Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column March 2, 2010 on Racist Sumo Kyoukai


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Sumo body deserves mawashi wedgie for racist wrestler ruling
The Japan Times: Tuesday, March 2, 2010, version with links to sources



I’ve noticed how highly Japan regards sports. We love investing taxes in games and facilities, hosting international events and Olympics. Sports are even part of a government ministry, the one in charge of Japan’s science, education and culture.

There is a problem, however, with the concept of sportsmanship here. Sports in Japan only seem to be kosher if Japanese win.

For example, national sports festivals (kokutai) have refused noncitizen high school students, erroneously claiming these events are qualifiers for Japan’s Olympic athletes (Zeit Gist, Sept. 30, 2003).


High school ekiden runs similarly bar foreign students from starting relays, claiming that non-Japanese (NJ) have an unfair advantage. NJ creating too much of a lead at the beginning allegedly makes things “dull” for Japanese fans. (Recall that old myth about Japanese legs being too short to run fast? Tell that to marathon gold medalist and world record-holder Naoko “Q-chan” Takahashi.)


Even sumo, the national sport (kokugi), has faced charges of racism, most famously from former grappler Konishiki, whom The New York Times in 1992 reported as saying his promotion to the top rank of yokozuna was denied because he isn’t Japanese.


But sumo has enjoyed plausible deniability, having had four foreign-born yokozuna (Akebono, Musashimaru, Asashoryu and Hakuho). After Asashoryu’s retirement, there remain 42 foreign-born rikishi in the top ranks. Ergo sumo is internationalizing, right?


Not any more. The Japan Sumo Association announced on Feb. 23 that it would limit sumo stables to one foreign wrestler each — a decrease from two per stable. Since there are only 52 stables, and only about 800 sumo wrestlers in total registered with the JSA, this funnels things down considerably.



Worse, the JSA will now define “foreign” as “foreign-born” (gaikoku shusshin), meaning even naturalized Japanese citizens will be counted as “foreign.” This, according to the Yomiuri, closes a “loophole” (nukemichi).




Sorry folks, but this rule is unlawful under Japan’s Nationality Law, not to mention the Constitution. Neither allows distinctions between foreign-born and Japanese-born citizens. Under the law, a Japanese is a Japanese — otherwise, what is the point of naturalizing?


So The New York Times was right after all: The JSA is racist. If you are born into a status that you can never escape, “Japaneseness” becomes not a matter legal status, but of birth. Of caste. Of race. Once a foreigner, always a foreigner.

Put another way, if I were to apply to become a sumo wrestler (I certainly am in their weight class), I would have to become a foreigner again, despite being a naturalized Japanese citizen for almost 10 years. Somebody deserves a huge mawashi wedgie.

JSA’s justification? One stable master expressed fears that sumo was being “overrun with foreign wrestlers.” Perhaps they’re afraid of being overrun by talented wrestlers who just happen to be foreign? That’s not supposed to be a concern when a sport has a level playing field.

OK then, how about unleveling the playing field overseas for sports that Japanese are good at? Limit, say, American Major League Baseball teams to one Japanese player — even if they take American citizenship? If you really want to get pernickety, you can say that Americans of Japanese extraction are also “Japanese,” kinda like two governments famously did for Japanese- Americans and Japanese-Canadians during World War II when deciding whom to send to internment camps. No doubt that would occasion outcries of racism by the Japanese media, the watchdogs for how Japanese are treated overseas (yet significantly less so regarding how NJ are treated in Japan).

But that wouldn’t be good for the sport. Talent in athletes spans borders. For example, baseball-reference.com notes (under the category of “frivolities”) that more than a quarter of all active baseball players in the U.S. (28.4 percent) were foreign-born in 2009.


That’s a good thing. If you want to have a healthy sport, you get the best of the best competing in it. Everyone given a sporting chance, regardless of nationality or birth.

But hey, that’s not the concern of now-bona-fide certified racist institutions like the JSA. All they want is for Japanese to win.

Some might say the nativists have the right to decide who gets into their “club.” But that’s not how sportsmanship works. And it’s one reason why sumo will lose out to real international sports — like judo, for example, now an Olympic event. Sumo was denied that honor. Now we can see why: It’s run by bigots.


O Takanohana, superstar yokozuna recently elected to the JSA board with promises to reform this troubled organization, where art thou when we needed you most? How could you let this xenophobia come to pass? Or have you shown your true colors at last?

Somebody take the JSA to court. These racist ignoramuses killing this world-famous sport need to be taught a lesson — that Japanese citizenship is not an inconvenient “loophole.” It is the law, and they too are beholden to it.

Debito Arudou coauthored the “Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants and Immigrants.” Twitter arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month

14 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column March 2, 2010 on Racist Sumo Kyoukai

  • James in Nara says:

    Good column. When the news of this came out I was beyond pissed. I had been wanting to go to see a sumo event since I got to Japan, and my gf had bought a couple tickets as a surprise. When I saw this news I almost decided not to go on principle, but since the money was already paid I yielded to practicality and went. But I told her that I wouldn’t be going to another one until this unconstitutional rule is changed.

  • Hi Debito,

    my compliments, you wrote a very nice article !
    It’s really well written and it would be difficult
    to write it better or more complete than you did.

    So, what’s the point in naturalizing if we will
    always be seen as “gaijins” ?
    These news make me sad.

    By the way, not directly related but relevant:

    No surprise….another sad news…..

