[4 February 2003]
It started as a trickle. Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, followed by his Rashomon. He was the guy, films were the thing. Then it became a steady stream: radios, TVs, and cheap, indestructible rides such as the Datsun (remember “Datsun”?) B210, the 240Z; the Toyota Celica; Honda’s Accord. Thenceforth, “made in Japan” took the fast track from punch line to point of pride.
Next it came in forms that couldn’t be recognized: Yoda, Jedi knights, glistening coats of storm trooper armor, captive princesses in faraway territories, and shouts of “Use the force, Luke!” resounding through American pop culturedom. After that, it was packaged in machines called “Nintendo” and “PlayStation” gadgets that interfered with the attention spans of US teens and cartoons like Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon, and Gandamu, whose characters and scenarios colonized the imaginations of American youth. Of late it has been baseball players, from Nomo to Sasaki to Ichiro to Shinjo, who have made their way across the Pacific and into the fabric of daily American pastime.
“It” was wave after wave of Japanese culture crashing on the shores of America (and Europe, and South America, and Asia). A tsunami that’s wash has left enough residue to wade through that we can no longer pretend that “globalization” is something “the West” has imposed upon “the East”. The false notion that culture exported worldwide is an American invention has been swept into the historical soup of misconception, along with famous fallacies such as Aryan supremacy and the glories of Stalinism or Maoism.
In Japan, and especially Japanese popular culture, globalization is the force of the moment. It is a globalization that flows two ways: inward and outward. Princess Mononoke goes there, “Hello Kitty” comes here. For every sushi out, there’s KFC rushing in. But it is a stream that is most apparent, at least of late, in sports. Just this past month, for instance, Japan’s national select mid-fielder Kazuyuki Toda, known last summer for his flaming red mohican coiffure and combative personality, was wooed by Tottenham in England’s premier League. At the same time, Brazil’s World Cup champion captain, Cafu, was applying for his Japanese work permit. He was joined shortly thereafter by Cameroon striker Mboma, who promptly promised to score in all 18 of Japan’s division one stadiums, proving to the historically modest Japanese that globalization can deliver all manner of alien attitudes to their shores.
Most compelling in the matter of globalization-meets-ReDotPop has been the tale of Hideki “Godzilla” Matsui, Japan’s reigning home run king. Matsui has become the latest local to jump across the pond and seek to ply his diamond trade in the US. Amidst all the hoopla, lost in the noise and confetti, though, has been the fact that Hideki’s replacement on “Japan’s team”, the dynastic Yomiuri Giants, will be Roberto Petagine, a Venezuelan who started his career Stateside and following stints in Houston, San Diego, New York, and Cincinnati went “overseas” to play for Yomiuri’s bitter cross-town rival, the Yakult Swallows. Just like that, two way flow. Like Beat Takeshi for Steven Spielberg; you get ours, we get yours. And just like that, the team that has prided itself on ethnic purity the team which many a year takes efforts to publicly pronounce that its daily lineup from one to eight is comprised of strapping warriors all Japanese born and bred was suddenly going global. A foreign slugger was suddenly smack dab in the middle of ReDotPop’s premier conquering horde.
Of course, since that kind of thing happened before, it was no longer earth-shattering news. At least not on the order of “Godzilla goes Gotham”. So for the past month it has been outward flow that has been the daily fare of the daily news, TV shows, gossip mags, and newspaper’s front pages. Almost all sporting attention has been given over to the guy we’ve all watched grow up before our eyes: from the slight, cocky, pock-marked high school slugger who struck out with alarming frequency into a strapping, self-effacing, aw-shucks, yet self-assured, stylish, almost impossible out. A guy who, in announcing he’d play for “America’s team”, sent the local media into a tizzy. They chased down Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi when they were on vacation over here to inquire how many home runs they thought Japan’s premier power hitter would crack in the majors. They asked Bernie Williams, a teammate to be, how Matsui would fare on the “Bronx Bombers”. They accompanied Godzilla to order new bats capable of driving the smaller, heavier US ball. They turned out at the airport (along with a legion of fans) to witness the man’s departure for JFK, then caught his signing 24 hours later in New York. They followed him back and made sure every swing, stride, catch and throw were recorded during his workouts in Tokyo’s winter wind, rain and snow.
