Japan continues to wrestle with question of racism


April 28, 1992|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

The goofiest sports story in the world continues to be that of Konishiki, the 550-pound American who is the best sumo wrestler in Japan. His success is now turning into an international incident.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, many Japanese are horrified that a foreigner has become the No. 1 belly-bopper in their ancient sport.

And there appeared to be a plot to deny Konishiki the exalted rank of yokozuna, which is sort of like being inducted into the fat belly-boppers' Hall of Fame.

This is a very heavy matter in Japan because in 300 years of fat guys shoving each other, no foreigner has been a yokozuna.

Japanese intellectuals as well as mopes on the assembly line have been grinding their teeth, which the Japanese do with such dramatic flair, at the humiliation of it all.

This could not have come at a worse time for the Japanese ego. Their stock market is staggering; their exports are down; their imports are up; their economic swagger is turning into cold sweats.

And now the threat of a foreigner (and, yikes, an American to boot) threatening to become a yokozuna.

There's no question that the big kid is qualified. When he really belly-bops one of those puny, home-grown 300-pound Japanese sumos, the little fellas almost soar out of the circle.

For so big a guy, he also has nimble feet. Watching him is something like seeing an elephant in diapers doing a polka.

Some of the more outspoken Japanese, who take being Japanese very seriously, have come right out and said what a disgrace it would be for a foreigner to become a yokozuna.

Imagine that. Millions of Americans driving their cars; an American baseball team, Hollywood studios, and some of our better golf courses being Japanese-owned, and they would deprive a fine American lad of an honor that would assure him of the best table in the sushi joint.

But because they can't deny that he is truly the most fearsome belly-bopper on the sumo scene, they have come up with what Americans would call a loophole.

It is something called hinkaku, which is a special kind of Japanese dignity. And they say that a sumo can't be an exalted yokozuna unless he has plenty of hinkaku.

So why can't Konishiki the American have hinkaku? That's the catch. They say that hinkaku is a special kind of dignity only the Japanese can have.

Actually, it's hard to imagine how a bunch of fat guys bumping bellies can have much dignity. Maybe if they wore sweat suits. But impartial observers say that Konishiki has as much hinkaku as any of the other big waddlers.

So this led some of Konishiki's admirers to charge racism. And even more shocking to Japan, Konishiki himself has said that if he doesn't get to be a yokozuna, it will be because of Japanese racial attitudes.

Now he is denying that he said it, since a sumo with true hinkaku isn't supposed to say anything divisive. He's just supposed to go out and belly-bump and be a good sport about the fix being in.

However, the charge of racism has caused such a flap in Japan that a big government official held a press conference to assure the world that Konishiki will get a fair deal and a square deal.

The Japanese are highly sensitive about the question of racism, which is understandable, since they are racist. I mean, why kid around. It's a big part of their history and their culture. That's why they are so enormously unpopular with their neighbors.

They're even more racist than we are, which is saying something. That's because the Japanese think that anyone who isn't Japanese is second-rate.

But because there are so many different kinds of Americans, we can't take such a blanket attitude. We have to be more selective about who we think our genetic inferiors are, since Americans include just about every known brand of two-legged creature.

It will be interesting to see if the panel of sumo elders, who bestow the coveted yokozuna honor, can swallow their pride and give the American belly-bopper his due.

If they don't, then Konishiki should tell them to stuff it and come to Chicago and try out with the Bears.

Why not? With him and William "the Fridge" Perry in the same line, who cares about dignity? They would blot out the sun.

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