This story is about sumo, but it begins in the back of a van. There, “Knock” Yokoyama, a comedian-turned-politician, assaulted a campaign staffer three days before winning re-election as Governor of Osaka. It was no laughing matter. The staffer filed sexual harassment charges and sought 15 million yen (about $150,000) in damages. While Yokoyama vigorously denied the charges calling the woman a liar outside the courtroom in quick succession he was censured by the local assembly, fled to a hospital claiming ill health, tendered his resignation, saw his residence and offices raided by public prosecutors, and was then indicted on charges of sexual molestation. Prior to the subsequent criminal trial “Knock” admitted to “touching but not groping” a distinction proving Japanese pols are every bit the equal of their American counterparts. Once inside the courtroom, Yokoyama finally relented and allowed that his hands strayed first onto skin and then into genitals.
What does this have to do with sumo? We’re getting there. In the ensuing special election to fill Knock’s slot, Fusae Ota, a woman supported by both the ruling coalition and the opposition’s main parties, became the nation’s first female governor. Progress! (Sure, it’s only 2000 and, okay, it took an act of molestation to result in the fielding of a female candidate; but why nitpick, right?).
So, now Osaka has a female governor. This is an important fact in our story about sumo, because the governor is the highest-ranking public official in that city… which is important because Osaka is one of four regular venues for sumo tournaments during the course of a year; and, unlike Tokyo, Osaka doesn’t have a privately-owned sumo-only facility within municipal limits… meaning that when sumo hits town, a public facility must be rented for the tournament’s fifteen days. This, in turn, is significant because, being a public facility, the task of conferring awards on the penultimate day has traditionally fallen to the highest-ranking public official… which is all well and good as long as the highest ranking public official is a man. But when that designation belongs to a woman, well… suddenly the entire universe goes flipsy-flopsy.
Time for ReDotPop to suddenly grow up. Time for Japanese society to enter this past millennium.
For those of you who don’t know, sumo is a traditional Japanese “sport”, one of the earliest forms of popular culture in Japan, with key philosophical threads woven out of Japan’s animist past. One such thread is the belief that the dohyo the ring of combat is a space of “spiritual purity”. As such, it is a domain from which women are barred, for fear they will contaminate the sacred. Only now, you see, the governor in Osaka is a woman. Even better: upon taking office, the governor boldly declared her intention to fulfill her public duties and hand out the awards come sumo time.
Ah yes, RedotPop: fraught with the ironies and exigencies of the modern world.
Sumo is a martial art involving speed, grace, technique, concentration and brute force. Giants easily averaging 190 centimeters (six feet and six inches) and 150 kilograms (330 pounds) propel out of three-point stances in the center of a circular ring no more than dour and a half meters in diameter. Their impact is enough to reduce your average computer terminal to the size of a microchip. Impact can result in unanticipated incisions and unintended pratfalls, but generally following contact the wrestlers grapple, their chunky fingers struggling to reach around steroid-enhanced biceps, barbell-inflated chests and four-meal-daily extruded bellies, and insinuate themselves around a sash securely cinched around their opponent’s waist. This essential maneuver provides leverage capable of unbalancing the most massive behemoth and sending him either: (A) crashing to the hard-packed dirt surface, or (B) careening out of the roped ring, off the raised platform, and into the surprised, but gleeful arms of the adoring audience.
Sumo is, in many respects, Japanese society incarnate. It features strict hierarchy, military precision, arcane rules, ritual performance, centuries of tradition, Zen philosophy, regulated brutality, and equality of opportunity amid rivals who often embody extreme resource disparity. Because sumo is Japanese society incarnate it is one of the reasons why we care about it in this column; why we’re talking about it here, now. For, what ReDotPop is about, above all, is the myriad, cross-cutting, intersections between the forms and content of popular culture and everyday life. ReDotPop is about how social practices and values, politics and economics flow into, through and out of Japanese popular culture.
Let’s put the Osaka governor flap aside for a moment and consider another example. About seven years ago sumo crossed the threshold into the realm of popular popular culture. Popular, as in “hip”, au courant, cool, of the moment, kitschy, the latest craze. It only lasted for a blurry moment, perhaps, but in that nanosecond of rising public cognizance, sumo was tried on for size in that wider cultural domain. Its popularity has since waned, but at that time sumo was on everyone’s wagging lips. Its zenith was the engagement of its crown prince, Takanohana, to one of ReDotPop’s reigning princesses: the model-cum-actress Miyazawa Rie. For better and worse, a major transformation was in the offing. In the face of this unlikely coupling between the son/nephew of a pair of fabled rikishi (wrestlers) of yore and the bulemic, “ha-fu” (mixed race) “Rie-chan”, the staid sumo association was forced to consider a reconfiguration of its heretofore “pure domain”. Perched on the doorstep was not just by a pop idol, but a foreign one at that.
