SUMO EAST AND WEST delves into the cloistered world of Sumo

Posted by Suzanne Kai on Sunday, 06 June 2004.

SUMO EAST AND WEST premieres on PBS this month. Cultural collisions occur in Japan as foreigners enter the ancient Japanese sport of sumo. Husband-and-wife team Ferne Pearlstein and Robert Edwards take us inside the cloistered world of Sumo in their new documentary which airs on Independent Lens on Tuesday, June 8 at 10 P.M.

Sumo is the national sport of Japan and a centuries old cultural treasure, considered part of the Shinto religion.

Sumo: East and West , by Ferne Pearlstein and Robert Edwards is a rare view of the cloistered world of Sumo which examines the relationship between the U.S. and Japan as foreigners strive to make their mark.

During the late 19th and 20th centuries, Japanese immigrants arrived on Hawaiian shores to work the sugar plantations introducing Sumo wrestling to the U.S.

Early films of sumo by Thomas Edison, wartime newsreels, and images of sumo in the World War II relocation camps are interwoven with TV coverage of tournament competitions capturing the fanaticism of the fans, and follows the journeys of today's sumo stars.

Since the 1970s, the success of American sumo wrestlers from Hawaii has created controversy in the sumo world. In the early 90s, with more than a dozen Americans from Hawaii in the pro ranks, the Nihon Sumo Kyokai (the governing body of sumo) imposed a limit of three foreign sumo wrestlers in any given stable.

The rise of Akebono (Chad Rowan of Oahu) in the ranks as the first non-Japanese yokuzuna (grand champion) in 1993, marked a change in the two-thousand year history of sumo. In 1999, Musashimaru, a second American was promoted to yokuzuna.

Shot in the U.S. and Japan, the film highlights a diverse cast of American sumo wrestlers including Wayne Vierra, Sentoryu, Manny Yarbrough, Konishiki and Akebono.

Today, as part of a movement for sumo to gain Olympic status, the marketing of the sport in the West by promoters in Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos has required concessions. Japanese purists like the powerful Nihon Sumo Kyokai and global-minded entities in the sumo community eager to spread the sport worldwide are divided on such developments as the use of a non-dirt sumo ring, the acceptance of bicycle-style lycra shorts under the sumo belt, and especially women participating in sumo.

Immerse yourself in the insular world of sumo in Sumo: East and West which airs on Independent Lens on June 8 at 10 P.M.

Click here for the official Sumo: East and West website.