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  • Sunday Tangent: Sumo Suits Controversy in Canada

    Posted by Dr. ARUDOU, Debito on April 11th, 2010

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    Hi Blog.  As a Sunday Tangent, here’s something I heard a couple of weeks ago about the banning of “Sumo Suits” at Queens University in Canada.  I thought, well, Canada I guess has a lower tolerance for potential “cultural misunderstandings”.  While I don’t think “Sumo Suits” are on par with “round glasses and buck teeth” types of Asian stereotyping one has seen in the past in points east (and thankfully mostly put a stop to), it’s an example of how liberal college debates against all types of stereotyping (in this case, anti-“weightism” and “cultural insensitivity”, I would have guessed, but the arguments included “deeply imbedded histories of violent and subversive oppression that a group has faced”) have led to a rather odd, arguably overcompensating decision and a very verbose, OTT self-flagellating statement.

    If only this attitude applied to all the Japanese TV shows with their “blond wigs and big noses” tacked on to give anything a “gaijin” feel (and that’s before stretching it to cover wartime histories of violent and subversive oppression…).  But expecting that much cultural-sensitivity comity is probably muri for the next generation or two.  I have a feeling Trey Parker and Matt Stone are planning a South Park episode on this…  Courtesy of DS, who comments below.  Arudou Debito in Sapporo


    Hi Debito.  Greetings from rainy Nagoya.  Just ran across this article in my local newspaper from Canada. It concerns the use of so-called “sumo suits”, those big inflatable costumes that you see people wear and then lumber into each other. A university group was using them as part of a fund raiser for a food bank. However, the university Alma Mater Society decided they were offensive and racist, ” a symbol of oppression”, and cancelled the event. They also wrote a long, heartfelt apology letter to those who may have been hurt and/or offended by the horrible event.

    Here is the main article:

    and the apology:

    I first thought this was an April Fool’s joke, until I saw the article was dated March 29th… DS


    Sumo suits instruments of ‘oppression’: Queen’s [University, Kingston, Ontario] student government
    Joseph Brean, National Post (Canada), Courtesy of DS
    Published: Monday, March 29, 2010

    Queen’s Alma Mater Society on Monday published a two-page apology letter, and cancelled a food-bank fundraiser scheduled for Tuesday, which was to feature two sumo suits such as the ones shown in this …

    Sumo suits, the plastic novelties that can transform a skinny sports fan into a comically unstable sphere for the delight of a stadium audience, are racist and dehumanizing instruments of oppression, according to the student government of Queen’s University.

    They “appropriate an aspect of Japanese culture,” turn a racial identity into a “costume,” and “devalue an ancient and respected Japanese sport, which is rich in history and cultural tradition.” They also “fail to capture the deeply embedded histories of violent and subversive oppression that a group has faced.”

    The Alma Mater Society on Monday published a two-page apology letter, and cancelled a foodbank fundraiser scheduled for Tuesday, which was to feature two sumo suits. The letter scolds the student government’s own executive for “marginalizing members of the Queen’s community” and failing to “critically consider the racist meaning behind [the fundraiser.]”

    It also vows to discourage other campus groups from using the suits, owned by the school’s athletic department.

    “We recognize racism as the systemic oppression, both intentional and unintentional, of individuals and groups based on racial or ethnic identities,” the letter reads.

    Given the quick apology, which came in response to complaints registered on a Facebook page promoting the event, the racism of the Queen’s “SUMO Showdown” seems to have been unintentional, and not an effort to belittle Japanese people.

    Brandon Sloan, communications officer for the Alma Mater Society, suggested “white privilege” had blinded the student government, which is largely but not entirely white, to the seriousness of the issue.

    Likewise, the owners of the two suits have never imagined they could be considered offensive.

    “It’s the first time we’ve heard of [the racist aspects],” Mike Grobe, a spokesman for Queen’s Athletics, which uses the suits at football and basketball games for half-time shows, when people run obstacle courses in them. “They’re just big puffy suits. They’re pink… No one’s complained.”

    They come with a helmet shaped like a head with a bun of hair, like a sumo wrestler, but nothing overtly stereotypical. They are new this academic year, and are often loaned out to student groups. They were even loaned out to the Ontario Hockey League for its all-star hockey game.

