Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A great week for the Oyaji

Oyaji is a mildly derogatory word used to describe middle-aged Japanese men with traditional attitudes about the importance of workplace hierarchies, filial respect and the role of women in society. In truth, Oyaji deserve much of the respect they demand; these tobacco loving, suit-wearing old farts are the men who turned Japan from a war-ravaged wasteland into one of the richest countries in the world through their discipline, hard-work and dedication. To this day, they control the Japanese business establishment and powerful government bureaucracy. Still, it's hard to be an Oyaji much of the time, what with one's daughters insisting on finding their own boyfriends, young punks who feel that they are entitled to take vacation time, Prime Minister Koizumi's determination to shake up the Liberal Democratic Party and the utter lack of respect with which some of the popular media portrays the older generation.

However, two events in the past week have given the Oyaji cause for a celebratory trip to the local Hostess bar: the triumph of Tochiazuma in the January Sumo Tournament and the spectacular downfall of Livedoor, a company built around a popular internet portal.

Tochiazuma is a promising young wrestler from the rank just below Grand Champion. His recent victory came in dramatic and convincing fashion, as he threw down Grand Champion Asashoryu in the final match of the tournament to clinch the championship and avoid a tie-breaker rematch with the up and coming wrestler Hakuho.

It wasn't anything about Tochiazuma's wrestling style that had Suntory whiskey bottles tipping upright across Japan on Sunday night. Of course, sumo fans everywhere were happy to see a wrestler rise to Asashoryu's level, but for the Oyaji and other Japanese nationalists, the cherry on top of the sundae was the fact that unlike the Grand Champion, Tochiazuma is pureblood Japanese.

Sumo is as much ritual as sport, an ancient activity with roots in Shinto, Japan's national religion. Its champions are supposed to exemplify the very cultural values that the Oyaji treasure - masculinity, dedication and selflessness. For many Japanese nationalists, the idea of a foreigner rising to the level of Grand Champion was unthinkable until the mountainous Hawaiian Akebono did just that in 1991. Since then, more and more strapping young men from all over the world have decided to give sumo a try, figuring (shhhhh) that it can't be much more than a glorified form of king of the hill. It's easy to empathize with the poor Japanese - imagine how Americans would react if Latin sluggers began infiltrating the Major Leagues and dominating our national past-time!

In recent years, Mongolians have spear-headed the foreign invasion, let by the formidable Asashoryu (Hakuho, who finished second in the January tournament, is also Mongolian). Other foreigners competing at the highest levels include pot-bellied giants from Russia, Georgia, Estonia and Greece. Until Tochiazuma's startling victory, the wrestler thought to have the best chance of unseating Asashoryu was a young Bulgarian judo champion named Kotooshu, who was recently promoted to the second highest rank. The 21 year old has bulked up significantly in the past year, attracting legions of fans and garnering several endorsement deals. To borrow a line from my favorite sports columnist, there's comedy, there's high comedy and then there's watching a pock-marked giant in a loincloth eating yogurt on Japanese TV. "Yum," says Kotooshu in painfully rehearsed Japanese,
"It tastes like Bulgaria."

Recently, the sumo powers that be (an oyaji stronghold if there ever was one), imposed a strict quota on the number of foreign wrestlers allowed to practice their sacred sport. Although foreigners currently wrestling will be allowed to stay, up and comers hoping to break into the big time will have to compete for a single membership spot at each of the sumo training centers, or stables. In effect, the Oyaji have traded quality sumo for Japanese purity, denying entry to skilled wrestlers purely on the basis of their nationality. Through no fault of his own, Tochiazuma is now a hero to the xenophobes, the first sign that the policy of exclusion is working as planned.

The charges of corporate fraud brought against Livedoor in the past week have ignited a media frenzy. The internet portal company allegedly manipulated its stock price by falsifying earnings statements...or something along those lines. Like the Enron scandal, although everyone knows that someone in the company did something naughty, only a few people seem to grasp exactly what kind of fraud was committed.

At any rate, like Tochiazuma's victory, the details of what happened are not important. The Oyaji are gloating because their arch-rival Takafumi Horie has been disgraced. http://takada.air-nifty.com/online/images/horie.jpgHorie, the 32 year old founder of Livedoor, became a celebrity by taking on the Oyaji establishment. A university dropout and tireless self-promoter, he amassed a tremendous fortune as his company rocketed up the Nikkei Stock Exchange. Speaking frankly of the need for Japanese companies to ditch tiresome institutions like seniority based bureacratic hierarchies in favor of a more free-wheeling, talent driven way of doing business, Horie sent tremors of fear through smoky corner offices. As his company and celebrity rose in prominence, Horie became more bold, trying to buy a baseball team and thereby break into one of the most exclusive Oyaji clubs of all. Last year, his company tried a hostile takeover of Fuji Television, an unheard of tactic in a society that values stability and consensus over individual initiative and raw capitalism. During last years Election, Horie even decided to run for office, taking on one of the most prominent and old-fashioned representatives in politics and calling his campaign speeches "boring."

Horie lost the election, which in retrospect was a sign that the establishment would no longer tolerate his impudence. On Monday night, only 24 hours after Tochiazuma's win, television news helicopters covered Horie's arrest on the streets of Tokyo and the Oyajis skipped back to their hostess bars.

Tochiazuma's victory and Horie's arrest are signs that on the official levels where the Oyaji have consolidated power, Japan is still an extraordinarily conservative country. For all the resources spent on internationalization, it is difficult to imagine another society reacting to the presence of foreigners with the kind of xenophobic intensity the sumo quotas represent. Likewise, while Japan is full of talented, fiesty young entrepreneurs like Horie, their chances of succeeding in business - and thereby injecting a sorely needed burst of creativity - are minimal as long as the Oyaji insist on the prioritizing seniority at the expense of talent. Even the rock stars who show up on TV in the edgiest fashions this side of Times Square know enough to use polite, deferential speech when addressing their audience in case the suits who print their record contracts are listening.

If the Oyaji's grip on power isn't broken soon, they might wake up one day to find out that their worst nightmare has come true. Instead of getting a demotion at the hands of a man like Horie, they might be fired flat out when a Chinese firm takes over their company. For the Oyaji, that would be the kind of humiliation for which no sumo championship could begin to compensate.


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