John Gunning On The President’s Natsu Visit

Noted Sumo media icon John Gunning has authored another excellent piece for the Japan Times, reviewing the visit by US President Donald Trump’s visit to the Kokugikan during the final day of the Natsu basho.

From his article

Trump isn’t the first head of state to watch a sumo tournament, nor the first president to hand over a trophy in the ring, but the excessive security presence, and over-the-top restrictions put in place on the day, were illustrative both of the outsized importance of his office and the extreme emotions the man himself generates.

Any visit to sumo by a member of the Imperial family necessitates increased security, but nothing approaching the level of controls and checks at the Kokugikan last Sunday had ever been implemented.

Much has been made of the fact that sumo fans were those most negatively affected by the president’s presence.

As well as a reduction in the amount of available regular tickets, the number of same-day unreserved seats was cut in half, with the result that only those who had started queuing by 10 p.m. the night before were able to get in.

For fans that did attend, there were a number of differences too.

Cans and plastic bottles were banned, while any liquids in soft containers had to be sampled in front of security to prove that they weren’t dangerous substances.

Fans had to walk through metal detectors and have their bags searched on the way in, all the while being watched by the police and members of the U.S. Secret Service.

Facilities and services normally available at the venue were also curtailed or severely restricted.

One thing that John touches on briefly in his article is the monstrous logistic problems the President’s visit created. Specifically the heightened security protocol forced people to wait in an unthinkably long queue in hot and humid conditions while their bags were checked and they passed through a metal detector. Most Japanese folks can take summer weather, but the fans at the Kokugikan do tend to skew towards the elderly side of life, and it’s never good to put the older crowd in the heat. Some specifics (culled from our live blog):

Here is a photo of the security line, stretching from the station, to Edo-Tokyo museum, then back and through the front gates. Crazy!

Another image of the cursed line to get into the Kokugikan. This is especially tough as its a hot and humid day today, and some of the more aged sumo fans might be in dire shape standing in line for hours.

A sumo fan who endured the line illustrates its enormity below

I get that a presidential visit requires a level of security, but in hind sight it really does seem over the top. Perhaps if President Trump returns to a future Natsu basho, as he has mentioned, they will dial back the security somewhat.

President Trump’s Senshuraku Visit

File Photo

As senshuraku approaches and the yusho race heats up, I wanted to take a minute to summarize what we know (and some speculation) about President Trump’s scheduled visit to Japan. The purpose of the visit is to be the first foreign leader to meet with the popular new Emperor, Naruhito. Along with the aircraft carrier visit, a golf outing, and dinner at a robatayaki restaurant, the trip will include a chance to watch sumo at Kokugikan and award a new trophy to the makuuchi yusho winner.

Already, there is one positive thing to come from this trip. Despite having studied Japanese in college, lived and worked in Tokyo, visited numerous times since I moved back to the States, and having married a Japanese woman…I had never heard of robatayaki until an hour ago. Apparently it’s grilled on skewers, like yakitori, but it’s usually seafood and veggies. My wife really likes scallops done in this way. How am I just now learning of this? Bruce, did you know of this? I’ve eaten shirako, fugu, bonjiri and basashi for Christ’s sake. I thought my palate was rather sophisticated with my fondness for yuzu and preference for anago over unagi. I guess not. I’m going to need to hit up a robatayaki joint next time or else I’ll only feel worthy of KFC…or maybe Skylark.

Back to the President’s trip, my wife also offered an interesting justification for the golfing trip, one that is apparently common sense among Japanese executives but not mentioned much in the American press. She says her former bosses, executives at a Japanese chemical company, used to golf the next day after traveling back to Japan from the US to help deal with jetlag. Something about being out in the sun helped them recover quickly from the time change. My shusshin is Pinehurst, NC and have played and worked on some of the country’s best golf courses. But I’ve never heard of this rationale. I will be making some marketing suggestions next time I’m home.

The visit comes at an important time with a number of policy issues; the failure of the TPP is firmly in the rear view mirror but there’s a hot trade war with China and the threat of new tit-for-tat trade tariffs with Japan itself, over cars and agriculture, as well as the usual diplomatic tensions with North Korea. However, according to Time magazine, this is a “policy free” trip…which means our posts get to be policy-free (and humor-filled) posts! This is a friendly networking visit and an exciting chance to have the US offer a prize to the yusho winner.

We know the Emperor, and his father, are sumo fans. Naruhito’s daughter was also a big fan of sumo when she was growing up. They stepped back a bit in light of various scandals but the sport still draws the imperial presence. So, as the two parties hope to signal their strong ties and the importance of the alliance in the Pacific, it makes a lot of sense that they would take in some sumo. They are currently scheduled to watch the final three bouts and then present an official trophy to the yusho winner. Trump is a noted teetotaler, so I doubt there will be any drunken antics like when the mayor of Nagoya awarded Harumafuji his trophy back in 2016.

