Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Sea of Crises

When he comes into the ring, Hakuho, the greatest sumotori in the world, perhaps the greatest in the history of the world, dances like a tropical bird, like a bird of paradise. Flanked by two attendants — his tachimochi, who carries his sword, and his tsuyuharai, or dew sweeper, who keeps the way clear for him — and wearing his embroidered apron, the kesho-mawashi, with its braided cords and intricate loops of rope, Hakuho climbs onto the trapezoidal block of clay, two feet high and nearly 22 feet across, where he will be fighting. Here, marked off by rice-straw bales, is the circle, the dohyo, which he has been trained to imagine as the top of a skyscraper: One step over the line and he is dead. A Shinto priest purified the dohyo before the tournament; above, a six-ton canopy suspended from the arena’s ceiling, a kind of floating temple roof, marks it as a sacred space. Colored tassels hang from the canopy’s corners, representing the Four Divine Beasts of the Chinese 1 constellations: the azure dragon of the east, the vermilion sparrow of the south, the white tiger of the west, the black tortoise of the north. Over the canopy, off-center and lit with spotlights, flies the white-and-red flag of Japan.Japanese mythology, like many aspects of early Japanese culture, was heavily influenced by China.

Hakuho bends into a deep squat. He claps twice, then rubs his hands together. He turns his palms slowly upward. He is bare-chested, 6-foot-4 and 350 pounds. His hair is pulled up in a topknot. His smooth stomach strains against the coiled belt at his waist, the literal referent of his rank:yokozuna, horizontal rope. Rising, he lifts his right arm diagonally, palm down to show he is unarmed. He repeats the gesture with his left. He lifts his right leg high into the air, tipping his torso to the left like a watering can, then slams his foot onto the clay. When it strikes, the crowd of 13,000 souls inside the Ryogoku Kokugikan, Japan’s national sumo stadium, shouts in unison: “Yoisho!” — Come on! Do it! He slams down his other foot: “Yoisho!” It’s as if the force of his weight is striking the crowd in the stomach. Then he squats again, arms held out winglike at his sides, and bends forward at the waist until his back is near parallel with the floor. Imagine someone playing airplane with a small child. With weird, sliding thrusts of his feet, he inches forward, gliding across the ring’s sand, raising and lowering his head in a way that’s vaguely serpentine while slowly straightening his back. By the time he’s upright again, the crowd is roaring.

In 265 years, 69 men have been promoted to yokozuna. Just 69 since George Washington was a teenager. 2 Only the holders of sumo’s highest rank are allowed to make entrances like this. Officially, the purpose of the elaborate dohyo-iri is to chase away demons. (And this is something you should register about sumo, a sport with TV contracts and millions in revenue and fan blogs and athletes in yogurt commercials — that it’s simultaneously a sport in which demon-frightening can be something’s official purpose.) But the ceremony is territorial on a human level, too. It’s a message delivered to adversaries, a way of saying This ring is mine, a way of saying Be prepared for what happens if you’re crazy enough to enter it.

Hakuho is not Hakuho’s real name. Sumo wrestlers fight under ring names called shikona, formal pseudonyms governed, like everything else in sumo, by elaborate traditions and rules. Hakuho was born Mönkhbatyn Davaajargal in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, in 1985; he is the fourth non-Japanese wrestler to attain yokozuna status. Until the last 30 years or so, foreigners were rare in the upper ranks of sumo in Japan. But some countries have their own sumo customs, brought over by immigrants, and some others have sports that are very like sumo. Thomas Edison filmed sumo matches in Hawaii as early as 1903. Mongolian wrestling involves many of the same skills and concepts. In recent years, wrestlers brought up in places like these have found their way to Japan in greater numbers, and have largely supplanted Japanese wrestlers at the top of the rankings. Six of the past eight yokozuna promotions have gone to foreigners. There has been no active Japanese yokozuna since the last retired in 2003. This is a source of intense anxiety to many in the tradition-minded world of sumo in Japan.

As a child, the story goes, Davaajargal was skinny. This was years before he became Hakuho, when he used to mope around Ulaanbaatar, thumbing through sumo magazines and fantasizing about growing as big as a house. His father had been a dominant force in Mongolian wrestling in the 1960s and ’70s, winning a silver medal at the 1968 Olympics and rising to the rank of undefeatable giant. It was sumo that captured Davaajargal’s imagination, but he was simply too small for it.

