Tim Noonan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 February, 2011, 12:00am

I can't imagine there would be a stampede to a Tom Selleck film festival. Movies like Quigley Down Under, Runaway and Her Alibi have helped to cement Selleck's reputation as a wonderful TV actor. However, the mustachioed Magnum PI star does deserve credit for helping to perfectly articulate modern Japanese culture in one of the better East meets West movies.

In the 1995 film Mr Baseball, Selleck plays an over-the-hill major leaguer who no longer can get work in the United States and is forced to head to Japan to extend his playing career. He arrives as the quintessential ugly American, belittling everything about both Japanese baseball and culture.

In the most poignant moment of the movie he is taken to a Japanese steak house by the team's female translator and tells her this will be a waste of time because the best steaks in the world are in Kansas City. But once he eats the succulent beef he exclaims it is the best steak he has ever had. 'In Japan,' the translator tells him, 'we take the best of other cultures and we make it better.' And that, in a nutshell, is the story of 20th century Japan. From automobiles to Kobe beef, draught beer to electronics and potato salad to baseball, the Japanese have undeniably elevated the quality of these imports.

Japan's run as back-to-back champions of the recently minted World Baseball Classic has helped to revitalise morale in their so-called national game. But baseball is and always will be an American thing, no matter how the Japanese play it. It's a game, a wildly popular one, but still a game.

There is only one sport in Japan and it is the source of more domestic pride and mythology than anything else in the country. Sumo wrestling is a national heirloom and has been for close to 2,000 years. There is no inspiration from America or Europe. The Japanese did not take the best of other cultures and make it better with sumo.

Originally a court ritual, sumo was used in feudal times to help decide contentious political issues. Whichever behemoth threw the other behemoth out of the ring won and the issue his group represented would become law. Might was right. It was so simple and so pure that its basic principles endured and became the moral core of the country. Sumo came to symbolise integrity, honour, tradition and respect. The pageantry and participants were larger than life. Sumo is bigger in Japan than hockey in Canada, soccer in Brazil and cricket in India. Yes, it's all that and more.

There is also one more thing that sumo is: rotten to the core. Revelations last week that at least 14 of the top wrestlers in Japan have been linked to match-fixing has forced the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) to cancel next month's Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in Osaka. It is the first time since 1946 that one of the six annual 'Grand Tournaments' has been cancelled and sent shock waves throughout the country. Why, I am not exactly sure.

Oh, there was the requisite outrage from the politicians. 'Sumo has a long history and a great number of fans,' Prime Minister Naoto Kan said. 'It is certainly the national sport. If matches have been fixed, it is a serious betrayal of the people.'

And naturally the top guy at the JSA went on national TV to perform the obligatory apology and regretful bow of disgrace. Still, it remains to be to seen how exactly this is such a shock. Of the 14 wrestlers implicated, four have already admitted they fixed matches, becoming the first active wrestlers to publicly proclaim what has been a long-held suspicion.

For years, sumo wrestlers have been implicated in gambling probes for betting on baseball through members of Japan's unsavory mafia, the yakuza. A few years ago the head of the JSA was forced to resign when two wrestlers, both Russians, tested positive for marijuana and were banned for life. A few weeks later one of the banned wrestlers held a press conference to say not only were a number of Japanese wrestlers and their handlers smoking marijuana with impunity, but they were also fixing matches. His claims were quickly dismissed by authorities as vengeful and unfounded.

While Japan technically enjoys a free press, the media have traditionally been complicit in building and spreading myths. They were reluctant to expose the connections between the yakuza and sumo until police leaked them details six months ago of a number of failed wrestlers who ended up as yakuza enforcers; some were even crime bosses. Now the cat is officially out of the bag in match-fixing as well.

The future of the national sport is in peril. Centuries of hypocrisy have come home to roost. Japan has long done a remarkable job of mythologising sumo wrestlers, but the truth is they are woefully underpaid and living extremely unhealthy lifestyles. Meals consist of one large lunch of meat and fish with copious rice all washed down with lots of beer and followed by a siesta to keep their weight upwards of 250 kilograms. The life expectancy of a sumo wrestler is around 60, while the average for the rest of Japan is 80 plus.

But it certainly makes for some great pageantry as well as a convenient propaganda tool for honour, integrity, pride and tradition. Nobody does deception like the powers that be in modern Japan, particularly when it comes to non-imports.