See you at the dohyo, eh?

The boys of sumo descend on Vancouver, in a hokey, glorious cross-cultural match.

Sure, the big crowds had a grand exotic time, watching Japan’s 40 top sumo rikishi do that big thing they do in Vancouver, BC’s Pacific Coliseum two weekends back. But how many had any inkling of the multiple cross-cultural inversions and ironies that underlaid what was billed, with minimal hyperbole, as a “Once in a Lifetime” event?

See end of article for related links.

Start with the site itself. After Saturday’s meet, I ran into Bob Mackin, a sportswriter for BC’s Richmond News. He waved at Hastings Park, where Pacific Coliseum sits, and explained that this was where the authorities gathered up the area’s Japanese residents in 1942 for forced relocation to the chilly Canadian interior. (Snow didn’t only fall on cedars south of the border.)

Mackin explained that the wartime internment helped kill what had been a thriving British Columbia sumo scene. The immigrant fishermen of Steveston had their own dohyo (ring), and also wrestled at the Steveston Opera House. But by the time they were allowed to return home, in 1949 or ’50, they were past their prime. And the next generation was uninterested in slamming around in skimpy mawashi loincloths; judo was the hot new sport.

Nevertheless, BC did launch another, non-Japanese contender for sumo glory: Richmond’s John Tenta, who in the 1980s made it to the majors and, according to Mackin, never lost a bout in his single season. But he couldn’t hack the feudal beya (sumo stable) life, and returned to join the less authentic, but more lucrative, World Wrestling Federation.

Where Tenta bowed out, however, two other North Americans—Hawaiians, anyway—have triumphed, both as wrestlers and, in demanding Japanese eyes, as embodiments of the grace and modesty that befit a rikishi. Akebono, a.k.a. Chad Rowland, is sumo’s household name and first foreign-born yokozuna (grand champion). He stands out literally as well—at 512 pounds and more than 6 feet, 8 inches, the biggest rikishi of all. Musashimaru (Fiamalu Penitani) the second-biggest rikishi, is the next likely contender for yokozuna.

“Maru” and Akebono are buddies who wrestle on the same “East” side in regular bashos. But this exhibition basho was a free-for-all—every rikishi for himself, as though Junior Griffey were trying to hit off Randy Johnson. That produced an even stranger showdown on Sunday when the two other yokozuna, Takanohana and the newly crowned Wakanohana, contested the quarter final. Taka and Waka aren’t just “West” teammates: They’re brothers and (perhaps more important in the cloistered sumo world) stablemates in the same beya run by their ex-rikishi father—scions of a legendary sumo dynasty, upholding technique and conditioning against the Hawaiians’ size and force. (At a sumo-svelte 290 pounds, Waka has the muscle definition of a sprinter, but his bigger, younger brother Taka still beat him.)

But Saturday was, as the fan sitting next to me exclaimed, “a Hawaiian fight!” In fierce, seesaw semifinals, with the crowd stomping to bust the bleachers, Akebono bested Takanohana, and Musashimaru ejected Wakanohana. “I flew all the way from Hawaii for this,” Number One Fan exulted, “and it was worth it!” He showed off the T-shirt he’d already gotten Akebono to sign, purchased at Akebono’s mother’s Sumo Connection shop on Oahu (“That’s my son, the yokozuna”), and ran off to beg an autograph from another local boy made good. Konishiki (Salevaa Atisanoe) was the first Hawaiian to break the Japan barrier, and at 604 fighting pounds the biggest rikishi ever. Now, newly retired, he’d dropped 80 pounds, cut his ceremonial hair, and thrown a dress jacket over his kimono to do color commentary for the proceedings. Asahiyutaka, sumo’s teen heartthrob, was “very popular with the girls in Japan,” Konishiki noted. “Almost as popular as I am.”

And so it went, Sumo Lite, adding one gimmick after another for novice foreign fans. Musoyama and Kaio “The Human Juicer” clowned around the sacred dohyo with a mob of little boys dressed in mawashi. A “Hello Kitty Club” booth stood amidst the usual vendors of sumo T-shirts, figurines, and woodblock-style cards. The rikishi seemed to throw in extra blustering, growling, and grimacing. Had sumo taken a page from our own (very different) pro wrestling. Or did they just feel less inhibited away from home?

But tailored though it was for us, this rare and splendid spectacle wasn’t really staged for us. Good thing; with all the attendant publicity and ceremonial detours to meet Parliament and so on, and with seats as cheap as $22 (less from scalpers), it stood to lose a bundle. But the audience was just part of another package. The basho’s organizer, Bollywood refugee Parmesh Bhatt, runs much of the Japanese tour trade to Canada. Nicer though it is, Vancouver lags way behind, say, LA in exposure. But bashos regularly attract 30 million Japanese TV viewers. Sure enough, the Japanese TV networks obligingly wrapped their coverage of this one in glowing footage of charming Victoria, happening Vancouver, and majestic fjords and forests. By coming to Vancouver, Waka and Taka became ambassadors for Vancouver. Once in a lifetime, indeed.

Or maybe not. Seattle promoters take note, and forget about trying to glom the Olympics. I’d love to see this show again.

Related Links:

Canadian Sumo site with hype on Vancouver Basho

Sumo rankings

Sumo Wrestling site with glossary and updates