The Japanese press has indicated American stable master Musashigawa (former Yokozuna Musashimaru, uncle of Musashikuni, oyakata of Wakaichiro) will be on hand to assist with translation and answer questions, offer explanations of the sport. I do not know the President’s knowledge level of the sport – or Prime Minister Abe’s – but it would be awesome to sit and watch with a former Yokozuna. If it were me, he would be asked a bunch of silly questions, such as, “what do the four colors of the tassels mean?” However, if Trump is a more seasoned, knowledgeable fan, it would be fascinating to just sit back and listen to them discuss the finer points of yotsu grips and kimarite.

Foreign dignitaries have visited Kokugikan before. Above are some pictures of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Their son, William, is also a fan. As we can see, though, they sat in the box. There is speculation, and some consternation, about why Trump will be seated ringside but I believe the VIP box will be full and Hakkaku will have a lot on his plate entertaining his own guests. He’ll probably be quite happy passing off some duties to Musashigawa oyakata.

The President and Prime Minister will be seated by the dohyo. This will likely be on the 正 side, facing the gyoji, so a bit off camera (below the bottom of the screen) for that main shot we’re all used to from NHK and AbemaTV coverage. I’m sure the camera between bouts will cut to some of the commotion but I’m not entirely convinced the guests will show up in time for the last three bouts. It may be the DC traffic, but it’s been my experience that things with VIPs seem to run quite a bit behind schedule sometimes, especially after a round of golf. I swear, I’ve been behind some five hour rounds of golf before and it is torture. My bet is, they’ll show up, still in spikes, just in time to hand Kakuryu his trophy.

Legends of the Dohyo #7: The Saint of Sumo Part One

Hitachiyama

The history of athletics is full of innovators and dreamers, unafraid to break with tradition and challenge the old ways in the hope of making their sport better. Even a sport like sumo, steeped in ancient customs and practices, has had many revolutionaries come along willing to risk it all to ensure Japan’s national sport grows and prospers. Men like Futabeyama, who introduced salaries into sumo, and Takamiyama, who broke the gaijin barrier, ushered in new eras and shaped the sumo into what we know today. Yet there is no one who can hold a flame to the tremendous impact Yokozuna Hitachiyama Taniemon had on sumo in the early twentieth century.

Hitachiyama Taneimon was born into samurai nobility in 1874, but his families’ privileged status was stripped away during the political upheaval of the Meiji Restoration. No longer able to rely on his family’s reputation, the young Hitachiyama traveled to Tokyo to attend Waseda University. While in Tokyo he stayed with his uncle, who encouraged the youth to pursue a career in sumo after witnessing him lift a nearly five hundred pound boulder while working on his uncle’s property. Despite obvious physical talents, Hitachiyama’s father tried to dissuade him from a career in sumo as the sport held little prestige in the rapidly westernizing Japan. Disregarding his father’s concerns, Hitachiyama joined Dewanoumi Beya in 1890. Making his professional debut in Tokyo Sumo two years later, his early career hit a roadblock when  Hitachiyama was forbidden from marrying his stablemasters niece. Unable to be without his beloved, he fled Tokyo Sumo in 1894 and joined rival organization Nagoya Sumo for a brief time before entering Osaka Sumo.

Hitachiyama 2
Hitachiyama (left) and Umegatani (right). Together, these two men returned sumo to its former prestige in the early 20th century.

Hitachiyama eventually returned to Tokyo Sumo and Dewanoumi Beya in 1896, just in time for the spring tournament where he began an impressive 32 win streak. He made his Makuuchi debut in the 1899 Spring Basho, where he took home the yusho with a record of eight wins. Missing the following summer basho, he scored matching seven-win records at both tournaments in 1900 and took home his second championship at the 1901 Spring Basho. Following this success, Hitachiyama was promoted to the rank of Ozeki. After winning both Basho in 1903, including a senshuraku win over fellow Ozeki and chief rival Umegatani Totaro II, Hitachiyama became the sports 19th Yokozuna. However, he insisted that Umegatani receive a promotion as well and the two became Yokozuna simultaneously. Alongside Ōzutsu Man’emon, this would mark the first time the sumo world ever had three Yokozuna at the same time. Hitachiyama’s business sense was evident even early in his career, as the continuation of his rivalry with Umegatani as Yokozunas saw sumo reach it’s highest point of popularity since the Edo Period. Sumo had never been hotter, and as a result of this new popularity, construction began on a massive stadium to meet the demand of fans eager to see their hero Hitachiyama. Opening in 1909, this stadium became known as the first Ryogoku Kokugikan.

The first Ryogoku Kokugikan, 1909.

During his career, Hitachiyama won eight tournaments and oversaw the popularity of sumo grow to grand new heights. His conduct on the dohyo earned him the reputation as the sports most honorable Yokozuna and he became affectionately known as the Saint of Sumo amongst the population. So revered was Hitachiyama that his conduct becomes the very benchmark upon which all Yokozuna who followed have been compared. Yet despite his influence on sumo as an active Yokozuna, it was Hitachiyama’s work off the dohyo and across the globe that left a far, far greater impact on the sport we know today.

End of part one.