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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Food for Thought

When I was in Japan, one night at our English class a student brought a little styrofoam container of "food" for us America-jin teachers to taste.

It was crickets.
Sauteed in soy sauce and sugar.

At first I thought, no way. Not eating bugs. Not a chance. You can't make me, can't pay me enough. I'd seen these in the grocery store--in the produce section, or was it the snack section?-- before and had mentally decided the bug-eaters had to be out of their minds.

Then I asked why.
Why did Japanese people think eating crickets was such a grand idea?

My friend answered, "After World War II, there was almost no food in the country. Some families had nothing." She knew someone who had one pumpkin for their whole family to last an entire winter. "Eventually the people started going up into the mountains to scrounge for insects. Crickets were the most filling. Now we eat them to remember. Remember what they sacrificed."

Oh.

She went on to tell me (and this was her opinion, so if someone has a different one, sorry. Just sharing hers.) that when the Marshall Plan went into effect and the United States sent rice and rice and more rice, the people were so thankful. (Although it surely took a lot of humility to accept it for many) that the began calling the U.S. "Beikoku"--the Rice Country.

The word for breakfast there is "asagohan." Morning rice. Lunch is "gohan." Rice. Dinner is "yuhan." Evening rice. So for America to become the Rice Country, that meant a lot.

I placed the cricket in my mouth.
I felt the spiny bristles of its back legs prick my tongue.
I chewed and swallowed...

So grateful for daily bread.
Or rice.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Kitchen Patrol

NOTE: I wrote this draft and meant to publish it at the beginning of July. When I went to check out the rankings I stumbled onto the news of the scandal (!) and got distracted and forgot to post this. It's still got some good information about the sumo lifestyle, even though it's a bit old. Apologies, sumo fans!

The July Basho in Nagoya begins this week. This is the schedule for all the basho (tournaments) of the whole year 2010. According to the Goo Sumo (Grand Sumo Kyokai) the first day of the July tournament is Sunday the 11th. The rankings were announced on Monday this week, the 5th. I think it must be nerve-wracking for the rikishi to wait between tournaments to see where they are ranked for the upcoming tournament. Even though the tournaments do happen every other month (the odd months) all year long, the rankings from the previous tournament don't get recalculated until just the week before the next tournament, so I'm sure sometimes the wrestlers don't even know which tier they will be competing in. I think that would drive me crazy.

I was reading about the rankings this week here. The tiers are divided like a pyramid, with the largest number of wrestlers in the lower ranks, and fewer and fewer as the skill level progresses. There is only one yokozuna, grand champion, but there are hundreds of jonokuchi, which are the bottom ranked amateurs.

The dividing line between the amateur level and the professional level comes between makushita  and juryo tiers. I read about the lifestyle leap between these levels, that the change between being a grunt amateur and a lap of luxury professional is a huge chasm. In fact, some of the rikishi consider the transition between these two levels to be more important and almost a greater victory than the leap into the sekitori or championship contender levels.

From what I understand, the reason for this is the life of the amateur level sumo wrestler basically bites. He has to get up early, no breakfast (as mentioned in an earlier post) has to go to work in the kitchen or cleaning somewhere, slaves for his senpai, or senior ranked person, has to do demeaning tasks for him like wipe his sweat, etc. He gets the worst of everything, only gets a tiny stipend, doesn't get paid for his wrestling if he wins, and is basically lower than dirt.

However, if he can make that big jump into juryo, suddenly our guy is  no longer the slave. In fact, he gets his own kohai, or junior level guy being his tsukebito, or servant-person. He gets paid for bout or tournament wins, gets out of kitchen duty, can sign those handprint autograph papers, and goes to practice first thing in the morning instead of good old KP. Sometimes a guy will even get his own sleeping quarters in the stable, and best of all, the hazing stops.

It sounds like what a lot of those lower level guys dream of. For sure. I myself would love to get out of kitchen duty every once in a while. I guess I'd better go put the pasta on to boil and stop thinking about sumo.

I'll check out the rankings later...

The World Sits Up and Takes Notice

Did I not post here a couple of months ago that sumo is the next big wave? That it was just poised on the cusp of being one of the most noticed new sports, that it is just about to take off?

I believe I did right here.

Well, dun-dun-dun! My prediction came true! Maybe not in the way I originally imagined, but like politicians often say, no press is bad press. When public awareness goes up, it goes up.