When they finally managed to sit him still for an interview, Matsui a career .304 hitter with 332 homers and 889 RBIs in 1,268 games came across as humble but confident, as he speculated on his life to come in the “Major Leagues”. Above all, they commented on how his three year, $21 million contract validated just how much Americans regarded the Japanese. Not how much Americans valued Hideki Matsui, mind you; nor even Japanese baseball. Rather, how much Americans valued Japan. Because, you see, what all this global exchange is really about, at least to the Japanese media, is nationalism, pure and simple. It’s about the Japanese people putting to rest their fifty some-odd year “gaijin complex”; the unshakable, niggling feeling that even though they know they’re better than other nations more mannered, sophisticated, diligent, intelligent, and worthy they can never seem to catch a break and come out on top. Not, at least, in any beauty contest yet designed by the West.
Which makes the other event that just hit ReDotPop all the harder to masticate. You see, just as the Matsui excitement was abating, Japan’s true national sport, sumo was in the process of losing its own icon. This departure was for reasons retirement rather than lucre. And it had the effect not of confirming national pride, but of helping to dismantle it. You are familiar with sumo, right? The sport often derided by westerners as nothing more than two tubbies in diapers slapping at each other until one tumbles like a runaway boulder cascading down a mountainside? Well, maybe. But more on the mark, sumo is an ancient art of skill and, yes, grace, which traces its origins back to religious rites performed over a millennium ago. Part of its attraction (at least to aficionados) is that it pits athletes of varying sizes in contests of will, technique, athleticism, strategy and brute strength. Long pauses featuring concentration, posturing and ritualized performance are capped by explosive codas of speed, power and raw violence. The last man standing after 15 days of one-on-one matches takes home a human-sized gold goblet, as well as celebratory sups of sake and a well-grilled Red Snapper.
The sumo world is as simple as it is unforgiving. It is a highly regimented, hierarchical world, spanning hell to heaven. Consistent victors ascend through an array of ranks (13 in all), just as relentless losers can plummet through them. Those few (only 68 thus far) who manage to reach the summit the rank of yokozuna, or grand champion assume the aura of gods. It is a grueling quest, which breaks many an aspirant. The constant warring, the body-altering and performance-enhancing medications, the daily menu of menial chores, practice, high caloric consumption, practice, high caloric consumption, language classes (for the foreign recruits), high caloric consumption, and the humility of living within a rock-ribbed organization, exacts a frightful toll.
Witness grand champion Akebono, Hawaiian-born Chad Rowan, whose six foot, nine inches, 510-pound frame was forced from the dohyo due to chronic, rickety knees. All that weight pressing down on him for 13 years and all that squatting necessary to assume the opening stance certainly took their toll. Akebono’s exit was followed a year and a half later by Takanohana’s, a departure mandated by unrelenting injury to his back, internal organs, and legs. Increasing weight and knee surgery in the past two years reduced the once-invincible warrior to a shell of his former self.
But no different than any other sport, sumo is governed by the solemn cry: “the king is dead . . . long live the king”. So, no sooner had king Takanohana shuffled his over-doped, oft-injured, awesomely talented frame out of the ring than a new king assumed his lofty perch. “Asashoryu” this new god is called; an ebullient, compact, powerful grappler of stunning skill. Oh, and one more descriptor of note: this new king is Mongolian.
Asashoryu is the third foreign-born yokozuna. What makes his ascent noteworthy is not simply that it was the fastest in recorded sumo history (four years, 25 tourneys). Most remarkable is that the Mongolian will now stand alongside a Hawaiian-born grappler as grand champion. Remarkable, but not because this is the first time that there have been two foreign yokozuna. Musashimaru, the current grand champion, ascended at a time that Akebono was still active at the top rank. Rather, this is remarkable because today these two foreigners are the only remaining yokozuna. And with their presence at the top, this is the first time in sumo’s centuries-long history that the only yokozuna have been aliens. That rumbling beneath your feet is not an earthquake; it is the collective soul of the tradition-bound sumo establishment shuddering. Over the past decade the sumo elders have sought to tighten restrictions on foreign participation. Reflective of this, only 52 of the sport’s current 950 wrestlers hail from overseas. And yet, ironically (and infuriatingly for many), from today and into the foreseeable future, the representatives at official ceremonies, the ones called upon to make formal pronouncements and serve as poster boys for this most-conventional corner of ReDotPopdom, will be of browner skin or flatter features, will speak with tortured syntax, and will comport themselves without traditional nippon couth.
