Whether you are a sports fan or not, there is no denying that how we enjoy sporting events says something about us as a people: When we cheer for our favorite player or tell our friend that his favorite team stinks, we are also telling others about ourselves. Our favorite players tell people what qualities we admire, and our favorite teams can say something about our loyalty or some special connection to the place where we are from. After all, how many OSU Beavers fans do you know from Eugene? Probably not as many as you know from Corvallis.
Japan has two national sports, and I was lucky enough to see them both in my first two weeks here in Tokyo. Sumo wrestling is the official national sport of Japan, but the most popular sport in Japan is by far baseball. How could the same nation be so in love with two completely different sports? What does this tell us about Japan?
We’ll begin with sumo wrestling. Professional sumo tournaments began in 1684, during Japan’s Edo period, which lasted from 1603 to 1868, and was important for Japan’s cultural development. During that time a few very important things happened in Japan. Under the rule of a man named Tokugawa Ieyasu, Japan closed its borders to other nations, developed very strict social rules, and grew its economy. After years of bloody war under previous rulers, Japan finally had a long period of peace – and because of isolation from other countries and a newly wealthy merchant class, many Japanese spent their time enjoying the arts. This period is when many of Japan’s traditional arts and sports became reinvented or revitalized, and it was then that the rules and traditions of sumo began to take shape.
I’m very lucky to have had many great teachers in my life, and one of my very favorite teachers is Portland State University Professor of Japanese Language, Drama and Literature, Dr. Larry Kominz. It’s thanks to him that I know everything that I do about Japan’s Edo period, because that’s his area of speciality – especially when it comes to Japan’s kabuki theater. Dr. Kominz is in Tokyo right now doing research, and I was lucky enough to have him take me along to both the sumo wrestling match and the baseball game that I attended. Study hard and be nice to your teachers, kids – you never know what kind of crazy things can happen!
In sumo, each wrestler tries to force his opponent outside of a circular ring, either by throwing him, pushing him, or lifting him up off of his feet. Here’s a short video clip of sumo wrestlers in action:
When I went to see sumo myself, I was amazed at how much history was in front of me – for instance, before beginning a match, wrestlers still throw handfuls of salt into the ring to purify it, just as they have for hundreds of years. This practice is part of the shinto religion, which is important in sumo’s history. In fact, all of the things that you saw in that video that made you wonder “why are they doing this crazy stuff?” are very important rituals that have been preserved and passed down throughout the centuries. So why are these rituals important?
The many changes that Japan went through during and after the Edo period have influenced what you might call two different ideas about what Japan is: One idea of Japan is that it is very traditional, and another is that it is very modern. But the reality is that Japan is both very traditional and very modern at the same time. It would be much easier to think about one version of Japan: Samurai and geisha, or businessmen and anime. This more complex idea of Japan, as a place that is both modern and open to the rest of the world, while also being traditional and closed off, is harder to think about, isn’t it? But it’s the only explanation for why the people who love the traditions of Japan’s own national pastime (sumo) would go this wild for America’s national pastime (baseball).
The song that these fans are singing is just one of the dozens of songs that I heard them sing that night. In fact, each player has his own song that fans sing, with a little help from the man you see in the red shirt, who gives them cues on what to sing. I’ve been to many professional baseball games in America, and I can tell you that I’ve never seen fans like this before – these people are absolutely crazy for baseball.
Even though the game was not a close one (the Swallows lost 12-0. Ouch!), the feeling in the stadium was electric. The fans never lost hope, and never lost their excitement for supporting their favorite players, even if that player was having a terrible night. Japanese baseball games are also very exciting because the action moves much faster than in American baseball. The pace is high, and when they do take short breaks, cheerleaders and mascots come out to dance and shoot t-shirts into the crowd out of a cannon.
During the Edo period, Japan began its long fascination with preserving and restoring its national arts and traditions, whether they be literature and poetry, tea ceremony, or sumo and martial arts. During this closed period, without any contact with the outside world, Japan became like someone who stops looking out their window and instead looks into a mirror. This focus on Japan as a “traditional” place is part of why the strange rituals of sumo are so important today – they remind the Japanese of an important part of their history and their cultural identity.
But the reality is that both before and after Japan’s “closed period,” which ended in 1868, the nation admired and borrowed from many other cultures. The Japanese admiration for American style baseball is only one small example of Japan’s status as a nation that is fully involved in multicultural exchanges of art and sport. When going to the stadium to enjoy their own take on America’s national sport of baseball, Japanese people are reinforcing the other idea of Japan that we talked about – the idea of a “modern” nation that is open to the world, and open to the changes that come from being a part of it.
Both sumo and Japanese baseball are incredible experiences that I hope all of you will have one day. I intend to experience them both again before my time in Tokyo is up.
* A note about comments: I just wanted to thank you for all of your comments last week! From now on, I’m going to try something a little different. You guys leave all of your comments just like before, but instead of responding to them all online, I’m going to make a short video and post it every Friday morning, Portland time. That way, you guys can all watch a short video where I answer your questions and respond to comments.
Enjoy, and keep the great questions coming! Don’t be afraid to ask any questions that you guys have. Was my blog confusing? Did I use some words that you didn’t understand, or skip over things that you thought needed more attention? This is your opportunity to tell me what you want! I can’t fit everything into the blog, but if you tell me what you want to know and what you’re interested in, I can sure fit it into my video response to your comments. Thanks guys, you’re doing great.
**Correction: I’ve corrected two things in this post since it was originally made. I corrected the date of the “opening of Japan,” which is 1868, but was originally listed as 1858. I also corrected the final score of the baseball game, which was 12-0. Originally, I reported that it was 10-0, which was the score when we left the game.
I’m writing this note because in journalism, it’s important to admit when we make mistakes, and to correct any inaccurate information that we give to readers. Thanks for reading!