The August 12 issue of Time Magazine featured a fantastic slide show on sumo's woes entitled "The Changing Face of Sumo Wrestling."  Included is a great black and white pic of Baruto in the ring (love the smiling sumo.) Plus, there are a lot of the pictures of young men who are going into training. I love that the reporter calls the mawashi diaper thingy a "loin cloth belt" and that the high school kids are going shirtless at school. Who knew?

Go to the link and check out the pictures and captions. A lot of it repeats what I've posted about below, but the pictures really make it come alive!

There was a second article this week called "Cleaning Up Sumo." It's not available in its entirety online yet, but the blurb gives a hint about the way wrestlers come up through the training process, beginning even as pre-teens. It's a little disturbing. I had no idea they "farmed" them so young. Kinda icky in the text.

The phrase that struck me most was a quote from the high school sumo coach when he said parents used to send their sons to the sumo stables to make sure they got enough to eat. Now Japanese kids get plenty to eat at home and are too soft to sumo. (I'm paraphrasing.) They don't want to work that hard, he said. Times change.

High school sumo teams.

Maybe it's coming soon (in the next three decades!) to a high school near you.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Yes, this is still Earth

So, way back when, I was walking up and down this street in Japan. I was looking for something (can't remember what, but then, I can't remember much of anything that happens, now that I've become a mom. Brain power: zero.) I was on this street, which was a covered shopping area about a block long. The cover high above was opaque but let through a filtered sunlight and had a pink tint to it, bathing the whole area in a pink light. Intermittently, there were brilliant green slats, and they broke up the rose colored world.

The shopping venues seemed like a carnival, with mylar Hello! Kitty balloons, everything available in all pastel choices, and playing be-bop happy music as I walked. Stores had designer clothing, raw fish with their eyes staring out at me, pachinko parlors, ceramic good luck cats with a single paw held up by the cats' faces in greeting. There was a little shrine in one alcove.

Teenagers squatted in clusters, low on their haunches, with spiky and wildly colored hair and skin tight jeans, smoking or playing jan ken po (rock paper scissors) competitively, and laughing raucous laughter--for Japanese people, who are generally pretty soft spoken.

One street vendor had a cart like a hot dog cart, and atop it in steaming tins of water floated white tubes and triangles and circles. They were spotted brown, like tortillas are. I didn't dare try them--and when they were lifted out with tongs, they instantly shrunk to about 2/3 their size. (Later I learned they were something like fish stick hot dogs, but I didn't find that out while I was in Japan, so I never got brave enough to try the magical shrinking geometry.)

Every few feet there were vending machines--with bottled beer, rice, batteries, beetles, cigarettes, huge bottles of Fanta soda pop, underwear, farm fresh eggs. You name it, it could be had from the vending machine.

The music piped in through the street's speakers switched to "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother." The place smelled of incense and fish and old rain.

It was so different from the dry, broad-sky place where I grew up. So far away, in so many ways. And beautiful and strange at once. I tried my best to take it all in, and I am sure there are a thousand details I can't recall, and maybe some I'm blending in from a different street, but it was a feeling and a place at the same time.

Beautiful and foreign and strange.

I can't wait to go back.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Back in the Saddle Again

It sounds like the sport is trying to get itself up and going again after the scandal.

The annual "Summer Tour" of the outlying parts of Japan (also called Natsu Jungyo) is underway. Each summer the sport goes on tour to take the excitement to fans who live in outlying areas. Often the rikishi only give a faint show of effort during these bouts, as the outcome does not go toward any official ranking. Most people believe these bouts are just for show. However, as they try to ramp up back to respectability, reports say the wrestlers are not just phoning it in, but instead are giving it their all, even during these tour bouts.

I think that's good news. A complete humbling is necessary for real repentance, I believe.

There have been some glitches. The first stop on the tour was in the northwest of the island of Honshu in Niigata Prefecture. The suspension of some of the top wrestlers, like that of Chiyohakuho and Toyonoshima, already came to an end and they performed for this event this week. I wonder, however, if a suspension that does not even last past the end of the rest period between tournaments is a suspension at all.

Fans must have wondered something similar, too. Only about 60% of the tickets for this event were sold. Another city's stop of the tour, the city of Aomori at the very tip top of Honshu, canceled their event completely out of disgust with the scandal.

Other cities are still on the roster. Fukushima, Akita, and Kitaakita are upcoming.

If the wrestlers do not rally and clean up their act, I wonder if the fans will even allow the sport to survive in its present form. Even if they do, it's a little iffy.

