Japanese bellyaching about American sumo champ

Mike Royko

March 27, 1992|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

If I needed another reason not to buy a Japanese car, it would be the shameful way that some Japanese are treating a fine American lad named Konishiki.

Actually, Konishiki is his professional name. Back in Hawaii, where he grew up, he was plain old Salevaa Atisnoe.

But it is as Konishiki that he has created a huge uproar and debate in Japan.

Konishiki is a sumo wrestler. You've probably seen pictures of these athletes. They are enormously fat guys who wear something like a diaper and try to shove or bump each other off their feet.

It's probably the world's most unsightly sport, with the possible exception of face-spitting, which is practiced by a tribe of natives in the Brazilian jungle, and some guys on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago.

But the Japanese have been enjoying sumo wrestling for 300 years. And the fat, sweaty guys in diapers become national heroes, with the Japanese press reporting in great detail on how many kegs of rice or stacks of chicken they eat for breakfast.

To the dismay of many Japanese, Konishiki has become just about the best sumo wrestler of his time. And little wonder, since he weighs more than 550 pounds. If the rules permitted him to sit on his opponents, few would live to tell the tale.

It isn't that they don't admire Konishiki for his athletic skills. They make admiring guttural sounds when he gives some mere 300-pounder a ferocious belly-bump and sends the little fellow flying into the crowd.

At the same time, though, they are fretting about the possibility that a foreigner might achieve the highest rank in sumo: yokozuna. That means grand champion or, more loosely translated: "Wow, will you look at the gut on that guy!"

According to the New York Times, the chance that an American might become the Biggest Butt of Them All has the Japanese far more upset than anything Lee Iacocca said. Or even George Bush barfing on their prime minister.

That's because so few sumo wrestlers have become yokozuna -- only 60 in 300 years. That's understandable. While the Japanese are known for their work ethic, how many of them want to devote their lives to inhaling 10 pounds of chow a day so they can waddle around in a diaper?

But the Japanese take this seriously. They believe that their national honor is at stake, that they would be disgraced if a foreigner became a yokozuna.

As the New York Times report put it: "To become a yokozuna . . . a wrestler needs not only strength but a noble Japanese spirit, an aura of dignity known as hinkaku."

And they believe that a foreigner cannot have this aura of dignity known as hinkaku.

I won't argue with them, since I don't know that much about hinkaku. But it seems to me that it would be difficult to have this aura of dignity when you sit down in a restaurant and say: "OK, I'll start off with about 50 sushi, then give me five plates of chicken tempura, a large octopus, and toss a cow on the grill, medium well. What'll you have, honey?"

The uproar has become so loud, with politicians, writers and philosophers warning about the loss of national honor, that the word is going around that the fix will be put in.

That's right. They might rig it so that this American won't become a yokozuna, even if he wins his championship fair and square, belly to belly.

You see, there is this Sumo Association, which decides which of the fat guys gets to be a yokozuna. And they make the rules. So even if the fat American belly-bumps every opponent into Tokyo Bay, they can get together and say it doesn't matter, he just doesn't have that aura of dignity known as hinkaku.

And it would be impossible for him to defend himself against the charge that he lacks the aura of dignity known as hinkaku, since nobody can say exactly what the aura of dignity known as hinkaku is, except that only the Japanese can have it.

Talk about a rigged deal. When we ban someone from a sport, at least we extend them the courtesy of telling them that they flunked their wee wee test.

So when you go out shopping for a car, just think about it. Here's this nice American kid who went to all the trouble of getting up to a fighting 550 pounds, dealing with indigestion, having to be careful not to burp down walls, and buying his underwear from a tentmaker.

After all that, some back-room operators might tell him that he lacks the aura of dignity known as hinkaku.

Well, maybe it serves him right. As Slats Grobnik put it: "Real men don't wear diapers."

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