When he went to Tokyo, in October 2000, he was a 137-pound 15-year-old. No trainer would touch him. Sumo apprentices start young, moving into training stables called heya where they’re given room and board in return for a somewhat horrifying life of eating, chores, training, eating, and serving as quasi-slaves to their senior stablemates (and eating). Everyone agreed that little Davaajargal had a stellar wrestling brain, but he was starting too late, and his reedlike body would make real wrestlers want to kick dohyo sand in his face. Finally, an expat Mongolian rikishi (another word for sumo wrestler) persuaded the master of the Miyagino heya to take Davaajargal in on the last day of the teenager’s stay in Japan. The stablemaster’s gamble paid off. After a few years of training and a fortuitous late growth spurt, Davaajargal emerged as the most feared young rikishi in Japan. He was given the name Hakuho, which means “white Peng”; a Peng is a giant bird in Chinese mythology.

Hakuho’s early career was marked by a sometimes bad-tempered rivalry with an older wrestler, a fellow Mongolian called Asashoryu (“morning blue dragon”), who became a yokozuna in 2003. Asashoryu embodied everything the Japanese fear about the wave of foreign rikishi who now dominate the sport. He was hotheaded, unpredictable, and indifferent to the ancient traditions of a sport that’s been part of the Japanese national consciousness for as long as there’s been a Japan.

This is something else you should register about sumo: It is very, very old. Not old like black-and-white movies; old like the mists of time. Sumo was already ancient when the current ranking system came into being in the mid-1700s. The artistry of the banzuke, the traditional ranking sheet, has given rise to an entire school of calligraphy. Imagine how George Will would feel about baseball if he’d seen World Series scorecards from 1789. This is how many Japanese feel about sumo.

Asashoryu brawled with other wrestlers in the communal baths. He barked at referees — an almost unthinkable offense. He pulled another wrestler’s hair, a breach that made him the first yokozuna ever disqualified from a match. Rikishi are expected to wear kimonos and sandals in public; Asashoryu would show up in a business suit. He would show up drunk. He would accept his prize money with the wrong hand. (...)

Hakuho began to make waves around the peak of Asashoryu’s invulnerable reign. Five years younger than his rival, Hakuho was temperamentally his opposite: solemn, silent, difficult to read. “More Japanese than the Japanese” — this is what people say about him. Asashoryu made sumo look wild and furious; Hakuho was fathomlessly calm. He seemed to have an innate sense of angles and counterweights, how to shift his hips a fraction of an inch to annihilate his enemy’s balance. In concept, winning a sumo bout is simple: either make your opponent step outside the ring or make him touch the ground with any part of his body besides the soles of his feet. When Hakuho won, how he’d done it was sometimes a mystery. The other wrestler would go staggering out of what looked like an even grapple. When Hakuho needed to, he could be overpowering. He didn’t often need to.

The flaming circus of Asashoryu’s career was good for TV ratings. But Hakuho was a way forward for a scandal-torn sport — a foreign rikishi with deep feelings for Japanese tradition, a figure who could unite the past and future. At first, he lost to Asashoryu more than he won, but the rivalry always ran hot. In 2008, almost exactly a year after the Yokozuna Deliberation Council promoted Hakuho to the top rank, Asashoryu gave him an extra shove after hurling him down in a tournament. The two momentarily squared off. In the video, you can see the older man grinning and shaking his head while Hakuho glares at him with an air of outraged grace. Over time, Hakuho’s fearsome technique and Asashoryu’s endless seesawing between injury and controversy turned the tide in the younger wrestler’s favor. When Asashoryu retired unexpectedly in 2010 after allegedly breaking a man’s nose outside a nightclub, Hakuho had taken their last seven regulation matches and notched a 14-13 lifetime record against his formerly invincible adversary.

With no Asashoryu to contend with, Hakuho proceeded to go 15-0 in his next four tournaments. He began a spell of dominance that not even Asashoryu could have matched. In 2010, he compiled the second-longest winning streak in sumo history, 63 straight wins, which tied a record set in the 1780s. He has won, so far, a record 10 tournaments without dropping a single match. When I arrive in Tokyo, in early January 2014, Hakuho has 27 championships, two more than Asashoryu’s career total and within five of the all-time record. That he will break the record is a foregone conclusion. He is in his prime, and since winning his first basho in May 2006, he has won more than half of all the grand tournaments held in Japan.

Watching Hakuho’s ring entrance, that harrowing bird dance, it is hard to imagine what his life is like. To have doubled in size, more than doubled, in the years since his 15th birthday; to have jumped cultures and languages; to have unlocked this arcane expertise. To be followed on the street. To be a non-Japanese acting as a samurai-incarnate, the last remnant of a fading culture. At the time when I went to Tokyo, there was one other yokozuna in Japan, Harumafuji, another Mongolian. He was widely seen as a second-tier champion, and when I arrived he was out with an ankle injury. Hakuho is everything. How do you experience that without losing all sense of identity? How do you remember who you are?

by Brian Phillips, Grantland |  Read more:
Image: uncredited