Still, they have to start somewhere. The tour coach reminded the wrestlers, both juniors and high professionals, that the fans are their reason for being, so to give their best effort. Those guys can clearly give a big effort. I hope it's enough.

Also, there's an update on the resignation of the chairman. He did resign, for like 10 minutes. Then he was back. Now he's mad about leaks that he plans to resign due to the fact he is undergoing surgery for stomach cancer. Not due to the fact that the sport over which he should be on the watchtower is imploding. I, for one, am suspicious.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Bodyslam of Epic Proportions

The whole sport is getting rocked.
Yesterday the Chairman of the Japan Sumo Association (the sport's governing body) stepped down. Resigned. Shocking. Here's a link to the story. http://bit.ly/chLmfO The article also reads that there will be reformed instituted, reforms recommended by an independent panel, which they hope will cut the ties between sumo and the mafia and baseball betting via the underworld.

It's shocking for a lot of reasons. The main shocker to me is because I have heard how much money it costs for someone to buy a spot on the JSA. It's *millions* of yen. And they don't come up very often. A member of the JSA has to have been a former champion. These are guys with huge ego and huge bank accounts. They aren't simply appointed bureaucrats or middle managers. They have been the big guns for years.

The other reason is that to resign is to lose face. Losing face in Japan--well, now, that's a big deal. It could have repercussions on his family for a long time. It's not like in America where we are shocked for about six months, then the famous person can reinvent himself or herself and rise like a phoenix. They remember there, and forgiveness doesn't seem to exist. Even if it did, I think the person who felt like he/she had lost face would remember and feel shamed into a life of obscurity.

Ooh. The look on his face is bleak. But, it doesn't look like this guy used to wrestle. Everything I've read says the JSA is only allowed to be the former wrestlers. I need to dig deeper, considering this guy's normal looking size. That, or else he ended his fighting career and he went back to normal eating and sleeping habits and dropped the poundage. Ii, na. That would be nice, wouldn't it.

This whole scandal is getting me down. Where's the integrity, the purity of the game? As the Japanese say, iya da, na. Yuck.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Scandal. Ew.

First off, as a fan, I find little joy in reporting this. It's a huge disappointment. It reminds me of the summer major league baseball went on strike and then spent nearly a decade trying to get their fans back. Only this could be worse.

As of yesterday, the first arrest of  yakuza (Japanese mafia) members was made in connection with the betting scandal that came to light just before the Nagoya basho (touranment) last month. It sounds like this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The yakuza gangsters were part of the Yamaguchi-gumi, the nation's largest crime syndicate. The story of that can be read here.

The information began to come to light late in June, and as details emerged, Japan was shocked to discover that a number of the stars of the sport, including the top ranked Japanese native rikishi, Kotomitsuki, who got SACKED on the 4th of July. Whoa. He allegedly placed millions of yen worth of illegal bets through the mob, not on sumo bouts, but on baseball.

And Kotomitsuki was ranked really high--Ozeki. That's champion. Just below Grand Champion, Yokozuna. He was one of the deities..

Not only Kotomitsuki went down, though. A couple of dozen wrestlers, officials, and stablemasters bit the dust in the scandal, including a stablemaster named Otake, who borrowed nearly 30 million yen from Kotomitsuki to pay off the debts he himself had stacked up against the gangsters. Yikes.



The NHK is the Japanese national television station. For the past 57 years they have televised every sumo tournament. But, in light of the corruption, they opted to not broadcast the July basho in Nagoya. Shame is a big leverage tactic in Japan, I noticed while I was there, and this is evidence of how shameful the revelations were.

According to the story, in recent tournaments yakuza were given front row seats to the tournaments. I read in a different article that prior to the Nagoya tournament bouts each day, an announcer came over the loudspeaker and invited "anyone associated with organized crime to exit the building," which made me laugh at the image of a guy in an expensive suit looking around, pointing at himself, shrugging and then voluntarily getting up to leave. But it's a nice show of effort, right? Bless their hearts.

The sport has been rocked over the past three years with reports of horrible hazing (like that poor kid who got killed in training by the beer bottle beating) and bout-fixing.

I hope the sport can survive. Fans' tolerance level only goes so far. In Japan, there's a fan mentality pervading almost every aspect of life. If something is popular almost everyone likes it. If it goes out of favor, it can go out BIG time. Kind of precarious and teetering time for the national sport where the main skill necessary is balance.