For some, sumo is the repository of the defining elements of Japanese mythology. As such, it often serves as one of the weapons in the arsenal of Nihonjinron: the view of Japanese cultural/national uniqueness. How, many insiders fretted, could our royalty actually consider marrying a woman who had published a book of nude photos? The association quickly mobilized; the planned marriage never had a chance.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the crown prince canceling the engagement, sumo was now forever part and parcel of the material world of ReDotPop. There was no longer a hermetic, pristine, mythical domain into which sumo could retreat. Takanohana quickly became engaged to a safer “talento” a former TV announcer. Nonetheless, the scandal sheets and afternoon “wide shows” were soon abuzz with the salacious tidbit that the bride-to-be was already with child. Although the bride and groom’s loosed a carefully scripted denial at their post-nuptial fete, when the baby came to term less than nine months later, the pulp press crowed: “after all, they lied!”
Takanohana is blessed with awesome abilities in sumo. His personal skills are another matter. He has been stalked by the same kind of petty brouhahas we have come to expect of other popcult icons. A year ago he shocked the press and sumo insiders, alike, by lashing out at his older brother, Wakanohana another sumo prince who, he claimed, lacked the requisite skills to occupy sumo’s highest rank. Forget the fact that this was Japan where one never speaks ill publicly of another; never mind the rule that in Japan one never speaks ill of an elder; this was tantamount to a palace coup. Of course, it was a boon for the gossip shows. The frosty moments that ensued during daily practice in their father’s “stable” received wide-spread coverage. Many sought to attribute this sibling rivalry to Takanohana’s lack of formal education and his impressionable nature. They claimed he had fallen under the spell of a charismatic physical therapist who saw a chance to turn star against family and, by so doing (if done just right), end up turning a pretty profit for himself. It didn’t work out that way: sumo federation to the rescue once more. Takanohana was extricated from his new shady alliance and returned to the family fold.
Consistent with the imperatives of any advanced mediaculture, the Taka/Waka incident became fodder for ReDotPop. It led to extended hand-wringing in the popular press about the suggestibility of Japanese people and the rise of exploitative elements in the society. Parallels were drawn to the recent mind-control excesses of the religious cult, Aum Shinri Kyo.
Since the days of Taka and Rie, it seems, sumo can’t escape the high-speed, low-brow, controversy-peddling logic of contemporary popular culture. Aside from the Taka/Waka conflagration, there was the much-ballyhooed controversy surrounding Waka’s wife’s micro-mini. For some reason, the former airline stewardess is simply not perceived as demur enough (at least in the eyes of the sumo federation) to serve as wife to the highest-ranking rikishi. Her increasing frustration with the straight-jacket existence of a sumo-wife led to her recently fleeing the family residence. Or else, was that her husband’s possible infidelity? The word “divorce” wafted over the public airwaves, only to be squelched by a hastily-orchestrated public reconciliation. In the same way, yokozuna Akebono’s marriage to his pregnant lover a (Japanese-American) “ha-fu” was of certain public interest; though, perhaps because Akebono is American, himself, the marriage, the child, and their lifestyle (they live on a U.S. Military installation and, therefore, are not actually of the Japanese world) has commanded less attention in the realm of ReDotPop. In fact, rather than controversy, Akebono has come to serve as a rather positive presence in ReDotPop: he has become a frequent guest on TV shows, thereby helping to re-popularize the flagging institution of sumo.
The foreign dimension is one aspect of contemporary sumo that is working to fuel ReDotPop, itself. Less in terms of the “impurity” introduced into the traditional Japanese art by foreign invaders for that is the province of Nihonjinron and cultural nationalism. Less, too, in terms of “internationalization” (or globalization) which is the steady backbeat of most contemporary ReDotPop. No, despite the fact that two of sumo’s four highest rank-holders are foreign born (Samoan and Hawaiian) and a third up-and-coming star, is from Mongolia, the greatest force working to fuse sumo to ReDotPop is a former foreign star: Konishiki. All 200 kilograms of him. Since retirement Konishiki has become one of the most recognizable, liked, and visible spokesmen in Japan’s commercial culture. He has parlayed that popularity into multiple product endorsements (Sanyo electronics, Suntory alcoholic beverages, Lawson convenience stores, Hawaiian tours, portable telephones), as well as regular appearances on nightly TV. Proving that sumo’s relationship with contemporary Japanese society is substantial, on-going, and not entirely negative.
For that assessment, though, don’t ask Osaka’s enterprising Governor Ota. Despite her insistence on entering sumo’s hallowed ring and presenting her city’s awards to Japan’s sacred warriors, she was stared down by the powerful sumo federation. A compromise was brokered in which the highest-ranking male public official would fill in for his higher-ranking female boss.
Thus ensuring that the ReDotPop universe would remain in alignment.
If one of the defining features of popular culture is flux, when it comes to RedotPop, we have to acknowledge that some things change faster than others.
If they change at all.