TOKYO, May 29 (UPI) -- With Jacques Chirac's departure, Japan may have lost its best French friend. For Nicolas Sarkozy made clear well before the presidential elections that he was no fan of sumo, unlike his predecessor. But even as French support for the ancient sport falters, wrestling Japanese-style is ever more popular outside its borders, and what's more, there's no stopping the domination of foreigners in the game.
How can anyone be fascinated "by these battles between fat guys with slicked-down ponytails," Sarkozy said in 2004, adding that "sumo wrestling is really not a sport for intellectuals."
The comment was clearly a snub against Chirac, who was well-known in Japan for his love of the Asian nation and its cuisine, art and culture, even though many in Japan were personally offended by the comment and continue to remain vehemently anti-Sarkozy as a result. In contrast, Chirac was such a big fan of Japanese wrestling that he not only named his pet poodle Sumo, he also sponsored a prize in the sport known as the Chirac Cup each summer. That award, incidentally, will be discontinued with Chirac's departure.
But while Sarkozy may mock Chirac's sporting taste, the number of those who are attracted to sumo outside Japan continues to grow, and their influence is even changing the very nature of the game. Its growing allure, however, may well become a bigger diplomatic tool for Japan. Certainly, sumo is challenging Japanese society's perception of foreigners in general and sparking interest in countries that have hitherto been completely off the radar of most people. In turn, the influx of non-Japanese into the sport has revitalized what has often been regarded as an arcane competition, boosting television ratings as well as box office sales.
This week Mongolian wrestler Hakuho was named yokozuna, which is the highest title awarded in the game, and the 22-year-old athlete, whose real name is Munkhbat Davaajargal, will be the 69th grand champion in sumo's history. The last wrestler to be named yokozuna was Asashoryu, also from Mongolia, in January 2003. Meanwhile, the last Japanese national to be named grand champion was in 1998.
The dominance of Mongolians in a sport that originates from Japan's national religion, Shinto, is no longer an issue among most fans. But until about a decade ago, it was unheard of to award the highest honor in the sport to a non-Japanese. After all, to this day, sumo wrestlers cannot win the title of yokozuna by ability alone. Even if they win against all their opponents over a number of seasons, their rank must still be approved by the Japan Sumo Association, which not only considers the wrestler's fighting ability, but also his sense of decorum and dignity befitting a grand champion of the tradition-laden sport.
From the 1980s, Pacific Islanders came to dominate the sport, which originated as a game to entertain the gods. But while wrestlers such as Hawaii's Konishiki came to attract public attention for their strength in the ring, they ultimately failed to win the biggest prize in the sport, in part due to the sumo association's belief that they were unable to represent the ephemeral spirit of the sport despite their track record.
Such debate seems as if it were in the distant past now that the two current yokozunas both hail from Ulaanbaatar, and wrestlers from other Asian nations as well as Eastern Europe, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Estonia, are no longer viewed with suspicion.
Granted, all foreigners still need to belong to a team, or stable, run by a former sumo champion, and they must all be fluent in the Japanese language as well in order to compete, unlike in other sports, such as tennis, where a Wimbledon champion has no need to speak English or even reside in Britain.
Still, there is no doubt that sumo is not simply a Japanese export; it has also opened the eyes of many Japanese to Mongolia, Western Samoa, the former Soviet Union and other nations from which wrestlers hail where there has hitherto been little Japanese media interest.
Indeed, Mongolia has become one of the hottest tourist destinations for those seeking something off the beaten path, in large part due to growing familiarity towards the country as a result of watching Mongolian sumo wrestlers regularly, according to domestic travel group H.I.S.
The Japanese Embassy in Mongolia, meanwhile, reported that Mongolians too are fixated with how their wrestlers are doing in Japan, and at one local electronics shop, "there were lots of people before the television sets, and there was a large shout of glee when Hakuho won."
There is growing speculation that Crown Prince Naruhito and his wife, Princess Masako, as well as their daughter, Princess Aiko, will visit Mongolia this summer, partly because the 5-year-old princess is said to be a huge fan of the sport.
Whether rumors of an official royal visit to the country would have sparked any public interest is debatable were it not for the power of sumo to bring the two countries together.