When Salevaa Atisanoe was bidding for promotion to yokozuna, many sumo purists were horrified at the possibility, insisting the former University High football player lacked the requisite hinkaku or "dignity" to hold such an exalted rank in the sport most tied to the nation’s essence.
Nearly 20 years later sumo is curiously wrestling with its own issues of propriety.
So deep has the shame from a series of scandals become that the Nagoya Basho, which began in the shadow of Nagoya Castle on Sunday, is the first tournament in 57 years that won’t be shown live on nationwide TV in Japan. Moreover, the Emperor’s Cup, symbolic of a tournament championship, will not be awarded, many major sponsors have pulled out and seats, once hard to come by, are going unsold.
It is a far cry from the late 1980s and ’90s, when sumotori from Hawaii contributed to a string of sellouts, wide popularity and high TV ratings, making you wonder about the wisdom of their eventual exclusion.
The ascent of Atisanoe, who competed under the ring name Konishiki, was stopped short of yokozuna, but the international controversy over its xenophobic overtones opened the way for Chad Rowan (Akebono) and Fiamalu Penitani (Musashimaru) to reach the top.
In response to their unprecedented "Black Ships" emergence—a historical reference to Commodore Matthew Perry’s gunboat opening of Japan in the 1850s—the ruling Japan Sumo Association slapped a series of ever-tightening rules on foreigners, which ultimately resulted in slamming the door on recruits from Hawaii.
It would be simplistic to say their departure started sumo to spiral, but it has not done the sport any favors, either.
The Mongolians and Eastern Europeans who came in their place hardly elicited the interest that Hawaii sumotori had prompted. In addition, Japan found it difficult to produce the kind of homegrown stars that made for great rivalry and drama along the lines of Akebono vs. Takanohana or Musashimaru vs. Wakanohana.
Situations like the one in May, when 50 reputed members of Japan’s largest gang, the Yamaguchi-Gumi, were able to secure tickets in a prime ringside location visible to television cameras in a flaunting of sumo policy would have been unthinkable back then.
For one, those seats used to be the province of well-heeled companies. But these days, due to the drop in sumo’s popularity and sliding economy, sumo struggles to fill its arenas and its people are more susceptible to outside influences.
Witness a recent gambling scandal that resulted in the removal of a high-ranking sumotori and his stable boss and the disciplining of more than 20 sumotori. In a separate episode of misconduct, a yokozuna was forced to quit in disgrace. Then, there was the death of a 17-year-old recruit.
Sadly, it seems, sumo is making most of its headlines outside of the hard-packed earthen ring.
Once sumo was seen as an enduring symbol of Japan’s virtues, honor and refinement, high among them the much-prized hinkaku. In more recent years best-selling books have come to question what has become of them.
These days it is hard to look to sumo for the answers.