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Tea Leaves

How sumo and American football could help unite the world

Vastly different sports offer precious insights into national characteristics

Japanese sumo and American football, both sports reflect the distinctly different characteristics of the societies that spawned them. (Source photo by Reuters and Kei Higuchi)

I recently heard American football described as the 'quintessential American sport,' because it is both violent and legalistic. The U.S. National Football League rule book takes nearly 200 pages to outline proper behavior for the helmeted giants who contest matches at the sport's top level.

Sumo wrestling, by contrast, is the quintessential Japanese sport, also contested by large men, but governed largely by tradition -- its rulebook runs to just half a page and is mainly limited to banning punching, eye-gouging and hair pulling. Basically the loser is the first competitor who touches anything outside the ring or contacts the ground with any body part other than the soles of the feet. It's as simple as that.

In sharp contrast to American football, invented in the late 19th century, sumo started almost 1,500 years ago, originating inside Shinto shrines as an inducement for abundant harvests. A canopy shaped like a Shinto shrine hangs over the ring, and the referee dresses like a Shinto priest. Before matches, competitors throw sacred salt to purify the ring and stomp the ground to scare away demons.

Like Japanese society, sumo is rigidly hierarchical. At business meetings, name cards are exchanged so that each person's social position is determined, therefore guiding the level of polite language each should use. In sumo, lists issued before tournaments show the ranking of every wrestler. Junior participants must wake up first each day and cook, clean and do laundry for their superiors. Sumo also represents some less positive aspects of Japanese society, such as its notorious bullying culture and bias against women. Senior wrestlers are also known to callously haze new wrestlers. The NFL has female referees and in theory could have female players. In sumo, women are not allowed to even step into the dohyo (ring).

Such rigidly regimented lives would be wholly alien to America's freewheeling footballers, with their media-dominated popstar lifestyles.

You can gauge the importance of individualism in the two sports by the use of names. In American football, each player has his identity displayed on the back of his jersey. Sumo wrestlers do not even use their actual names; they take stage names instead, and are expected to behave in a respectful and traditional manner in and out of the ring, dressing in kimonos with their hair worn in the Chon Mage topknot style of Japan's Edo period (1603 to 1868).

Sumo wrestlers are also strongly discouraged from showing emotion. Win or lose, they must not show signs of happiness or disappointment. The contrast with the televised elation and despondency displayed by the winners and losers of a football game could not be sharper.

American football is a very linear game. The field is 100 yards (91.4meters) long, and the goal is to advance the ball in a forward manner. The game is made up of four 15-minute quarters. By contrast, sumo occurs in a circular ring, and the length of matches is no more predictable than the length of a rainstorm, although most last only a few action-filled seconds. This underscores the Japanese Zen-influenced view that life is short and beautiful but should be left without attachment.

Japanese intuitive thinking also plays a big role in sumo. There is no instruction manual. New wrestlers spend years learning by observing senior wrestlers and then by getting thrown over and over again. The skills are honed by years of repetition; learning is never cognitive and is always experiential. All this is the opposite of football, with its elaborate playbooks and specialized coaches for running backs, wide-receivers, quarterbacks and others.

I once met an American sumo wrestler who had reached the rank of ozeki, one level below grand champion. He fought at an astounding peak weight of 287 kg. Since he had grown up in the U.S. and had played American football I asked him what he thought were the biggest differences between the two sports. He said that in football, before a big game, the players would get loud and rowdy to psyche themselves up, reflecting the extroverted nature of American society. Sumo was the opposite. Ahead of championships the wrestlers would become quiet and introspective, in line with the introverted nature of the Japanese.

At their cores, American football and Japanese sumo both involve exceptionally large men colliding violently with each other. In every other respect, though, the two sports reflect the distinctly different

characteristics of the societies that spawned them, and yield striking insights into both nations.

That is a valuable quality in these turbulent times of pandemics and protests. If we want to unite people of the world, refreshing globalization and rebuilding the cultural bridges that have been so damaged by the events of the last few months, we could do worse than spend a bit more time watching football and sumo.

Richard Conrad is the Singapore-based author of 'Culture Hacks, Deciphering Differences in American, Chinese, and Japanese Thinking.'

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