    In the past, professional sumo wrestling in Japan itself has been accused of racism for excluding foreign-born wrestlers, although non-Japanese wrestlers have had notable successes, even rising to highest rank of Yokozuna.

    For its part, Queen’s has a proud tradition of inclusivity. It was the first school in Canada to graduate a black man, Robert Sutherland, who became a prominent lawyer. Its student pub, Alfie’s, is named for the son of a runaway slave who became a football mascot. And it continues to receive generous donations of art and real estate from chemist-turned-philanthropist Alfred Bader, a refugee from the Nazis who was turned away from McGill because its Jewish quota was filled.

    But Queen’s today has an awkward relationship with political correctness, exacerbated by its reputation for drawing its student body from the privileged neighbourhoods of Toronto and Ottawa.

    In a report last week on racism in Ontario universities by the Canadian Federation of Students, one Queen’s student reported that “white privilege” permeates the “walls, books, classrooms and everything that makes Queen’s what it is.”

    That aspect of the controversy is mentioned in the apology letter, which says “some of us [AMS leaders] … do not have the lived experience of someone who is oppressed due to their race. We recognize our privilege in this circumstance.” It then vows “a series of discussions” about oppression.

    “We would never want to host an event that would offend some members,” Mr. Sloan said.

    Last year, in a story that made national headlines, the Queen’s administration appointed six “dialogue facilitators” to promote discussion of social justice, partly by intervening in conversations when they overhear offensive speech. The resulting scandal led to the appointment of an expert panel, including a former head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which cancelled the program as “incompatible with the atmosphere required for free speech.”

    The student government was to meet last night to discuss another fun activity as a replacement for the sumo suits, Mr. Sloan said.

    Also on Monday, the nomination period closed for the government’s Anti-Oppression Award, given for exceptional achievement in counteracting oppression both in and out of the classroom.

    National Post


    Sumo suit apology letter: the full text
    Posted: March 29, 2010, 7:17 PM by Gillian Grace, Courtesy National

    The Queen’s University student government has declared the sumo suit an instrument of ‘oppression’, and cancelled a food-bank fundraiser that was to feature two sumo suits.

    The full text of the Alma Mater Society’s apology letter, published on Monday:

    Dear AMS members and members of the Queen’s community,

    We are writing in regards to an event that was scheduled to take place on Tuesday March 30th, organized and run by a group in the AMS. This event was planned to have students don padded suits, coloured and designed to resemble Japanese sumo wrestlers. The Facebook event created to advertise this event, entitled “SUMO Showdown,” included a picture of two cartoon Japanese wrestlers grappling.

    We recognize racism as the systemic oppression, both intentional and unintentional, of individuals and groups based on racial or ethnic identities.

    Regrettably, those of us who were aware of the event did not critically consider the racist meaning behind it. Asking students to wear these suits and partake in the activity appropriates an aspect of Japanese culture. This is wrong because it turns a racial identity into a costume; the process of putting-on and taking-off a racial identity is problematic because it dehumanizes those who share that identity and fails to capture the deeply imbedded histories of violent and subversive oppression that a group has faced. The event also devalues an ancient and respected Japanese sport, which is rich in history and cultural tradition.

    The decision to hold this event, and the failure of many students who hold senior positions in the AMS to recognize the inherent issues of racism tied-in to the event, marginalized members of the Queen’s community. As an organization and as individuals who allowed this to go on unchallenged, we are deeply sorry for having caused feelings of hurt and not being safe on-campus by planning this event. We are implicated in systems of oppression by not challenging things such as this, and perpetuating racist stereotypes.

    Events such as this take place at other institutions and within Queen’s as well; it is imperative that we learn from this experience to ensure that we constantly work towards challenging various forms of oppression. We will also be following-up with other groups at Queen’s who utilize these suits so that we can encourage them to also engage critically with issues of racism and oppression.

