Over the years, it feels as if we have reached (or are trying to reach) a sort of cultural-awareness enlightenment. Collectively as North-American media consumers, we have become a lot more sensitive and disapproving when it comes to culturally unaware content. Whether it be the geisha costume Katy Perry unapologetically flaunted at the American Music Awards in 2013, or the cornrows Kylie Jenner showed off on her Instagram selfie. Our generation of media users have become beyond just passive consumers – we have become active citizens with the power to voice our concerns about what is moral and what is not.
However, unfortunately it seems that the media landscape for sports in general is a little bit behind. It was only at the beginning of this year, 2018, that we’ve decided Chief Wahoo of the Cleveland Indians, might be a racist depiction of the Indigenous people. It was in 2017 that Yuli Gurriel, a Houston Astros player of the MLB, thought it was appropriate to make a racially insensitive gesture to mock Iranian-Japanese player, Yu Darvish.
For the main focus of this article, an example that especially hits home for someone like myself, of Japanese descent, is the cultural appropriation that surrounds sumo wrestling. We’ve all come across this image before – a person wearing an air-inflated fat suit with a black belt around it. We have come to understand it today as a comedic costume, something frequently encountered on your favourite TV show, and on Halloween, worn by your old high-school friend. Throughout this blog post, I hope to explore the contexts that exist around sumo wrestling that allows it to be portrayed mostly as a joke in the North American sports and media landscape.
Before I continue on with this dialogue, I’d like to give you an introduction to sumo wrestling. One of the reasons why it is acceptable to make fun of sumo wrestling, I believe, is the lack of understanding of the history and the cultural significance. Sumo wrestling is a national sport in Japan, dating back as far as 23BC. (Tomlinson, 2010). Reproducing the hierarchical system that existed in the military as the foundation of the society, sumo wrestlers even to this day are ranked in order of their strength and participate in daily regimens and activities according to their hierarchical position. Not only was sumo wrestling historically a daily sport for the people of Japan, but some artifacts demonstrate how sumo wrestling began as a Shinto (a Japanese religion similar to Buddhism) practice. According to Hays,
“There are many religious traditions in sumo: wrestlers sip sacred water and throw purifying salt into the ring before a match; the referee dresses like a Shinto priest, a Shinto shrine hangs over the ring. When wrestlers enter the ring they clap their hands to summon the gods.” (Hays, 2009)
Like so, the sport represents the roots of the systems that were put into place in the wider society, like hierarchy and respect for superiors. Sumo, “is as much a ceremony as it is a sport, reflecting its origins as a religious rite.” (Ochiai & Takeda, 2001) With this understanding of sumo and its cultural significance, I’d now like to explore the various contexts that surround it and shape our understanding of it, today.
The first aspect of North American culture that doesn’t allow sumo to be taken seriously, is the false construct we’ve created between athleticism and the body. As Edgar (2016) points out, we idolized muscular-but-toned body types, like Michael Phelps, so much on media that the “clean bulk” form became “the norm, against which others are judged, and towards which even non-athletes should aspire.” (Edgar, 2010) This type of social construct born from the athlete-national-hero stories normalized judging the levels of athleticism an individual has, based on their physical appearance and arbitrary numbers like BMIs (body mass indexes). Sumo wrestlers, who usually weigh around 300-400 pounds and ingest at least 5000-7000 calories a day, are therefore thought of as unhealthily obese in this context. (Tara, 2016) However, sumo wrestlers do not suffer symptoms from diseases commonly associated with obesity like diabetes and they spend 7+ hours everyday engaging in physical exercise through strict training regimens. In a society where we understand our body as “a political tool that is always tied to a specific set of social and historical conditions,” (Forsyth, 2013) the social conditions of the fat, unathletic body narrative of modern day plays a crucial role in portraying sumo wrestling as a joke, or simply something to laugh at.
Sumo in North America
The second aspect of the North American sports that allows sumo to be portrayed negatively, can be understood when asking the question – what does it mean for a Japanese sport in the athletic landscape of North America?
As previously stated, sumo has historically carried a specific cultural and social meaning. This might have been the case in Japan, but when being transported to North America, this meaning can change or lose its significance. As Nendel (2009) reflects in the context of surfing as an Indigenous Hawaiian practice, which later turned into a popular American sport,
“The spiritual essence of an activity that represented the cultural heritage of a people with a long history became a by-product that was discarded by white Westerners as they appropriated the indigenous sport of Hawaiian surfing and recreated it in the image of American ideals.” (Nendel, 2009)
Sumo, not having the physical “attractiveness” and “hero-like” qualities similar to other American sports like basketball and football, has been appropriated by being “recreated” as a joke, while at the same time erasing the meaning of cultural heritage behind it completely.
Not only is sumo a traditional Japanese sport, it can also be understood as a sport played mostly by Eastern-Asians, in comparison to whiteness. As we saw in the 1968 Olympics when black athletes raised their fists in solidarity and stood up against racism, sports and politics is necessarily intertwined. So, when a sport with a strong Eastern Asian background enters the North American sport landscape, this landscape necessarily represents a site of power and struggle. As Hylton and Lawrence (2015) points out in the case of the “whiteness” that exists in soccer,
“white athletic bodies are rarely thought of as ‘raced’ bodies by sociologists of sport and as such ‘whiteness’ has, regrettably, become the default, unmarked, normative position.” (Hylton & Lawrence, 2015)
When bringing sumo wrestling to the Western context, the Japanese bodies are forcefully compared to the “normative” white athletes, resulting in the othering and alienation of sumo from other sports. Instead of being considered as a serious sport with the same level of discipline and professionalism, sumo wrestling seems to be considered only in the context of comedy.
