American Sumo in Japan

Hefty wrestler nearly became sumo's grand champion - a letter from Tokyo

CARTOONISTS around the world nearly lost a cliche image of Japan this week. The Japanese almost lost a tradition. And George Bush nearly won at least one "level playing field" with Japan.

An American athlete, who goes by the name of Konishiki ("tiny brocade") and who weighs in at a blubbery 576 pounds, came close to being the first foreigner ever to be declared grand champion of sumo, that ancient and elephantine form of wrestling which the Japanese call their "sport of emperors."

For nearly a decade, Konishiki, a k a the "dump truck," has risen up the ranks of sumo by merely walking forward. The sheer bulk of his belly, more than his wrestling style, drives opponents out of the sport's elevated clay ring. As Japanese have long suspected of Americans, might makes right. He is the heaviest sumo wrestler ever.

Sometimes Konishiki, who serves as a negative lesson in cellulite control, lands full force on his dwarfed Japanese rivals, like the Pillsbury dough-boy falling on Mr. Bill. It's substance over style.

But somehow Konishiki never wins enough to be the champ.

"The pressure is hanging heavily over his head," says Gene Saltzgaver, sportswriter for the Asahi newspaper.

Tradition falls hard in Japan. In three centuries of recorded history, sumo has had about 50 grand champions. All have been Japanese.

"Guest athletes," such as the few dozen foreigners allowed to participate in sumo and Japanese baseball, are expected to follow certain rules, such as not actually trying to be top dog in a sport dominated by Japanese and which is steeped in ritual. They are only exotic additions to please the crowd.

"Japan should be a closed society in terms of rice and sumo," said Akiyuki Nosaka, a noted commentator.

Konishiki, a Samoan-American whose real name is Salevaa "Sally" Atisanoe, won the last 15-day sumo tournament, one of six held every year.

To be eligible for promotion to yokozuna, or grand champion, he needed to prevail over his opponents at the current match at Tokyo's Kokugigan, sumo's sacred stadium. But he lost three matches early on, putting him out of the running this year.

The sport is tightly regulated by the Japan Sumo Association, which in turn is incorporated by the government. Although sumo is not exactly a trade barrier, many foreigners wonder if the association would actually give the grand title to a foreigner, citing subjective judgments on his occasional lapse of Japanese "fighting spirit" or a lack of traditional style.

Just as Commodore Perry opened Japan to the world in 1854 with his "Black Ships," Konishiki is opening sumo to foreigners. Thus he is also called a "nuclear aircraft carrier."

To help his cause, Konishiki has learned Japanese, intends to become a Japanese citizen, and plans to marry his Twiggy-like Japanese girl friend.

And he also has Uncle Sam behind him.

The United States ambassador to Japan, Michael Armacost, is quoted as saying that Konishiki "is the most superior US product ever to be exported to Japan."

And President Bush, who was unable to meet Konishiki on his recent trip to Tokyo, promised to invite him to the White House - when, not if, he becomes yokozuna.

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