Selling Sumo

Salevaa Atisanoe never had much time for tradition. As a hulking adolescent in Hawaii, he was always playing the clown. "Sale" was the kid who got his friends in trouble by making them crack up in class, the teammate who sprayed shaving cream on his buddies at football camp, the extrovert who hammed up the school's Polynesian dance revues by improvising his own groovy moves. By senior year he was a 6-foot-1 giant, weighing 380 pounds. An average student, Sale shocked his football coach with fast footwork on the field. Born to a poor family, he thought he had a good future as a musician or a cop. But a few days before graduation, Sale cut class, headed to Waikiki and met a strange man selling trinkets on the beach. That vendor was Curtis the Bull, a retired professional wrestler, who took one look at him and asked: "Ever heard of sumo? Wanna go to Japan?"

Sale didn't just go to Japan; he smashed his way in. The young American challenged the country's most traditional enclave, the world of sumo wrestling; he forced sumo to accept gaijin, or foreigners, into its top ranks. And so he became Konishiki, the sumo star, and--since 1994--a Japanese citizen. Along the way, Konishiki battled the xenophobia and hierarchies of Japan's national sport--and provoked the wrath of sumo's powerful old guard. Then Konishiki really tested his masters' patience: he quit the sport, took his wrestling name with him and launched a new career as Japan's most famous pitchman, a goofy persona who dresses in everything from Suntory whisky bottles to pink bunny suits. Konishiki's behavior--and his brazen, Western-style commercialism--has shocked the sumo world. "If sumo wanted different or interesting performers, it would end up looking like professional wrestling," says Kazuyasu Kyokudozan, a 34-year-old former sumo star who is now a member of Parliament. "Let's not forget that sumo is a world of tradition."

And a world that is under siege. To get an insight into a Japan torn between its traditions and the global market, take a look at the troubles of sumo. A mix of martial art and Shinto ritual, the sport once embodied Japan's essence--its emphasis on order and hierarchy, its highly mannered behavior, its unyielding respect for elders and traditions. But over the last decade, that facade of virtue has crumbled in the face of new temptations--dope, fast cars, girls--as much as from the gaijin invasion. In 1986, baseball replaced sumo as the most popular sport on Japanese television. Tournament organizers now have trouble selling seats for the sport's six tournaments a year. Young Japanese, weaned on Western pop culture and MTV, have little interest in its quaint traditions.

The sumo establishment, meanwhile, still rues the fact that brutish foreigners now dominate the sport. The big guys (really big) use their sheer weight instead of the traditional techniques that made sumo akin to an art. Last month the final bout in the Spring Tournament was between two Hawaiians named Musashimaru and Akebono, with a combined weight of 941 pounds; finally, the huge Musashimaru knocked down Akebono, and became just the second foreigner (Akebono was the first) to reach the grade of yokozuna, or grand champion.

Watching over sumo's rituals with a protective eye is the ultraorthodox Sumo Association, made up of leading members of Japan's business, cultural and political elite. The association's deepest fear is that the fabled sport will go the way of judo, an indigenous martial art first internationalized at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and subsequently dominated by foreigners. And they have a wary eye on America's National Basketball Association, which they see as a freak show for flamboyant but undisciplined megastars. Konishiki's arrival in the early 1980s triggered an influx of foreign athletes that reinvigorated sumo. But the trend threatened the association so fundamentally that in 1992 it slapped an informal ban on new gaijin recruitment. Since then just four foreign athletes, all of them Asian, have been allowed to join sumo stables, a cross between wrestling clubs and monasteries where wrestlers live, train and work together as a team.

Some fans would like to break the association's stranglehold over the sport, which seems frozen in ancient times. The huge advertising banners of corporate sponsorships that have turned the NBA, soccer and even tennis into multibillion-dollar businesses are nowhere to be seen. The referee is dressed as a Shinto priest. Wrestlers wear loincloths and pull their hair back in samurai topknots, throw salt to purify the ring, then square up in slow motion--for bouts that on average last just 30 seconds. It is a closed and arcane universe. "The world of sumo is very similar to the world of Japanese politics," one Osaka fan told the Nikkan Sports daily newspaper recently. "Much of it is hidden, and people who have already retired... select grand champions. To make sumo popular, we need to make it more open."