This matters to association elders because sumo was already in a downtrend. Soccer is sexier and baseball long ago dug intractable tentacles deep into the culture: drive around any city block and, without fail, you will spy an organized team practicing at the local school ground, under canopy of sun, rain or snow. For sumo, though, tough sledding. An already declining fan base has only been goosed by a diminishing indigenous presence at the top. Making matters worse, there is little sign of relief on the horizon; there will be no Yamato ranger riding to the rescue of the national psyche for the next few years. For proof, consider the most recently completed tournament. Title-winners in five of the six divisions were foreign-born: one from Bulgaria, one from Georgia, and three from Mongolia. “Unprecedented,” the papers reported. “Disconcerting,” the association’s elders muttered. “Not interesting,” sumo fans lamented. “Crisis,” much of Japan now openly opines. After all, in a sport based on physical superiority, what fun is it to pay precious yen to witness a foreigner flexing his biceps over a prostrate Japanese body?
Which brings us back to the main theme. For those readers who might care what academicians say, globalization was once thought to be about the spread of sameness from “McDonaldization” of eating habits to “Gucchizing” of fashion to the hippity-hopping of musical tastes the world over. But for some time now, the differences (and more often resistances) engendered in local spaces by the incursion of alien morsels and gadgets and activities and ways of thinking have received the most column inches. So when foreign-born wrestlers come to dominate sumo tourney results and that leads to the kind of protracted local grousing we’ve been witnessing of late in ReDotPopdom, that gives those of us wearing tweeds, pause. It strikes a resonant theoretical chord. And in an abstract way, we regard as the same order of phenomenon as the baseball slugger who suits up stateside and raises the expectations and kindles the hopes of his loyal fans back home. To us tweedy types, globalization is not only about inflow and outflow; it is also about the effects that are experienced because of that flow in places both proximate and remote. And back in the real world, we see that at least in the case of ReDotPop, globalization here and there is the motion of the moment.
Nearly two centuries ago, the great ukiyo-e artist, Hokusai, created one of the first pieces of ReDotPop to ever go global. It was a distant view of Mount Fuji, foregrounded by the crest of a great wave. It is an image that springs easily to mind, regardless of one’s nationality. It is a cultural artifact that sings out to almost everyone: “Japan!” To the contemporary mind, the print can easily serve as a metaphor for globalization. For, over the past score of decades since Hokusai crafted that glorious woodblock, the world has witnessed wave after wave of cultural creations sweeping across the globe: like so many ocean tides, forming into enormous swells, crashing on distant shores.
Fuji, of course, is often invoked as an iconic symbol of Japan. For some, then, it might be easy to imagine that Hokusai’s “Great Wave” is a formation issuing from Japan and extending outward, as in the case of Ichiro, Princess Mononoke, and Godzilla Matsui. Of course for others, it is easier to imagine that the great wave is flowing the opposite way, toward these vulnerable shores, intent on swallowing the nation whole. Enter Musashimaru and Asashoryu, in the footsteps of McDonald’s and Indiana Jones. Well, it’s a puzzle, I suppose, but not one that possesses any absolute solution. More likely, as with the tides, this phenomenon has a flow; it moves back and forth, swelling here, amassing there, experienced everywhere, without definitive conclusion.
After all, consider Hideki Matsui’s namesake: a diminutive infielder for the Seibu Lions. He becomes a free agent next year. And the guy who wears his individualism on his sleeve (or perhaps on his head, with its shaggy tresses and ethereal orange hue), is a player of uncommon prowess. He’s a man who who runs like Jackie Robinson, fields like Ozzie Smith, and hits with pop like Joe Morgan once did. He’s a can’t-miss prospect who already has the Major League scouts drooling. And when he goes? Well, Japan looses another talent on foreign shores. But in exchange, who is set to take his place? Well, he’s residing here already, this certain creative writer. He’s an American-born academician and wordsmith. He’s another exemplar of cultural inflow already in place: sitting at his console, penning columns in hip, artsy journals, contributing to the indigenous realm of ReDotPop. He is a living embodiment of contemporary globalization.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/holden030205/