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Hawaiians Not Welcome

Have the former giants of sumo secretly been shut out?


Imagine an Olympic Games where the IOC decided that Blacks could not compete in the sprint events because they were rather too fast for their own good; or which barred Whites from swimming, rowing, and cycling simply because they dominated these sports. There would be outrage and quite rightly so; but mainly because such blatant discrimination and rampant anti-meritocracy would be impossible to hide. The insanity and injustice would be palpable and jarring. But imagine if the same trick could be pulled off without anyone realizing.

In that case, sports fans would soon acclimatize themselves to European or Japanese sprinters breaking the tape in the 100m, African or Chinese swimmers leading in the final length of the pool, and crews of Arabs or Indians nosing their boats across the finishing line in the rowing events.

Likewise, sports journalists and bloggers would soon find fascinating new storylines about the drama of the sports that would compensate for the loss in performance. Despite the radical changes in the looks of the winners and the decline in quality, the sports would still be fully functioning entities and no one would be any the wiser.

Of course, such a massive deception is simply impossible. Even if whole racial groups could be quietly excluded from specific sports in an underhanded way, well-informed sports fans would ask too many awkward questions. They would compare past to present performance and ask why Jamaican and African American sprinters had stopped competing in a sport they were naturally so gifted in. They would also remark on the obvious differences between the modern non-white swimmers and the greats of the past like Michael Phelps, Ian Thorpe, and Mark Spitz, who were all White.

It would simply be impossible to hide such facts, along with the natural talent of specific groups in particular sports. Impossible anywhere, that is, except in Japan and the seedy world of sumo.

With a professional ruling body that favors 'gentlemen's agreements,' unspoken understandings, and arcane 'traditions,' which are immune to criticism, the insiders who run sumo can make a mafia convention look like an open day at a greenhouse factory. Quite clearly, if these sumo lords come to a collective decision to do something, it gets done, and without much leakage to the media and the outside world, not that the Japanese media ever goes very far out of its way to dig up a scandal. In a cliquish society like Japan that is not how it works.

The recent purging of Russian wrestlers may be an example of their behind-the-scenes way of controlling and shaping their sport in a way that meets with their approval, but whether it is or not, a much better example exists in the remarkable rise and just as incredible fall of Hawaiian sumo.

Musashimaru wins again.
Between 1989 and 2002, a trio of great Hawaiian wrestlers – Konishiki, Akebono, and Musashimaru – won a total of 26 grand tournaments. Also, following the retirement of the heroically overstretched Wakanohana as yokozuna (grand champion) in March 2000, two of the sport's three remaining yokozuna were Hawaiians. Now, incredibly, there is not even a single Hawaiian rikishi in professional sumo, not even as a low-ranking juryo, bravely working his way up the ranks.

If the same drastic decline had happened to any other group in any other sport, there would have been an outcry or at least a major incidence of head-scratching. A search of the web reveals, however, that not an eyelid has been batted by this astounding reversal.

What has happened? Has Hawaii suddenly disappeared back into the fiery depths of the central Pacific from whence the fire goddess Pele threw it up? Has a mystery illness been unleashed on the isles, nipping all Hawaiian sumo talent in the bud? Have extra-terrestrials been making frequent forays to the island paradise to kidnap any preternaturally large and powerful examples of humankind? Has all the hulking talent of the islands suddenly gone off to play American football instead?

A much more rational explanation for the sudden downturn of Hawaiian sumo is racism – low-key, subtle, disguised, and dirty, maybe – but racism all the same.

When the great wave of Hawaiian wrestlers first breezed into the sport in the 1980s, they brought added interest to a flagging sport and helped boost revenues. But their great size – both in bulk and height – and the dominance this brought started to threaten the Japanese and indeed the Oriental character of the sport, as well as the particular skill sets that many fans liked to see. By weakening the point of spectator identification, this started to threaten the long-term popularity of the sport.

In 1992, after winning his third grand tournament, Konishki was passed over for promotion to yokozuna because he lacked something called hinkaku, a subjective term, variously defined as nobility, dignity, or character. Essentially, this was because his victories were related to his not necessarily elegant bulldozing technique. Similar complaints were made about Akebono and Musashimaru, whose bulk and strength greatly narrowed the possible variations in any fight.

The Hawaiians moved the sport in a direction that the sumo elite clearly did not like. The fact that ten years later all the Hawaiians have disappeared, strongly suggests that some kind of under-the-table gentlemen's agreement had been made between the stable bosses and the JSA not to recruit any more Hawaiians. 


This may also explain why competitive stable bosses then intensified their efforts to seek sumo talent in other parts of the world not covered by the gentlemen's agreement. The rise of Mongolian and Eastern European wrestlers inversely echoes the fall of the Hawaiians!

The Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu, for example, was recruited by the same stable that had introduced Konishiki to sumo, and he became yokozuna in same year that Musashimaru retired.

In the name of making sumo bouts trials of skill rather than bulk, aficionados of sumo, many of them Westerners, may condone or wink at such an under-the-table agreement to exclude the giants of Hawaii. But, bulk combined with great strength is a characteristic of the Polynesian people, in the same way that sprint speed is an Afro-Caribbean or American trait and heavyweight boxing an Eastern European specialty.

To secretly exclude the wrestling characteristics of Hawaiians from pro sumo means barring Hawaiians themselves, and this is the phenomenon that is usually designated "racism" with all the shrillness and hysteria that it evokes elsewhere in the world, but which in Japan is greeted with barely a murmur.


Colin Liddell
Written for Metropolis but unpublished
October, 2008
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