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A Weight on Tradition : At 576 Pounds, Hawaiian Sumo Star Konishiki Has the Japanese Wrestling With Accepting a Foreigner at the Sport’s Highest Rank

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Can an outspoken American--even a 576-pounder--conquer the proud, insular world of Japanese sumo wrestling?

A 28-year-old Hawaiian named Konishiki knocked the tradition-bound sumo world on its ear last week when he was quoted in Japanese and American newspapers as saying that he is being denied sumo’s highest rank because he is not Japanese.

“Strictly speaking, this is racism,” the former high school football player reportedly said.

But on Monday, Konishiki, an ethnic Samoan whose real name is Salevaa Atisanoe, denied making the remarks. In a carefully orchestrated news conference conducted at the stable where he lives and trains, the kimono-clad champion apologized for sparking an international furor. Yet, he insisted that he never used the word racism to describe his treatment by the Japan Sumo Assn.

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Both Konishiki’s success and the accusation of racism have struck a nationalist nerve in Japan, where sumo has been practiced as a sport, a quasi-religious ritual and for the amusement of emperors for more than 1,000 years.

“Sumo is more important to Japan than baseball, football and basketball are to America--not as a sport but as a cultural touchstone,” sumo commentator David Benjamin says.

Japan admitted its first non-Japanese to sumo before World War II, and it now has 34 wrestlers from the United States, Argentina, Taiwan, Brazil, Korea, China, Mongolia and Sri Lanka. But Konishiki is the only foreigner to reach sumo’s second-highest rank of ozeki, or champion. He was promoted to ozeki in 1987, when at 526 pounds he was the heaviest fighter in sumo’s recorded history.

When Konishiki claimed his third Emperor’s Cup after winning a tournament in March, Japanese began pondering--some with horror--the possibility that Konishiki would become the first foreign yokozuna, or grand champion.

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But when the promotions were announced, Konishiki was passed over.

Sumo has anointed only about 60 yokozuna in the last 300 years. Once so honored, a yokozuna cannot be demoted. Because it is considered unbecoming for a grand master to be defeated, when yokozuna begin losing, they quickly are forced to retire.

Even for the Japanese, sumo is an acquired taste, and not all fans take the national pastime entirely seriously, according to Benjamin, the irreverent author of “The Joy of Sumo.” Japanese have a lifetime “to decide whether they really enjoy watching fat men grab each other’s love handles and do the lambada,” Benjamin says.

But to devotees, sumo wrestlers--especially yokozuna --embody the dignity and nobility of the Japanese spirit. For such purists, the idea of a foreign grand champion ranks somewhere between national humiliation and sacrilege.

Noboru Kojima is one of those who argue that foreigners lack the spiritual right stuff to qualify for the sumo hall of fame. “We don’t want any foreign yokozuna!” reads the headline of an article he published this month in Bungeishunju, a leading Japanese magazine.

Kojima, who sits on the panel of sumo judges that determines yokozuna promotions, said he was inspired to write the piece by the “pitiful” spectacle of Japanese wrestlers being trounced by foreign interlopers in last month’s tournament.

“Sumo is a Japanese national treasure,” he wrote. A grand champion must have a special poise or dignity that is difficult even for Japanese, but impossible for a foreigner to achieve.

But Yasuji Toita, a drama critic and sumo fan, denounced Kojima’s view as “reverse racism. . . . It’s inexcusable to allow foreigners into sumo and now to behave like this,” Toita said Monday. “If they felt this way, they should never have allowed foreigners in in the first place.”

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The standards for promotion to yokozuna are vague and subjective. And sumo buffs of all nationalities are divided about whether Konishiki has the technique and the track record to qualify. In principle, a champion who wins two consecutive tournaments will be recommended for promotion to grand champion. Konishiki has won three tournaments--but never two in a row.

But a yokozuna also is supposed to have “dignity,” or at the very least, some technique. Konishiki’s detractors say he outweighs his rivals by a good 100 pounds and usually wins simply by shoving them out of the ring. This performance is impressive, they say, but lacks inherent nobility.

There is also no clear precedent for promotions, sumo watchers said.

“Certainly wrestlers with a worse record than Konishiki’s have been promoted to yokozuna, but there are also wrestlers with the same record as Konishiki whose hopes have not been realized,” the Asahi newspaper wrote in an editorial defending the sumo association against the racism charge. “Konishiki is not the only one who is being tested in this way.”

The Asahi complained that American media treated the “Konishiki problem” like a trade spat over rice or cars, an approach the newspaper called “superficial and sensational.”

The Konishiki flap has yet to qualify as an international incident, but it has caused a furor in Japan. Only three Western reporters attended Monday’s news conference, but the Japanese reporters immediately attempted to interview them.

And even Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa and Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe--both of whom have also been accused of intemperate remarks about foreigners--have weighed in on the Konishiki affair. Miyazawa assured Japanese reporters that race would never be a factor in the choice of a yokozuna, and Watanabe said that he hopes the sumo spat would not turn into “a ruckus based on a misunderstanding.”

Significantly, Konishiki’s remark was first reported by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun in a front-page story a week ago but attracted little attention until the New York Times printed a similar story two days later. That story was based on a telephone interview with a person who spoke English and identified himself as Konishiki, and confirmed the remarks.

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“If I was Japanese, I would have been there already,” Konishiki was quoted as adding. “I would already be a yokozuna.

Konishiki and the sumo board immediately attacked both reports and said there is no discrimination in sumo. At the news conference on Monday, Konishiki once again insisted that he was misquoted and that a Hawaiian apprentice impersonated him during one telephone interview.

“It was my fault. It was my responsibility,” Konishiki said in fluent Japanese. “I’m very sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused the Sumo Assn.”

The definitive test of both Konishiki and the sumo board will be the 15-day tournament that begins on May 10. If the American wins a fourth time, many observers say, the sumo board will be hard-pressed to deny him the yokozuna title.

But if Konishiki falters--and his stable master acknowledges he does not handle pressure well--it could be interpreted as proof that the foreign giant did not have the inner strength to be a Japanese grand champion.


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