    Gov’t eyes giving up on bill to grant local suffrage to foreigners

    Couldn’t we organize a nation-wide strike of foreigners of
    one day like they did in Europe ? We are not invisible and
    we should not treated as we are !

    http://video.corriere.it/?vxChannel=Dall%20Italia&vxClipId=2524_e9c36cac-25dd-11df-9cde-00144f02aabe (video in Italian language)

    — Yes we can. Join FRANCA. http://www.francajapan.org

  • Guy in Gunma says:

    Perhaps encouraging a boycott of sumo would be an effective way to protest. A lot of the seats at sumo events are filled by foreign tourists. Also, writing to sponsors to ask them to remove their support for the JSA until the rule is reversed.

  • I love sumo.

    But now I’m not sure I can rationalize the expense of going to another basho. This is truly an unfortunate move by JSA. I’m not (I wasn’t) terribly upset about the idea of foreigners being limited in stables, but the idea that a naturlized citizen will still be a “foreigner” in sumo is absolutely wrong. It cannot be justified in any way that I can think of.

  • great article, and sadly a very true article. these are just the tip of the iceberg and yet again more examples of the GOJ in general that is taking a stepback instead of forward on NJ human rights issues. my first question would be is how could the GOJ let the JSA do something like this? this sounds very unconstitutional to me and also illegal.again no accountability over here in 2010

  • Doug Cook says:

    As a freelance sports writer many newspapers and media are not planning to drop any Sumo coverage because of this new rule.
    It is really sad that a sport is looking at nationality and not talent.
    I wonder what would happen if the NHL banned Russian hockey players on the premise, “Russians are over running our sport.”? Or if the PGA banned Indians, Chinese, Japanese, and South Americans for the same reason?
    Oh yeah, there would be protests of racism all over the world. I have often wondered why the Japanese get a free pass on racist and xenophobic policies. Sure the mainstream media in the West complains, but they still cover and gush all over “Japan’s unique culture and heritage”. Yet very few mainstream outlets are willing to stop giving Japan any attention. Until that happens then Japan can just say “hey we will do as we please”.
    Just like whaling, the blue fin tuna ban meeting. Japan always pulls the “Because it is our culture” card.
    Well baseball could be considered US culture and ban Japanese players by the same logic. Again, there would be protests by Americans because that is racist. Yet, few Americans, or any other nations, are outraged when Japan does the same. Something does not make sense in how people judge Western vs other civilizationa’s racism. To me racism is racism and racists should not be given media attention to boost their popularity.
    I have refused to cover Sumo for SI, ESPN, and others because of this ban as I did cover Sumo in the past. I will not be a basho and will focus on other sports in Japan, like curling, baseball, figure skating, and so forth.
    Mainstream media needs to stop any and all Sumo coverage until this ban is lifted. Nations (Russia, Estonia, Mongolia, USA, et al) also need to pull back their wrestlers in Sumo and bring them back home. Then the JSA would get the point when there is no serious competition. Then the JSA can watch Sumo wither on the 島国感情 vine.

  • mark in kanto says:

    Doesn’t Japanese baseball also have some kind of gaijin limit? I always wondered about this, and then wondered why they could get away with it. It sure seems that there is a limit, for no Japanese team has more than a few “show gaijin,” hired to hit some home runs and then “go home.”

    I don’t expect pro sports to lead the country out of a nationalist stupidity justified by appeals to “culture” and “tradition,” but this sumo thing is another “low” that I hadn’t forseen.

    — Yes, but a big difference here is that NJ who have been here playing ten years (viz. Tuffy Rhodes) get counted as Japanese players. They don’t even have to naturalize. In sumo, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been here or even if you naturalize.

  • Good article Debito.

    Just one thing I want to comment on is that judo may be an international sport, I find that the Japanese media and judo associates consider foreign judo to be a “fake” type of judo. Remember just before the Peking olympics when a bunch of Japan’s best players were ousted early in an international tournament in 2007? There were claims in the media then that international judo, with all the recent rule changes, had turned into a lowly wrestling competition that the Japanese players could not be expected to adjust to. There are also frequent comments by judo commentators, like Yoshida whats-his-name of previous olympic fame in Atlanta 1996, that it is a disgrace for Japanese players to lose to “gaijin.” I also don’t think Japan has ever had a judo olympic representative that was a naturalized citizen (not including those of previous zainichi status), but I may be wrong on this point.

    When it comes to national sports, the media wants the Japanese to win because it gets high ratings, so they help to create this racist atmosphere where it is implied that foreign sports is inferior. There are also many in the business who actually feel this way.

  • The JSA doesn’t allow women in the ring (the most famous case being the former mayor of Osaka being refused to enter) because women are considered unclean (kegare). The JSA is discriminatory with regards to both sex and ethnicity.

    What is interesting is that many think of sumo as a male sport; however, there are many female competitors in the sport (see http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20090716f3.html for one example of a young woman who came to Japan to train). And this is not a new phenomenon: women have been sumo wrestlers in Japan for a long while (see http://www.flickr.com/photos/24443965@N08/2866463904/ for pictures).

  • I haven’t seen a Japanese-born sumo champion for a long time. That might explain the disappointment stirring in the Kyoukai. The best way to have a Japanese champion is to get rid of all foreigners. Simple. Asa was the first. Great article!

  • Jeffrey, Americans said the same thing when our basketball team did relatively poorly in the Olympics a while ago: The international game had a lot of silly rules that tripped up our boys. Eventually, we realized the rest of the world had simply gotten better, and we needed to step up our game if we wanted to bring home the gold medals we had come to feel entitled to.

    I hope the bigwigs who oversee Japan’s judo and sumo organizations come to a similar realization eventually.

  • i say that we should all join our local franca chapter, and press for a sumo boycott/protest until these fools at the JSA change there racist policy.

    — Go you one better. Consider one of those one-yen lawsuits.


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