in their weight divisions, giving hope for success at Beijing, but not one single medal was captured.
A foreign new coach, Ezio Gamba of Italy was sought and has already made a mark.
At last month's European championships at Tbilisi, Russian judokas won eight medals including five golds.
"We have enough talent and plenty of time ahead of the London Games," said Gamba.