In a recent Human Life Review blog (humanlifereview.com/wrestling-with-life-issues-in-japan/) I wrote about a loutish sumo wrestler, the mistress he mistreated, and the child they conceived. When his mistress told him she was pregnant with his baby, the sumo wrestler in question callously replied that “the kid in your belly is not a person.” Heartbroken, the mistress aborted the baby. The sumo wrestler’s conscience had apparently been wrangled out of the ring.
My friend Ikeda Masa’aki read my blog and contacted me. Human Life Review readers may remember Mr. Ikeda as the organizer of the March for Life in Tokyo.* Mr. Ikeda told me he had enjoyed the blog but thought I should write about sumo again, this time highlighting a wrestler of much greater stature (both physically and morally) than the one who jilted his mistress and dehumanized their child.
“Why not write something about Hitachiyama?” he asked me. “He’s known in Japan as a kakusei, a ‘saint’ of the sumo world.”
Mr. Ikeda, who is a Catholic, says he is not so sure about calling a sumo wrestler a “saint.” Of course, the term kakusei does not imply canonization, but instead rests in large part on Hitachiyama’s legendary exploits in the ring. Hitachiyama was a yokozuna, the highest sumo ranking, a position he held for more than ten years during the early part of the twentieth century. Then as now, yokozuna was a title, not a sinecure. Yokozuna who do not consistently win matches and tournaments are quietly asked to retire from the sport. By all accounts, Hitachiyama was one of the most dominating wrestlers in modern sumo history. In this sense, “saint” probably carries the colloquial connotation in Japanese of “kami,” someone who has achieved an almost superhuman mastery of a given field.
What is remarkable about Hitachiyama, however, is not just his record but his noble disposition. Yes, he was born into a samurai family, but political upheaval in Japan canceled out the advantages of being wellborn. Hitachiyama’s true nobility was in his heart. He was, in a word, magnanimous. And his magnanimity was arguably what made him a saint of the sumo world. He had the samurai code in his blood, insisting that he would fight with honor or not at all. Hitachiyama is often remembered today for his rivalry with Umegatani Tarō II, another famed wrestler from the early 20th century . In a well-known episode, Hitachiyama refused to accept the yokozuna crown unless Umegatani was made yokozuna alongside him. His rival, Hitachiyama reasoned, had fought just as hard as he had, so that if he was to receive recognition, Umegatani should receive it as well.
This is a great story, but Mr. Ikeda did not contact me to compare notes on sumo history. “Hitachiyama,” he wrote, “was what I think today would be called a prolifer.”
He was notorious for having many mistresses. Just like the sumo wrestler you wrote about, Hitachiyama was no saint in that respect.
But unlike that sumo wrestler whose sad tale recently appeared in a Japanese magazine, Hitachiyama never questioned the humanity of children. In fact, it’s said that over the years more than fifty women brought their babies to him and told him that he was the child’s father. Hitachiyama apparently never refused to accept his paternity. I don’t know if all those children were really his. Probably he didn’t know either. All the same, he shared his earnings with the women who came to him.
It’s hard to imagine today, but Hitachiyama was a real Meiji man. He exemplified the samurai spirit of old Japan. He was generous in victory, and gentle toward those in need.
Mr. Ikeda’s words got me thinking about how much things have changed since a century ago. Back then, competition (in the East as well as the West) ideally was guided by rules of fair play. But in addition to rules, there was honor. Hitachiyama of course wanted to win his matches. But not at any price. And he was ready to throw it all away—to turn down the yokozuna ranking if need be—if his success would bring dishonor to someone else. Ditto for his life outside of the ring. A woman with a child asking Hitachiyama to accept paternity was not someone to throw out onto the street (or the back alley). Even in the waning days of the samurai, sumo as a way of life was about mutual respect, not merely notching another “W” on a scorecard.
How different the world is today. For instance, in the swirling news and speculation about the Dobbs v. Jackson case—now before the United States Supreme Court—what we constantly hear replayed are half-century-old arguments for abortion. Most of these threadbare excuses for taking the life of a child boil down to personal autonomy. It’s not that the premise of the arguments is false: A child really does restrict autonomy. I don’t believe my own mother would have awakened six times a night when I was a baby if she had enjoyed complete control over her world. But when it comes down to a contest between two claims to autonomy, the mother’s and that of her child, the child—like a junior wrestler going up against a yokozuna—is always bound to lose.
In all this talk about rights and autonomy and freedom, we forget that we need one another more than we need abstractions associated with ideology and the law. There is a saying in Japanese: hitorizumō. It means “one-man sumo wrestling,” and is intended to conjure up the silly image you probably have in your mind right now. How ridiculous it would look for a sumo wrestler to take to the ring by himself! Imagine a giant yokozuna huffing and puffing, pretending to throw an opponent around, but grabbing and shaking only armfuls of air. In a direct and quite comical way, the Japanese saying captures a very important truth: Without his counterpart, a wrestler is nothing.
Hitachiyama understood this truth, and embraced it in a more profound way than mere strategizing about the sumo ring. Hitachiyama lived a full human life, enjoying, it would seem, a profusion of female company along the way. Hitorizumō applies as much to the boudoir as it does to the sumo bout. A man of honor, Hitachiyama did not shun his former paramours but stooped to lift them up as best he could. While he was far from perfect, he was not so naïve as to think that one could go through life alone. To abandon a woman and her child would be to enter the ring unaccompanied. Sumo, and life, just don’t work that way.
Today, though, too many of us are one-man sumo wrestlers. We deny that our lives are entangled with other lives. We think that biology can be separated from contingency—that the facts of life can be denied by eliminating the “products of conception.” We want to get rid of whatever doesn’t bring us power, fame, or money. We see children as accessories to our materially comfortable lives. Many men see women in the same way. Many women see men this way, too. And so here we are, tragicomic solitary actors grappling with our loneliness . . . wrestling alone.
But consider another way. Hitachiyama was called a saint. And, whatever happened to him after he shuffled off the mortal coil, on earth he faced the same temptations we all do. He could have hoarded his money and fame. He could have taken the yokozuna title and crowed about it to his rival Umegatani Tarō II. He could have turned away the women who came to him for help, telling them the children in their arms weren’t human beings—just as so many of us do today.
But Hitachiyama didn’t take that low road. “What made Hitachiyama great was his respect for human life,” Mr. Ikeda told me. “We need men like that today, in sumo and everywhere else.”