Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2011.02.22

A Match-rigging Scandal and Cultural Differences

Some readers may wonder why I have chosen to write about the match-rigging scandal that is rocking the sumo world in my foreign policy/security column but the scandal actually symbolizes cultural differences between Japan and the west. I do not mean to suggest that match-rigging exists in Japan, but not in the west, or vice versa. I would like to point out, however, that there is a very slight but not insignificant difference between the two regarding the subject of "rules."

Since the match-rigging scandal was first reported -- at the beginning of February -- the media has reported on it extensively and on a daily basis. The chairman and directors of the Japan Sumo Association, realizing the seriousness of the scandal, have apologized to the public and sumo fans, and have cancelled the spring grand tournament, as well as all future tournaments, while a special investigation panel continues its inquiry.

Now critics who are knowledgeable about sumo claim variously that: "Match-rigging has always (or never) existed." "It is inherent (or not in its nature.)" "Low-ranked wrestlers do not get paid enough." "Operating stables is extremely expensive." "The wrestlers are not subjected to enough education and character development." "In recent years, there have been successive incidents of stabbing, marijuana use, and betting on baseball games, but most wrestlers regard these as not their problem." "Stable owners and stable operations are the problem." "The oversight committee was supposed to prevent these problems but is, in fact, ineffective." "The Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, which has jurisdiction over sumo, is not carrying out its supervisory functions." They also point out that, from now on, "Wrestlers should be aware of their responsibilities. The Japan Sumo Association should reform itself. It should go back to the basic principles to start afresh. It should implement a self-cleansing mechanism. Masters should improve their supervision of the wrestlers. Stables and master system should be reformed. It is necessary to introduce a screening system for wrestlers to become stable masters." They also point out that sumo is a national sport and that it is a part of Shinto rituals, but it is also sports and entertainment.

It seems as if all the arguments about the whys and wherefores of the scandal have been laid on the table. I have noticed, however, that no one has pointed out the need to establish clear rules for the future. It may be an overstatement to assert that no one has pointed this out, but that is my impression. The absence of clear rules and the call for rules - is highly symbolic of how Japan often grapples with these kinds of problems.

I started to think about the difference of attitude toward 'rules' when the Russian sumo wrestler, Wakanohou, who was expelled from the sumo world due to marijuana use, commented during a television interview that "there should be clear rules," even while confessing that there was match-rigging. Wakanohou was in the sumo world for not too long and, therefore, he probably did not have a deep understanding of the way of the sumo world; he was quick, however, to point out the need for clear rules. This must be because he is a westerner.

Japanese place importance on rules. They are stickler for obeying regulations, as in no other country. For example, soon after the Second World War, when food was scarce, a judge died of starvation because he refused to buy rice in the black market. Japanese, however, have a different attitude toward rules than westerners. I do not mean to say that, when there are disputes, Japanese are averse to making judgments in accordance with established rules. What I am trying to highlight is that the Japanese have different attitudes toward rule making and rule changes. Japanese believe that rules should not be changed once established.

Some time ago, the rules were changed for combined ski competitions. This happened at a time when Japanese skiers were winning all the time; once the rules changed, however, they were not able to win any longer. Many Japanese felt that the rules were changed for the purpose of preventing Japanese skiers from winning. The real reason may have been different, however. Perhaps the rules were changed because the old rules were not rational. We should not readily resort to nationalistic sentiment.

One almost could argue that for westerners, rules are not just to be followed but also to be made, while the Japanese tend to think that rules are just to be followed. Rule making is important in a democracy and different attitude toward the making of rules appears to be founded on political traditions.

Moreover, for Japanese, rules are not the be-all and end-all, but provide only the basics. Therefore, they may not always be regarded as necessarily all-important. Japanese put importance on achieving the ultimate that cannot be explained in words. By comparison to the higher goal of virtuoso performance, rules are themselves just tools for mass production. That must be why people say that "Sumo is a Shinto ritual."

Now that there are many non-Japanese sumo wrestlers, and there are almost seven hundred wrestlers in the sumo world, it is time to lay out some basic and clear rules. Each wrestler must be informed of these rules before he is told to strive for becoming a grand master of traditional arts. These rules should include, for example, "You must not intentionally lose at a sumo match in exchange for remuneration. Those engaged in such a behavior will be expelled." The resolve and new attitude of the Japan Sumo Association will best be demonstrated if they establish such rules.