Sunday, April 04, 2010

Slaughterhouse 64


Choose one place in the world you would most like to visit. Explain your choice in terms of the social history of any significant period that interests you. – Kelli George

I’ve been lucky enough to travel a few places, but if we’re going to throw time travel into the mix, I would like to visit Japan in the early 1990’s to follow the career of Chad Rowan, the Hawaiian-born sumo wrestler know as Akebono.

If you’ve never seen a sumo match, it’s essentially like watching trucks fight. In a society where men’s height rarely exceeds six feet tall, Akebono stood 6’8” and weighed 500 pounds. He had longer legs than most sumo wrestlers, and he had the record and the reputation to achieve sumo’s highest rank, yokozuna.

And here’s the conundrum. A wrestler promoted to yokozuna has a few more responsibilities than soda commercials and grocery store openings. Sumo is heavily associated with the Shinto religion, and was this something that could be bestowed upon a foreigner?

Another Hawaiian, Konishiki, ascended to ozeki, one step below yokozuna. In 1992, the chairman of the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee announced, “We wanted to make doubly sure that Konishiki is worthy of being a grand champion. Therefore, we decided to wait another tournament.” Konishiki was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “If I were Japanese, I would be yokozuna already.” Apologies were demanded and given. He never made yokozuna.

Meanwhile, Sadaharu Oh holds the Japanese baseball home run record of 55 in a single season. Three foreign players have come close to breaking the record – Randy Bass, Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes and Alex Cabrera – and each time that they faced an Oh-managed club late in the season, they were intentionally walked rather than given a chance at breaking the record. Bass was walked on four pitches in four at bats and would have been walked a fifth time had he not practically thrown the bat at an outside pitch and hit a flare into right field. The pitching coach of Oh’s team explained it would be “distasteful” for a foreign-born player to break the record.

Akebono became a Japanese citizen, renounced his American citizenship, converted to Shintoism, married a Japanese woman and followed every example and cleared every hurdle to become the first foreign-born yokozuna.

Something as trivial as wrestlers and baseball may not seem to present much in terms of social history. But sport can serve as a prism with which to view a nation as a whole, and try to remember the backdrop for this time period in Japanese and American relations. Toyota was dominating the auto industry and sending General Motors on the road to ruin (before the American mania for SUVs resurrected American manufacturers for a while). They had purchased Pebble Beach and Rockefeller Center. China had yet to coalesce as an industrial center. The fearsome Other to the American manufacturing sector was the Japanese. The real estate bubble was in full roar in Japan and their economic “lost decade” was just starting to occur, and they didn’t know it. (Japanese financial firms gorged themselves on a combination of hyperinflated land prices and extremely cheap and easy credit, and when the prices of the assets collapsed several “zombie firms” were seen as too big to fail. Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before.)

So in a sport that was central to the American identity, Americans were not allowed to succeed so that the Japanese league could retain its cultural moorings, and in a sport central to the Japanese identity, an American broke through and succeeded (and ultimately led to limits on the number of foreign born sumo wrestlers allowed to participate in professional sumo in Japan). I thought that the contrast of a society devoted to exporting goods, having spent an overheated decade as an economic powerhouse, that was fighting to retain its national identity through sport would be an interesting thing to see, particularly with the foresight of knowing how fundamentally different Japan’s global footprint would be in only a few years.

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