American competitors are rapidly changing the ancient Japanese sport of sumo. Is this a form of cultural appropriation, or merely a form of cultural appreciation?
Four years in the making, SUMO EAST AND WEST offers a rare opportunity to go inside the cloistered and highly secretive world of sumo, where the historical clash between East and West plays out in the story of the Western outsiders who have entered this quintessentially Japanese institution.
Sumo is not only Japan's national sport, but also a centuries-old cultural treasure that is literally part of the Shinto religion. Since the 1970s, however, the success of bigger, heavier American sumo wrestlers from Hawaii has marked a controversial change in the sport, culminating in the 1993 ascension of Akebono (Chad Rowan of O‘ahu) to become the first non-Japanese yokozuna, or grand champion.
Wayne Vierra takes on an
Egyptian wrestler wearing bicycle
shorts under his mawashi
Women in the sumo ring
At the same time, foreign promoters have started marketing sumo in the West as part of a broader movement to gain Olympic status for the sport. Sumo has appeared in decidedly non-traditional forms, such as the glitzy tournaments in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Yet the push to gain Olympic status has also required various concessions, such as the use of a non-dirt sumo ring, the acceptance of bicycle-style Lycra shorts under the sumo belt, and most radically, the introduction of sumo competition for women. In Japan, such developments remain the source of heated debate between purists and more global-minded elements in the sumo community that are eager to spread the sport worldwide.
Now, sumo faces the question of how much or how little it needs to open up to the world in order to continue to thrive. Is it possible for even the most dedicated Westerners to truly understand, let alone practice, what is in many ways a living embodiment of Japan itself? What happens when they try? And what does this effort reveal about both Japanese and American cultures and the relationship between them?
Told through a tapestry of Super 16mm observational footage, interviews and rare archival material, SUMO EAST AND WEST records the rituals of sumo in Japan: the lives of the wrestlers, their training and the culture that surrounds them. It visits the tournaments and the wall-to-wall TV coverage, captures the fanaticism of the fans and reveals how deeply sumo is woven into the very history and culture of Japan. Similarly, the film enters the world of amateur sumo in the U.S., following the diverse cast of American sumo wrestlers as they strive for respectability and observing the effect that the internationalization of the sport is having on Japan.
Meet the American sumo wrestlers featured in SUMO EAST AND WEST >>
Learn more about the history and sport of sumo >>