Saturday, May 21, 2011

14/05 VOX POPULI: Rikishi should strive for excellence in May basho


When a formidable-looking bruiser does something cute that is utterly out of character, the effect is exquisitely comical. Imagine Benkei, the strapping warrior monk of the 12th century, having fun bouncing a ball like a little girl. Or a ferocious Nio guardian god of Buddhism engrossed in the traditional Japanese paper-folding art of origami.

An equivalent scene in our society today may be a burly sumo wrestler texting with his fat thumb, if I may say so.

However, mobile phones are now banned in sumo's "shitakubeya" locker rooms. Images of wrestlers surrendering their phones at a counter before entering Ryogoku Kokugikan reminded me of the student who used his cellphone to cheat on university entrance exams back in February.

This month's basho has been dubbed a "technical examination tournament," and more judges are seated close to the dohyo to monitor the bouts. The whole atmosphere is lacking in the usual carefree mood I associate with the May tournament.

Each of the six annual regular tournaments has a distinctive feel for the locality and the season in which it is held. Normally, the May tournament is characterized by the refreshing breeze from the Sumidagawa river. When one comes out of the Ryogoku Kokugikan after the bouts, with the beat of the "uchidashi" drums ringing in one's ears, the sky is still light and the river breeze is pleasantly cool to one's flushed face.

But this year, it's bittersweet. This is the first regular tournament being held after all the brouhaha over the "yaocho" (bout-fixing) scandal.

And to throw cold water on many eager fans, popular ozeki Baruto blurted out that he couldn't take this tournament seriously.

Baruto should know better. Granted, after the scandal there is no TV coverage, no Emperor's Cup and no prize money this tournament, and it's probably only human to feel a bit less motivated. But this is all the more reason why this tournament is a real test of each wrestler's worth, and fans are watching. This is hardly a "second class" tournament. On the contrary, every win is proof of excellence.

Tokuzo Miyamoto, a writer and sumo fan who died in February, once wrote that true strength comes from being able to achieve the state of mind with no distracting thoughts. This brings to mind a Chinese saying "Mokkei" (wooden rooster). Like a wood-carved fighting rooster, strong sumo wrestlers are impassive in bouts. The great yokozuna Futabayama (1912-1968) aspired for that state of mind.

It's a bit sad when yokozuna Hakuho is the only one matching up to the expectations of Futabayama. I want more wrestlers to follow suit.

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 13

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.

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