    While it is important to recognize that by planning this event we marginalized students on-campus, it is also critical to recognize that some of us in the organization who played a role in planning and perpetuating the event do not have the lived experience of someone who is oppressed due to their race. We recognize our privilege in this circumstance, and will work hard to better engage with it and issues of racism and oppression in the future. An integral part of this process is to ensure that those who were implicated in the event in any way come out of this experience with a desire to learn more about how to combat racism and other forms of oppression on a regular basis. It is necessary to facilitate a discussion about how oppression permeates our experiences, and what our role is in challenging forms of oppression that all too often go unchallenged. We will be engaging in a series of discussions – both formal and informal – with all involved parties to ensure that they understand the ways in which this event is both harmful and discriminatory.

    Although we are taking active steps as an organization and as individuals to ensure that we are better able to name and challenge racism and oppression, it is clear that this does not in any way negate the damage done in the creation and advertising of this event. We have already alienated individuals from the AMS as a result of this event, but we plan on working towards facilitating the development of a campus climate in which this wrongdoing and others like it are not repeated.

    The Alma Mater Society


    14 Responses to “Sunday Tangent: Sumo Suits Controversy in Canada”

    1. Joe Says:

      Bunch of racists!
      How dare they suggest that Sumo is “Japanese”, given the recent success in the sport of Americans, Mongolians and Bulgarians?
      Seems to me these people need to sort their own prejudices out before they start criticising the wearing of Sumo suits.

    2. Peach Says:

      Hmmm… well for many years now the Japanese Government has actually sponsored (paid in full for) our JETAA Canada Sumo suits – and the supporters of our group mostly who are Nikkei here in Canada – come and get dressed up too, and have some fun for our spring festival.

      I’m pretty sure there are no racist feelings, when we are getting to know each other, and playing together no matter where we come from! I’ll ask the Japanese – if they think its racist and lets see what they say.

      I can’t provide evidence but I’m pretty sure our craze for renting and using sumo suits, actually started with the movie Charlie’s Angels. Anyone know who invented the suit?

      Thing is I don’t think you can call this racist – perhaps maybe a few people are offended – but lets say the reverse were true, I go to Japan and someone pretends to be a white girl like me, I speak up…hmmmmm

      Based on Canada’s record of racial tolerance, and the last 50 years of living under the Mulitculturalism Act, I think we can cut the Queen’s Students some slack…

      @ Joe – you say: “seems to me these people need to sort their own prejudices out before they start criticising the wearing of Sumo suits” If you are referring to yourself as Japanese – well then I suggest your people might want to take your own advice!

    3. Joe Says:

      I had my tongue so deep in my cheek it almost burst through the skin and came out the other side.:)

    4. Mark Hunter Says:

      Do the suits stereotype Japanese people? I’m not sure. I don’t know what to think about this except to say the blonde wigs and false noses really p… me off here. I’ll be interested to read what others think, especially Japanese posters.

    5. A Man In Japan Says:

      This is just typical Japanese behaviour. They dare to complain about people wearing suits to look like sumo wrestlers, when almost every day Japanese people find it perfectly normal to laugh at someone wearing an over the top nose and wig. I think we should be pointing out more things like this to show the hypocrisy over here.

      [snipe deleted]

      — Slow down. We don’t know if any Japanese “dared to complain”, do we? Stick to the facts of the case.

    6. KG Says:

      From the archives… the HSBC sumo ad –

      “One of the world’s biggest banks has been accused of ‘cultural insensitivity’ after dressing up an overweight white man to look like a sumo wrestler…

      … Mikio Abé, director of MD Business Consultants, who came to England from Japan 28 years ago, said: ‘This advert is a caricature, a stereotype. Small eyes are part of our physical features and we can’t do anything about it. The majority of Japanese people are probably offended by it…”

    7. holmes Says:

      The majority of Japanese people are probably offended by it…”

      The majority of Caucasians are probably offended by Mr James, by the same token.

      Or, have you seen Gaba’s toy Caucasian teacher in their train ads? He looks like a puppet from Thunderbirds.

      Thats the trouble when people start to throw stones in the glass house of “cultural insensitivies”-other people start to throw them back by the same token until all aspects of humour are eliminated from life.

      On a tangent, I see this was in Canada. The country that held church meetings to protest videos by Debito’s favourite group, Duran Duran
      (source, “Notorious” biog). And also banned the ad of a little girl clearing up after a little boy because it was “sexist”.

      Pc gone mad…but theres not much PC in Japan, is there? Still ok to rant on about gaijin criminals here.

      — So your point is…?

