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Knowledge Co-Creation - Profiles of researchers

Interpreting Japan through sport :
A sociological perspective on "tradition" and "modernity"

Lee Thompson
Professor,Waseda University Faculty of Sports Sciences

Japanese Television and Rikidozan

I didn't originally come to Japan with the intention of studying Japanese sports such as sumo and professional wrestling. You might say I began my research in those areas through a series of coincidences and encounters.

I first came to Japan as a university student. While attending a university in Tokyo, I had the chance to appear on an English program on NHK's educational channel, and later on other radio and television programs as well. As a result of these experiences, I became interested in Japan's mass media. At the time, I didn't yet have a clear idea of what I wanted to do with my life. By my late 20s, though, I decided I had better settle down and make something of myself. So I first went back to my former university in America and finished my BA in communication. Then I was able to get into graduate school at Osaka University, where I majored in communication and began to develop and pursue my interest in the mass media in general, and Japan in particular.

Reading about the history of the mass media in Japan, I soon discovered that there was an inseparable relationship between the development of the television industry and live broadcasts of sports such as sumo and professional wrestling. I read about the wrestler "Rikidozan," who was an important figure, especially in the early years of television. At the time, when I was just starting my graduate studies, I knew almost nothing about sumo or professional wrestling, but I knew that this would be a very interesting subject to research.

Rikidozan was a former sumo wrestler who became one of the first Western-style professional wrestlers in Japan. He wrestled many matches with foreign wrestlers, starting with the Sharpe Brothers. The foreign wrestlers always played the role of the bad guy, while Rikidozan played the good guy. And of course, the good guy usually won. The fact that these matches were "fixed," and the winner predetermined, was not widely known at the time. I used the sociological concept of "frame analysis" to try to clarify the unique structure of professional wrestling, using newspaper articles from Rikidozan's ten-year career. This research formed the basis for my master's thesis, "The Growth of Television in Japan and the Professional Wrestler Rikidozan".

Rikidozan was proclaimed the "hero of the Japanese race." However, he was actually born on the Korean Peninsula to Korean parents. Today he would be called a "Korean resident of Japan." This fact was of particular interest to me, and later led me to think about the relationship between sport, race, and nationality. So I started out with an interest in the mass media, which led me to study sociology, and then to focus on sports sociology and do research on sports media.

Is sumo a "traditional" sport?

While reading in the sociology of sport for my master's thesis, I came across some interesting literature on the modernization of sports. This led me to think about modernity and tradition in sports. Now, everyone knows that the “national sport” of Japan, sumo, is a traditional sport. However, I began to wonder to what extent this is true.

According to Allen Guttmann, modern sports have several characteristics that distinguish them from pre-modern sports: secularization, rationalization, equality, specialization, bureaucratic organization, quantification, and the quest for records. For example, in modern soccer, each team has the same number of players, eleven. However, in the folk football played in Europe in the Middle Ages, there was no such concept of equal conditions of play. Any number of players was allowed in those times, and the side which brought the most players had the advantage.

A 17th-century portrayal of sumo. (A sliding door fromNagoya Castle, 1610)

The more I learned about sumo, the more I realized that the sumo we watch today is quite different from the sumo of years past. For example, during the Meiji Period, the term "yokozuna," which today usually refers to the highest-ranked wrestler (grand champion), only referred to the white rope worn around the waist of certain wrestlers who were chosen to perform the ring-entering ceremony by themselves. "Yokozuna" did not refer to a rank, as it does today. The rank of yokozuna does not appear until well into the Meiji period. The first time that the title yokozuna was written in the sumo rankings (banzuke) was in 1890. The rank of yokozuna was officially recognized by the Sumo Association in 1909.

In fact, sumo began to be called the "national sport of Japan" only after the Kokugikan (the first indoor stadium for sumo)was opened in the Ryogoku section of Tokyo in 1909. The championship system was also first adopted in 1909. Both the rank of yokozuna and the championship system were created during the process of the modernization of sumo. The concept of the yokozuna as the strongest wrestler whose strength can be measured by his record in the ring reflects the values of modern sport, and is in no way traditional.

