Once again Japan is threatened by a mountainous marauder who mashes everything in his path. Once again the behemoth's thunderous footfalls have kindled fire storms everywhere, from the backstreets of Osaka to Atami Castle in Nagoya. And once again the overlords of this island nation are conspiring to stop him. Only this time the enemy is not a 50,000-ton, flame-belching sauropod named Godzilla. This time he's a human being, a sumo wrestler known as Meat Bomb.
Godzilla, you may recall, was a nuclear freak who washed ashore after being loosed by American scientists. Meat Bomb, whose real name is Salevaa Atisanoe, but who fights in Japan under the alias Konishiki, is a Hawaiian-born Boogie-board freak who caught the sumo wave while hanging loose at Waikiki. "When I left home for Tokyo in 1982, I didn't know what sumo was," says the first non-Japanese to breach the top ranks of this medieval backwater of sport. "In fact, I didn't even know Godzilla had been to Japan. In those days I was into true-crime police dramas, like Hawaii Five-0."
There are subtle differences between the two. Konishiki (pronounced ko-NEESH-kee) is scrupulously polite. He bows, he defers to his superiors, he comports himself with solemnity. "Godzilla was gloriously rude," observes Michael Browning, a Far East correspondent for The Miami Herald. "He's the one visitor who can enter a Japanese home without taking his shoes off—because he has no shoes and usually comes in through the roof." And while Godzilla hated hightension wires. Konishiki revels in hightension face-offs. But, as Browning notes, "both have guts to spare."
When it comes to guts, no athlete can match Konishiki. At 6'1" and 580 pounds, he is roughly square. A veritable waterfall of flab, he weighs about 175 pounds more than the typical sumo wrestler, 100 more than his chunkiest rival and 50 more than the average Japanese household. "It's a deceptive 580," says Konishiki. "Fifty pounds of it are always jiggling." Flesh, great bulging rolls of it, hangs off him by the bucketful. It ripples from his chest, beetles from his breasts, wobbles around his legs, arms and thighs. Konishiki's belly is so vast that you could hide a Butterball turkey in his navel. His frame appears to move in sections: If he turns too quickly, the rest of him takes a few seconds to catch up.
At a time when Japanese leaders are criticized for not importing American goods, an American import has risen near the summit of their national sport. Konishiki is the first foreigner to reach the rank of ozeki (champion). He has won two of the last three bimonthly bashos (sumo tournaments) and finished a respectable third in the other—a run that would normally be enough to tip the scales in favor of his elevation to yokozuna (grand champion). But Konishiki's huge success has posed a giant dilemma for the sport's ruling body, the cabalistic Sumo Kyokai. No gaijin (as foreigners are called) has ever been honored as a yokozuna, and the Kyokai is reluctant to set a precedent with Konishiki. The council met following Konishiki's victory in March at the basho in Osaka and ruled out further consideration of his elevation until after the two-week tournament in Tokyo that began on Sunday. Sure, Konishiki had gone 13-2 at the last basho. But his two losses, council members said, were ugly. "We want to make doubly sure that Konishiki is worthy to be a grand champion," explained Hideo Ueda, a sumo official. "Therefore, we decided to wait for another tournament."
The yokozuna sits atop a multilayered hierarchy of about 800 wrestlers. "Yokozuna are immortals," says Konishiki reverently. "It's like getting into the Hall of Fame. You stay there for life, man." The induction of a yokozuna, something that has happened only 62 times since the birth of modern sumo in the 1750s, involves an elaborate three-hour ceremony on the grounds of the venerable Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. Though other wrestlers move up and down the rankings according to their results, a yokozuna can never be demoted. But he is pretty much obliged to step down when he begins to lose more bouts than he wins. This usually happens in his mid-30's. Then the wrestler gets his topknot cut and withdraws to a lethargic O-shaped old age.
Because there is now no active yokozuna—the last one retired last Friday because of injuries—the Kyokai is desperate to shore up the sport's top rank by naming others. "Like it or not, sumo is show biz," says Lynn Matsuoka, a Tokyo-based illustrator of sumo books. "Yokozuna are not only part of the pageantry, they're big box office." Based on his record alone, Konishiki is the leading candidate. But the Kyokai is torn between taking sumo to a wider audience and not wanting to dilute what it regards as a living heritage.
Yokozuna are appointed partly for winning major events, partly for producing consistently high scores. But there's another, more elusive requirement: hinkaku, an innate and somewhat mystical aura of dignity that many Japanese find wanting in Westerners. Japanese chauvinists oppose the idea of conferring the honor of yokozuna on a non-Japanese. In a recent issue of the monthly Bungei Shunju. novelist Noboru Kojima argued that the promotion of Konishiki "could lead to renunciation of the identity of Japanese spiritual culture." The piece was titled "We Do Not Need a Foreign Yokozuna."
But sumo insiders have an additional objection. Konishiki, they say, has transformed an ancient form of stylized combat into a survival of the fattest. The rules of sumo competition are simple: You win by forcing your opponent to the ground or outside the 15-foot circle of rice straw enclosing the ring. You lose if any part of your body other than the soles of your feet—even your hair—touches the floor. Bouts are generally over in a few seconds; very few last more than 20. A wrestler of Konishiki's size and strength, therefore, has an overwhelming advantage. But "if strength were the only requirement for yokozuna," protests one sumo official, "then why wouldn't we just get lions, bears and elephants to fight?"
Konishiki, who arrived in Japan knowing little Japanese but learned to speak it flawlessly, takes the critical jabs philosophically, saying, "It's their sport, and I don't want to light the system. The best I can do is rack up the wins. If I keep winning, they'll have to do something."