As Japan comes under pressure to abandon the cronyism of the past and embrace globalization, fans are clamoring for more transparency in the stadium, too. One critic in the Nikkan Sports daily recently suggested that the association is promoting too many yokozuna, diluting the sport's talent. The Osaka fan said that the Sumo Association itself is the problem: "Let's select grand champions with votes from the general public." Fans complain that even getting good tickets is hard for outsiders. The best seats--boxes near the ring--are sold out years in advance to big corporations and rich Japanese. "The old men at the Sumo Association should listen to the fans," said one 18-year-old student.

That's why Konishiki is so popular: he challenged the Sumo Association from the day he arrived in 1982. Konishiki was the eighth of 10 siblings in a poor family in Oahu, where he grew up on rice, tinned sardines and sausages. Konishiki's father, a Samoan who worked on military bases, routinely whipped his children with a belt for stepping out of line. Once, Konishiki got lashed with a garden hose for staying too late at the beach. "Some people might call my dad an abuser," says Konishiki's sister Kahua Sunia. "But none of us think that because when he hit us, he did it for a reason."

Konishiki's brute strength served him well as a novice. At the Takasago stable, he was met with awe, then xenophobic jealousy. The wrestlers marveled at his size--he already weighed as much as Japan's top wrestlers, and twice as much as his peers--and the strongest men challenged him to arm-wrestle. "I took them all to the mat," remembers Konishiki. His teammates got even. For the next year, the Hawaiian suffered merciless hazing. Coaches beat him with bamboo canes, spat on him and rubbed salt in his eyes. One veteran smashed him in the face with a beer bottle. Along with other recruits, he bathed and fed older wrestlers, and had to wipe clean the body parts they couldn't reach. "Because my father was so strict," he says, "being at the stable was easier than being at home."

To the sumo establishment, the most infuriating thing about Konishiki was his overwhelming aptitude in the ring. Whereas top Japanese wrestlers might spend three years honing techniques needed to climb above the junior ranks, Konishiki brutalized the competition and reached the sport's top level in just eight basho, or tournaments--a speed record that still stands. To stalwarts, his ascent violated sumo's rigid ranking system, a hierarchy that requires young warriors to pay heavy dues and wait their turn, even when that means heeding a stable master's order to throw a bout.

And Konishiki didn't simply win. He dominated seasoned wrestlers and revolutionized sumo. Although the annals of sumo record 70 distinct moves in the ring, many of them complex and acrobatic, the 474-pounder mastered just two: the oshi-dashi, or push, to drive an opponent backward, and the tsuki-dashi, or slap, to upset an opponent's balance. Konishiki combined these maneuvers to brutalize even the most experienced wrestlers; and he stared men down in the ring, breaking a taboo that prohibited young fighters from looking veterans in the eye. When he smashed into grand champion Takanosato, "the tired, ailing yokozuna's knees almost buckled under the impact of Konishiki's quarter ton of blubber and muscle," witnessed sportswriter Clyde Newton. The bout ended when the young warrior grabbed Takanosato by the throat and drove him out of the ring.

Konishiki's success was too much for the tradition bound sumo world to take. "Everyone was shocked," says Andy Adams, founding editor of Sumo World, a bimonthly magazine. "This guy came out of nowhere." Critics charged that Konishiki's body wasn't sculpted like that of a sumotori, or classic wrestler. Angry fans nailed a Konishiki effigy outside a Shinto shrine and mailed in death threats. Japanese sportswriters dubbed him Meat Bomb, Dump Truck and Black Ship--a xenophobic allusion to Commodore Matthew Perry's U.S. flotilla, which forced Japan open to trade in 1853. One Japanese magazine reported schemes to cripple Konishiki in practice, lace his traditional chankonabe stew with sugar to cause diabetes or bribe him to throw bouts.