In modern sumo, people's interest focuses on who will win the tournament. However, the system of determining an individual champion for each tournament is fairly new to sumo, so in times past spectators must have focused on something else. The British historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote about "the invention of tradition." He meant that a surprising number of things which we believe to be "traditional" are actually of fairly recent origin.

I wrote up my research in my doctoral dissertation, The Modernization of Sumo as a Sport, and I continue to conduct research in the field of sport, keeping in mind a basic premise of sociology: not to take the obvious for granted.

Increase in the number of foreign sumo wrestlers by country.

Who's got the "power"?

In January 2008, seven months before the Summer Olympics were held in Beijing, the National Training Center of Japan officially opened. The center was established by the Japanese Olympic Committee as a facility for the training of athletes. Coaches of the national teams of the various Olympic sports are also required to take courses at the center for accreditation. In the spring of 2008, I participated in a course for coaches from overseas.

In the Olympics, Japanese athletes compete against athletes from other countries, so it's important to understand how Japanese athletes view themselves and their opponents. I spoke to the coaches about some research I have conducted on how the word "power" is used in the sports reporting of Japanese newspapers.

Analyzing the article database of the Asahi Newspaper, we find that "power" is attributed to foreign athletes much more often than Japanese athletes, and usually in comparison to Japanese athletes. When "power" is attributed to Japanese athletes, it is usually in relation to other Japanese athletes, and not to foreign athletes. The word "power" entered the Japanese vocabulary from English, and historically, it was first used in relation to foreign athletes, and only later became used to describe Japanese athletes.

Japanese athletes win medals in a variety of events, and are in no way lacking in power when compared to foreign athletes. However, the idea that Japanese athletes are somehow physically inferior to foreign athletes is strongly rooted, and is continually reproduced in the media. This must have an effect on Japan's athletes and coaches, and for this reason it is important for coaches from overseas to be aware of this notion.

Come to think of it, drawing lines between Japanese athletes and foreign athletes based on race, is itself a very strange. A very interesting book was published in 2007 entitled "What's Scary about Sports News: Creating the 'Japanese People' (written by Hiroyuki Morita). Morita points out how the Japanese sports media emphasize Japanese sports and the Japanese people. This must have a strong influence on both the general television-watching public television and even on the athletes themselves.

Actually, there is no clear definition of race, and the boundaries between the so-called "races" are ambiguous. As shown by the previous example of Rikidozan, even the seemingly obvious question of how "Japan" and the "Japanese people" are defined is not as simple as it first appears.

The Growth of Sumo in Europe

Allen Guttmann and Lee Thompson, Japanese Sports: A History, University of Hawai'i Press (in English)

In order to discuss these kinds of issues on an international level, it is necessary for the history of sport in Japan to be available to an international readership. In 2001, I co-authored Japanese Sports: A History which introduces the history of Japanese sports from ancient times until thepresent day.

In July of 2008 the 5th World Congress of the International Sociology of Sport Association was held in Kyoto, and was attended by over 200 scholars from thirty countries. Several members of the Waseda University Faculty of Sports Sciences attended the congress and presented their work. I organized a workshop with three guest speakers under the theme of "Authenticity and Invention in the Traditional Body Culture of Japan".

Japan's amateur sumo wrestling organization, the Japan Sumo Federation, has for some years now been lobbying to have sumo recognized as an Olympic event. To this end, the JSF has been encouraging the spread of sumo in many countries around the world. These efforts by the JSF are directly related to the recent increase of professional sumo wrestlers from Europe. During my year-long sabbatical from autumn 2008, while based at the German Sports University in Cologne, I hope to learn more about the spread of sumo in Europe.

With freshman students in the School of Sports Sciences, at the peak Mt. Nekodake.

Lee Thompson/Waseda University Faculty of Sports Sciences

Born in 1953 in Oregon, USA. Ph.D. in sociology, Graduate School of Human Sciences,Osaka University. Research Associate in the School of Human Sciences at Osaka University and Assistant Professor in the School of International Studies at Osaka Gakuin University before obtaining his current position in 2003. Specializes in sports sociology and communication. Major works include Japanese Sports: A History (English), Rikidozan and Japanese People (Japanese), and Lectures in the Social Sciences of Sport: 1 Sports Sociology (Japanese) (all co-authored).

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