words pierced Konishiki’s thumping heart. Despite his having won two
tournaments out of three, amassing 38 wins over the three basho, he
would have to defeat 13 more opponents in order to realise his yokozuna
dream. Columnists in the American press abandoned themselves to uproar
and accused the YDC of blatant anti-Americanism. The economist Louis
LeClerc, while censuring the Japanese government for ‘unfairly’
protecting its companies from American competition, cited Konishiki’s
non-promotion as an example.
Criticisms in the US were further fuelled by the antics of Noboru Kojima, the YDC member of jingoistic novel-writing fame. In a media interview shortly after the YDC meeting, Kojima suggested that the huge Hawaiian did not possess ‘hinkaku,’ a word which is derived from ‘hin,’ the Japanese translation of ‘grace, elegance and refinement.’ A nationalistic sub-editor then poured petrol on the flames of controversy by headlining the piece: ‘We Don’t Need a Foreign Yokozuna’.
As if Konishiki’s preparation was not being disrupted enough, events took an even more violent downturn on April 20th. The Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan’s leading financial newspaper, attributed a quote to Konishiki which suggested that he had been denied promotion due to ‘discrimination’. Almost simultaneously, the New York Times alleged that Konishiki had said the following: ‘If I were Japanese, I would be yokozuna already’.
Now it was the turn of the sumo association (NSK) to express outrage. Angrily summoning the
|250-kilogram Hawaiian to their offices, the NSK demanded an explanation for
this apparent outburst. The enormous ozeki was shell-shocked and
insisted he had been ‘misrepresented’. After his employers chillingly
warned him to ‘be more humble’, Konishiki attended a press conference
at which he tearfully denied making the remarks attributed to him. As
the incident descended into a farce with interventions from the
Japanese Foreign Minister and then Prime Minister, the damage to
Konishiki’s self-esteem was irreparable. Two weeks before the most
important tournament of his life, and he was mentally in no fit state
The real explanation
Consensus remains in the sumo world that Konishiki could not possibly have been responsible for the ‘quotes’ in the newspapers. It would be impossible for a newspaper – most of all a non-Japanese publication – to interview an ozeki by telephone, as the New York Times claimed. The NYT would have to try a bit harder than that to interview someone of such importance in the sumo world. It appears that the version of events offered by Konishiki is correct; namely, that a Hawaiian apprentice conducted the interviews on his behalf. One assumes that the naïve apprentice answered some heavily-loaded questions from journalists eager to stir up discord, and was horrified to discover how his remarks had been twisted.
The real issues
The early 1990s were times of mutual suspicion between Japan and America, not least because the latter feared the economic rise of the former and resented having subsidised it in the 1940s. Social commentators from both countries
|enjoyed pointing the finger at each other, with incidents like the Konishiki Affair providing the perfect
excuse for an intellectual ruckus. But underneath the tabloid
headlines, sumo was conducting a profound exercise in identity shaping.
Kojima’s comments on hinkaku were certainly inflammatory, but were not expressly intended to pinpoint racial differences between Americans and Japanese. Rather, they were intended as a warning over Konishiki’s size and physical condition. The fact was: he was too big. Since his injury, he had become much slower and less agile. The constant strain on his back and knees (now numb with painkilling injections) left him rather limited in the technique department, meaning that at the time of his promotion-drive he was winning virtually every match by yorikiri. In addition, each time he was sidestepped by a smaller foe, he had no means of rescuing the match, and some of his losses were – in the words of one YDC member – ‘ugly’. This, of course, was a far cry from the NSK’s conception of hinkaku, an alleged prerequisite for a yokozuna.
Both the YDC and NSK were beginning to see the effects of Konishiki’s success on the new recruits coming in, many of whom were stuffing themselves in the hope of matching the giant’s girth. Sumo authorities genuinely feared that making a yokozuna of Konishiki would make a champion out of ‘bulge’ at the expense of technique. Furthermore, they interpreted another of Konishiki’s misrepresented quotes from 1984, ‘sumo is a fight’, as a sign that the Hawaiian valued ‘winning at all