September 10th, 2005


Sumo match

The two titans square up, cast an appraising eye on each other's corpus and habitus, and suddenly begin to tussle. Their names are Momus and Marxy, and they're impressive man-mountains of the blogging world, forever disagreeing about the nature of Japan. But, the world asks, is it all fixed? Is the hostility faked? Is this sparring just a form of archaic theatre, or an attempt to bump up the ratings of Click Opera and Neomarxisme? Are the macho, binary, populist poses being struck just a way for our wrestlers to learn the mechanisms of the inner core elite, and join it?

These are some of the issues raised by the enormously fat and deceptively feisty comments thread to Freakonomics on Sumo Wrestling, an entry from Marxy (who's currently in New York) prompted by "non-fiction bestseller Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner - a book about using economic methodology to analyze a whole host of social behavior".

I'll let Time Asia supply the background. ""Mysterious. Religious. Philosophical." That's how former wrestler Keisuke Itai describes sumo. If the accusations he is now making are to be believed, it's also crooked.

"Retired since 1997, the 43-year-old Itai recently stepped back into the sumo spotlight with scandalous charges that most of the flesh-to-flesh combat is, in fact, merely show. In his day, he told TIME, 80% of the matches were fixed, and the winners and losers were worked out in the dressing rooms beforehand. That's still happening, he insists, and he can tell by watching when someone has agreed to take a fall. Of a daily slate of 18 bouts, only three or four are fought seriously. "Match fixing was kind of matter-of-fact among the wrestlers, " Itai says. "None of us felt any guilt at all."

"Itai is not the first to cry foul about sumo. A young writer named Shintaro Ishihara made similar claims back in 1963; he's now governor of Tokyo."

Marxy's position on this connects it to his recurring concerns about Japanese society. He sees sumo rigging as symptomatic of a collusion and conspiracy he thinks characterises Japan's education, media and government systems. "These patterns of collusion between sumo stables seem to resemble other kinds of collusion in the Japanese media, political, and economic world," he writes, "but I would wager that fixing "non-scripted" events in Japan can only continue as long as those involved have an informational advantage over the consumers/citizens. Would this practice continue even if sumo fans started receiving open and full information about the topic?" Echoing the reductiveness of Steven Levitt (who analyses culture with economic tools), Marxy adds "the point of my blog is that a lot of what we explain as mystic "culture" is really just information asymmetries and power imbalances."

My position is that "conspiracy and collusion" would better be described as contract and culture. Most people in Japan have heard about the rigging, I argue, and don't care. Sumo has its roots in Shinto rite. It's as much a spectacle as a sport, and knowing it's rigged doesn't detract from enjoying the theatre, although you probably wouldn't want people telling you this every five minutes. Even Brechtians wouldn't want actors to keep turning to the audience in the middle of a play to say "By the way, we're not really these characters..."

Anyway, read the thread yourself, if you have an hour or so to spare. And if you care.