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The Great Sumo Debate

JAPANESE snow is different from Western snow, so the argument goes, and Japanese intestines are different from Western intestines. The latest thrust in this battle over whether and how far the Japanese are "different" has been made by a commentator who upholds the uniqueness of Japanese sumo wrestlers.

The claim about Japanese snow was made to avoid giving certificates of safety to foreign-made skis. The statement about intestines was an attempt to explain why Japanese would not take enthusiastically to American beef. In the case of sumo wrestling, the contention is more esoteric, and more racist: Noboru Kojima argues in an article in a Japanese monthly that foreigners can't acquire the "dignity" or "nobility" that the top rank in sumo requires.

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Mr. Kojima's article had the inflammatory title, "We don't need a foreign Yokozuna [Grand Champion]." It's timely because a foreigner has just won the spring tournament, raising the question of whether or not he should be promoted to Grand Champion.

On March 22, Salevaa Atisanoe of Hawaii, a genial man-mountain weighing 576 pounds, won his third Emperor's Cup with a record of 13 wins and two losses in the 15-day tournament. The Sumo Association, which runs professional sumo, finessed the championship issue, saying its rules require victories in two consecutive tournaments. Atisanoe, known professionally as Konishiki or Small Brocade, has not managed this feat as yet. But the association has frequently violated its own rules, treating runners-up as e quivalent to victors.

In any case, if Konishiki wins the next tournament, coming up in May, the day of decision will be at hand.

Will the Sumo Association promote Konishiki, allowing him to tie the Yokozuna's elaborate ceremonial rope around his midriff and to make his formal entrance into the ring with stylized gestures handed down from Grand Champions of yore?

Or will it agree with cultural nationalists like Kojima who argue that sumo is a uniquely Japanese sport and that at least the top rank must be reserved for Japanese with the requisite "dignity" and "nobility?"

Kojima says that it's difficult enough for foreigners to learn the Japanese language. It's too much to expect that they can also acquire the dignity and nobility expected of Grand Champions - qualities the Japanese themselves acquire only by years of effortful training.

Many Japanese who do not agree with Kojima's reasoning share the emotional content of what he has to say. Like the Greek Olympics, sumo began as wrestling matches in honor of native Shinto deities. Some corner of the Japanese soul must be preserved free of foreign taint, the argument goes. Otherwise, in the end there will be nothing left for the Japanese to call uniquely their own.

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Still, Konishiki is a popular wrestler who has learned to speak fluent Japanese and who has just married a lithe Japanese model. At a press conference after his victory, his eyes filled with tears as he said he just had to win, otherwise people would say his marriage had made him weak. Those are sentiments Japanese can relate to, as they can also relate to the years of apprenticeship he had to serve, combining rigorous physical training with near-feudal community living.

The Sumo Association has admitted foreign sumo wrestlers since 1958, and currently numbers nearly 40 foreign professionals within its ranks. When Konishiki won the spring tournament, President Bush sent him a warm message of congratulations. Two other Americans - like Konishiki, from Hawaii - are potential champions and attract full houses to their matches.

Since foreigners can compete in sumo, why prevent them from reaching the top, as they have in other formerly all-Japanese sports such as judo?

The debate reaches beyond Konishiki's personal fate to questions of national identity. Do Japanese define themselves by what is exclusive to them, or by what they share with others?

If uniqueness, whether of snow, intestines, or wrestling is to be the sole criterion of national identity, then as globalization proceeds, that uniqueness is likely to be more and more precarious. Konishiki and others were recruited by scouts from the Sumo Association itself, scouring the world for promising talent.

But if the Japanese recognize that it is too late to retreat from the rest of mankind, they may find that by sharing their culture freely with others, even old arts like sumo can gain new vitality.

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