    8. holmes Says:

      My point is, as you often point out, this is a Japanese double standard; ie. complain about Japan bashing and “racism” in overly PC countries abroad (where there is a strong chance they will cave in), while meanwhile in Japan itself, give dogs more rights than foreigners.

      Ok, I m still upset about this, and the Jiminhyou fiasco.

      I really want to tell that University in Ontario that there is far, far worse cases of cultural insensitivities against non Japanese going on in Japan than a couple of Sumo suits.

      I wish they would stop buying into the “Japan as victim” line. They re being too PC.

      Japan isnt PC enough.

    9. Mark in Yayoi Says:

      I don’t see any Japanese-looking names among the offended people in the article.

      Were any actual Japanese people upset by this, or was it just a case of an unrelated student group making an incident out of nothing, in hopes that strengthening public opinion that the university is racist will some day work to their benefit?

      When it comes to the percentage of people who are obese, Japan is near the bottom and it’s the English-speaking nations that are at the top. If anything, sumo wrestlers serve to remind us of how few obese people there actually are in Japan.

      I’ve been to a college event with sumo suits. The Japanese people around were ecstatic that people were getting into their sport, which until recently was almost unknown to Westerners.

      That apology is craven, obsequious, and ridiculous. It’s not even clear who’s experiencing this “damage”, “oppression”, “harm”, or “marginalization”. I say lay off the student groups and let them experience Japan’s traditional sport!

      — If people really want plausible deniability with the sumo suits, change their “skin” colors to red vs. blue. Then there is no “racial” element that can be claimed from the professional-victims circuit.

    10. DS Says:

      From what I read, this whole complaint was done by the “no shampoo and Birkenstocks” crowd. Basically overly idealistic suburban youth who are overly guilty about being white. They agonize over every phrase they use and have an almost masochistic tendency to flog themselves publicly to show their dedication to diversity.

      — Where did you read this?

    11. Paulo Says:

      I find this one bemusing, not because of the implied racism of the suits, but because of the double standard it presents.

      Why should Japanese people find this offensive? Are all Sumo Japanese?

      Let’s look at the some of arguably the most popular and/or prominent Sumo of recent years:

      Asashoryu – Mongolian
      Hakuho – Mongolian
      Musashimaru – American
      Akebono – American
      Kotooshu – Bulgarian
      Baruto – Estonian

      Are they not big men? Do they pretty much all have (or had during their era) dark hair tied in a traditional style? Do they not resemble those Sumo suits at the top of the page?

      We whine constantly about how Japanese make assumptions about us as foreigners. And yet when someone puts a suit on and dresses up as a sumo, suddenly we’re happy to make the ignorant assumption that all sumo are Japanese, so it must be racist.

      Debito himself has written stinging criticism on this site of sumo stables only being allowed one “foreigner” and considering even naturalized Japanese citizens to be “foreigners” under their rules. How is this not a gross oversimplification (just in reverse) to assume that all sumo are Japanese, when clearly they aren’t, and use this flawed logic to find racist overtones.

      — I’m not sure who you’re trying to criticize here.

    12. DS Says:

      Well, I grew up just down the road from Queen’s University, had friends who went there, and have visited the campus on numerous occasions. It’s famous for being a refuge for the pampered offspring of the suburbs.

      You can look up “Brandon Sloan”, the communications director for the Queen’s student government. [He’s Caucasian.]

    13. Tony Says:

      This is a really silly issue to brand as racist.

      I see skinny Japanese (kids, women etc…) here in Japan wearing similar blow-up suits for fun and harmless competition.

    14. Jeremy Says:

      I’m going to throw my lot in with the “racist? really?” crowd. Debito’s example of “blond wigs and big noses” works as a stereotype because that’s what Japanese people think of when they think of a foreigner. But if I go up to somebody from Canada or the US and say “Japanese”, ‘fat’ is probably the last thing that would come to mind. If you ask them about Japan, you’d certainly hear about anime, ninjas, cosplay and samurai before sumo.

      As for the skin tone, it seems that the material is not dyed any color, probably to make the uniform cheaper, and any color would wear unevenly over time.

      I’m not Japanese so I can’t speak to what they would feel watching this, but it seems like overkill here. There are much worse portrayals of ethnicities than this.

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