And that was just the start. In February 1992, after Konishiki reached top form and won his second victory in three tournaments, many fans expected the Sumo Association to name him the first non-Japanese grand champion. But sumo's overlords balked. In April the debate over Konishiki deteriorated into an ugly verbal brawl. Writing in the Japanese monthly Bungeishunju, Noboru Kojima, a novelist and prominent member of the Sumo Association, published an article called "We Don't Need Gaijin Yokozuna." Foreigners, argued Kojima, lacked the hinkaku, or integrity, to rise to sumo's top rank. "What makes sumo different is its own peculiar characteristics of civility, which is the basis of Japanese morals and values," Kojima wrote. "I cannot agree with a school of thought that would make a gaijin grand champion as part of internationalization." In response, Konishiki called Kojima a racist.

The scandal blazed a trail for two other gaijin wrestlers from Hawaii who arrived in Japan in the late 1980s. The new champs, unlike Konishiki, are heeding sumo's bounds, and to most Japanese they are no longer viewed as intrusive foreigners. The first was Akebono, a towering former basketball player who became a yokozuna in 1993 with little controversy. Like Konishiki, the newest champ, Musashimaru, has legs like tree trunks and, at 473 pounds, outweighs most rivals by a wide margin. But the shy Musashimaru has crafted a nonthreatening profile. Upon becoming a yokozuna, he declared "learning fluent Japanese" to be his next big goal.

Sumo's old guard resisted Konishiki to the finish. When he decided to retire in 1997, they tried to take his fighting name, claiming it wasn't his to use. The dispute was about money. The association, which once banned wrestlers from doing sideline promotional work, lifted the restriction in 1995 but demanded a huge cut of any deal. In response, Konishiki resigned from the association. After a fight, the association allowed Konishiki to use his ring name, but only in English. In the symbolism-drenched world of sumo, it was the ultimate denial of his legitimacy as a wrestler.

Little good it did. Indeed, the controversies have only heightened Konishiki's star appeal. Recognizing that a new generation of Japanese are wrestling with tradition and the modern world themselves, advertisers played up Konishiki's edgy, iconoclastic reputation. In 1998 he made a series of breakthrough commercials for Japan's leading whisky distillery, Suntory. Hiroshi Sasaki, the campaign's creator, knew the huge Hawaiian's image "wasn't all that positive," but he chose him anyway, in a bid to buck the Japanese trend of slick liquor promotions featuring hunks and beauties. He dressed Konishiki as a whisky bottle, had him stumble upon a bear in the woods and put him in a pink bunny suit to ring in the Year of the Rabbit. The campaign--and Konishiki--got rave reviews. Says Sasaki: "I like ads that make people uncomfortable."

If sumo's old guard cringed, the rest of Japan loved it. Konishiki now sells radios for Sanyo, seats for United Airlines and vacations for Hawaii's state tourism bureau. In May, the TV Commercial Research Center named him Japan's most popular "talento" in 1998, making him the first-ever gaijin entertainer to top that survey.

Above all, young Japanese think Konishiki is cool. In April, two Japanese toy companies launched lines of Konishiki toys and accessories, including badges, mobile-telephone straps and five different action figures. Early sales tallies are so promising that both companies have begun developing additional products. According to a new survey, Konishiki's character ranked fourth in popularity among Japanese children--behind Hello Kitty, Mickey Mouse and Ultraman.

Sumo, meanwhile, is in the doldrums. "I don't understand why my father and grandfather can get excited about something so boring," says Satoko Kondo, a 17-year-old high-school girl. So far, there are no signs that the old guard plans to revitalize the ancient sport by promoting it like baseball or soccer, even though Konishiki has proved that sumo can sell. Such pandering to commercial whims, purists scoff, would violate sumo's integrity. But the demographics don't look too good. At a recent match, the only kids attending were on a school trip. As the flabby wrestlers pushed and shoved in the ring, the students looked bored to tears. Konishiki himself sees a new Japan emerging. Young people, he says, are "learning how to survive on their own... They're more into 'I want to be this,' and they set a goal." When kids say their goal is to make money while dressed as a pink bunny, we'll know that Japan has really changed.