The third aspect of Western culture that enables sumo to be disregarded as a serious sport, is how it is represented in media. With media content being increasingly accessible and diversified, this plays a huge role in how a sport, or an entire culture, can be perceived. As I mentioned in the beginning, we’ve all seen it before; the inflatable sumo wrestler suit targeted as a “funny” costume. Recently, this trend has been shown on an Instagram video posted by the Toronto Raptors of the NBA, on a segment on the Ellen DeGeneres show, and even in an episode on one of my favourite TV series, The Office. This made me question – why is it that cultural appropriation in the form of a Japanese sport is normalized this much?
As Shiu (2006) puts it, “’yellowface’ performance [calls] for an investigation into the value of performing as a racial other for the sake of game play.” (Shiu, 2006). All three of the examples I mentioned of yellowface – where another race attempts to resemble or portray an Eastern-Asian culture or role – presents itself unapologetically under the veil of “game-play.” Here, we can dive into the topic of comedy versus racism, but that’s not the point here; the point is, that there is necessarily a sort of alienation when it comes to sport and politics. I believe this especially in the case of sumo wrestling, because it doesn’t feel like we’re making fun of an entire culture – it’s just a fat person with a belt. Not only does this appropriate and ignore the cultural significance of sumo, the “comedic” face of this type of oppression “ultimately replicates the logic of racial difference from the very start.” (Shiu, 2006) This “logic” of difference being the historical and cultural aspects that are ignored. Also mentioned in the introduction, I proposed that we are not passive consumers of media anymore, and that we have the capability today to have a say in what is appropriate and what is not. Unfortunately, though, I personally haven’t seen any type of resistance or disapproval when it comes to yellowface and sumo wrestling costumes. Ultimately, I feel that the portrayal of sumo wrestling in these ways is the representation of how behind sports is when it comes to cultural awareness and cultural politics.
I do, though, appreciate how far we’ve come over the past few years. I feel a sense of pride when it comes to being in the generation that has a voice and can contribute to the discussion of what is appropriate and what is not. However, it’s increasingly important for us collectively to understand that certain representations of sports are a representation of a whole culture. This starts with questioning what an “athletic body” looks like. We can’t all workout 6 hours a day and swim the thousands of rows Michael Phelps does, and such we can’t look at a certain body type and assume their athletic ability. We also have to consider the cultural and social context of a sport when bringing it into a site of power. In the context of sumo wrestling, the historical and social meaning cannot be lost when brought into the Western media landscape. To bring this idea home, we must continue to question media representations portrayed by the personalities in power.
Look, I understand. I know you love Ellen DeGeneres, and I also love The Office. We love laughing at people bouncing around in air-inflated outfits. But I dream of a day where sport is not thought of as separate from society’s political conditions, and I hope that the next time you see someone wearing a sumo wrestling costume, you ask yourself – what is the context of this scenario that allows this to happen?
Edgar, A. (2016). The Athletic Body. Health Care Analysis : HCA : Journal of Health Philosophy and Policy, Health care analysis : HCA : journal of health philosophy and policy, 10 September 2016.
Forsyth, J. (2013). Bodies of Meaning: Sports and games at Canadian residential schools. In J. Forsyth & A. Giles (eds.), Aboriginal Peoples and Sport in Canada: Historical foundations and contemporary issues (pp.1534). Vancouver, UBC Press.
Frost, Natasha. (2018). The Special Stew at the Heart of Sumo Wrestling. Web image retrieved from Public Domain.
Hays, Jeffrey. (2009). Sumo History: Religion, Traditions and Recent Decline. Facts and Details. Retrieved from factsanddetails.com
Hylton, K. & Lawrence, S. (2015). Reading Ronaldo: Contingent whiteness in the football media. Soccer & Society, 16(5-6), 765-782.
Jones, Sarah. (2017). He’s a big star! Jamie Foxx wears inflatable sumo wrestler costume for hilarious charades game with Ellen DeGeneres. Daily Mail UK. Web content. Retrieved from www.dailymail.co.uk
Nendel, Jim. (2009) Surfing in Early Twentieth-Century Hawai’i: The Appropriation of a Transcendent Experience to Competitive American Sport. The International Journal of the History of Sport. 26(16), 2432-2446.
Ochiai, & Takeda. (2001). Introduction to sumo wrestlers, the world’s largest athletes. Current Anaesthesia & Critical Care, 12(5), 267-272.
Shiu, Anthony Sze-Fai. (2006). What Yellowface Hides: Video Games, Whiteness, and the American Racial Order. Journal of Popular Culture, 39(1), 109-25.
Tara, Sylvia. (2016). Yes Sumo Wrestlers Are Obese – But Are They Unhealthy?. Medium. Web content. Retrieved from https://medium.com
Tomlinson, Alan. (2010). Sumo Wrestling. A Dictionary of Sports Studies. Oxford University Press.