Wrestling with Diversity

Name the sport most associated with the Japan’. The answer is likely to be sumo. Yet, a sport so much at the traditional heart of the country is, seemingly, parting from the people, losing the interest of the new generation, receiving the kind of sensational sleaze-revelations one associates with boozy pre-Maradonnas, and worst of all, it is being invaded by… the gaijin, foreign-born athletes.

A recent Japan Times article reports a certain attitude of negativity and despair arising from the retirement of Takanohana, a famous yokozuna (a specially conferred title of ‘grand champion’): it bodes an era when the two supremes of the sport will be a Hawaiian-born and a Mongolian – there is not a Japanese wrestler within a belly’s width to match. And, though the number of foreign-born athletes is a mere 52 out of a current total of 674 active wrestlers (8 %) all of whom are well dispersed amongst the sumo stables, and a major drawing card at tournaments, elements of hurt amongst Japanese, resentment even, are detectable.

So, where is the practice of multiculturalism in this case? Is this attitude a kind of racism, a locked narrow-mindedness that fails to see the value of extending the sport’s veins abroad to gather new followers and grass-root participants? Frequently, the foreign-born athletes live in Japan, speak Japanese, and follow local customs. Ethnically, however, Japan is one of the most exclusive races and societies in the world: people whose parents and grandparents were born in Japan, whose only language is Japanese, still carry a Korean passport which accords them with the nationality of now distant descendants. Surely, if we are to establish a liberal, free-thinking, accepting world, this is a grip to unfasten? Three cheers for cultural diversity?

Perhaps not. In my experience, most Japanese are friendly and welcoming to foreigners. In fact, in juxtaposition to the strains in the sumo-world, the affection some younger Japanese foster can often amount to an obsessive admiration: the metropolitan multitude of Japan dye their hair to look Western, dress to American or European fashions; even in Manga cartoons, the good characters are depicted as wide-eyed, blond-ish youths. Hence, the baddies invariably harbour narrow eyes and dark, austere features. Is that more like multiculturalism? Can that serve as an example of a racial group respecting and tolerating the beliefs of others, even assimilating some into their own culture?

You may think Japan an awkward example. It is a country full of dichotomies, where each generalization sounds foolish and unjust. What I present here, however, is a set of notes and observations, not something to judge immediately either way. To understand the conditions of Japanese culture, or any other for that matter, takes more than reason and logic, and not necessarily a kind of ‘faith’. To be a student-liberal amidst masses of others who are not so acutely touched by job competition, inter-racial friendships and marriages, and cultural conflicts, is only the beginning; to carry the same stances into the ‘normal’ world involves sacrifices and a reappraisal of what it means to belong to a culture, to be a patriot or simply to be an –ish or –ese. Discussing cultural differences and ‘accepting’ other ethnic groups begs for compassion and a more flexible attachment to your own initial values: a kind of transcendence of beliefs themselves; perhaps, even an apathy; certainly more of an abstention, than a strong vote either way.

Each nation has particularities in its customs. Each race has prejudices. Japan seems to be proud of sumo, proud especially of the spiritual element of the contest, the ceremonies, the criterion of hinkaku (composure, dignity, strength of character), and to allow such honour to be invested ‘outside’ is problematic, as the sport’s history has shown. In a modern world, merging financially, racially and intellectually, multiculturalism aspires to show and practice an acceptance of others. What it is often fighting against, however, is tradition – that which has defined people for centuries, allotted them an idea of who they are and who they belong to, with allegiances, customs, and positions in the wider world. Those backing sumo may seem staunch, yet permit some sympathy here – in a Japanese metropolis which is fast losing a Japanese face, it hopes to maintain the heart.

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