Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
The readers of these letters might have noticed that although in my writings there are some themes on which I return as leitmotifs (or as fixations!) I have avoided referring twice to the same main subject; Japan is still very interesting and offers countless new inspirations. This time though, I can’t but revisit one of my older subjects, that of Japan’s national sport, sumo (see “Wrestling of gods”) because yesterday, and in the shadow of a national/diplomatic crisis that demands from the Japanese government to face for the first time in its history the problem of terrorism in the Middle East, something happened that speaks in a very particular way to the people’ psyche: sumo came once again in the spotlight through the unofficial declaration of yokozuna Hakuho as the top wrestler of all times.
The yokozuna position is very special for sumo: the yokozuna (there are rarely more than two although these days there are three) are the wrestlers sitting at the top of the sport’s very strict hierarchy: reaching it takes inhumanely hard effort and from the moment someone does, the weight of responsibility is almost unbearable because the yokozuna must be the personification of not only sumo but all the principles governing it, be they real or ideal. And even though this might pain some Japanese, the senior of the three running yokozuna, 29 year-old Hakuho is the one who not only lives up to these needs despite not being Japanese (he’s Mongolian) but also manages it having achieved the greatest record of all wrestlers and of all times: 33 championships in the top category.
Four years ago, when sumo was being rocked by illegal gambling scandals, Hakuho was thinking about retiring; he even made an announcement along these lines on the day of his 26th birthday, a few hours before his host country was shaken by the biggest earthquake in its recorded history. In the week that followed and during an event organized by the Japan Sumo Association in the devastated areas of Tohoku he was surprised to see the people praying for him instead for themselves and realized that the role of yokozuna goes beyond the white rope belt and the prizes accompanying the wins; he abandoned the idea of retirement, returned to the clay dohyo ring and since then he has been beating records one after the other.
The climax was yesterday when he did the undoable: he dethroned legendary 1960s-1970s yokozuna Taiho, a man who he always thought of as a teacher (the second character in his name is the same as that of Taiho) and to whom he had promised, two days before the latter’ death on January 2013, that he would; with his characteristic generosity, Taiho had replied that he was the only one who could do it, provided he’d never do anything to defame his honor. And in the 15 years of his involvement with sumo, through hardships related to both his origin and his physical inadequacies, Hakuho managed to win, not only in numbers but also in the heart of the Japanese and to make sumo again popular without making concessions and without stepping outside the lines; what we saw yesterday in Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan arena was an once in a lifetime occurrence.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.