In September, after it was announced that Tokyo would host the summer Olympic Games in 2020, a sumo wrestler, Hakuho, took questions from the press. “I got goose bumps when I heard the news,” he said. “This gives me a new goal to aim for.” Hakuho, a Mongolian citizen whose father took home a silver medal in freestyle wrestling from the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, went on to express his hope that as a yokozuna — the highest rank in the sumo hierarchy — he might be asked to perform the slow, ponderous motions of a ceremonial “ring entry” dance for the opening ceremony.
Hakuho’s Olympic aspirations have been widely covered in the Japanese news media. The possibility that Hakuho might become the second nonnative sumo wrestler in a row to perform in an opening ceremony in Japan — Akebono, born in Hawaii, danced in the 1998 winter games in Nagano — has generated considerable excitement.
People were thrilled, I think, because they sensed that Hakuho’s presence would demonstrate how open Japan had become, and how much its society had matured. What better symbol of a new Japan could there be than a popular sumo wrestler, dressed in the most ostentatiously traditional of costumes — an elaborate loincloth, even a samurai topknot — who happens to be non-Japanese?
I sympathize with the desire to make the Olympic opening ceremony a platform for the demonstration of progress. I can’t help feeling, though, that there must be some better, more transformative way to show how Japanese society has matured.
True, in the past few decades Japan has witnessed a remarkable internationalization of sumo: 16 of the 42 top-division wrestlers hail from other countries, including Bulgaria, Georgia, Estonia, Russia, Brazil and China. The first Arab wrestler (an Egyptian) recently competed in an inaugural top-division tournament — while fasting for Ramadan — and he still won more matches than he lost. In fact, no Japanese has won any of the 45 tournaments since March 2006, and all of the wrestlers who have been named yokozuna in the last decade were born outside Japan.
Despite this refreshing openness to foreign wrestlers, the Japan Sumo Association remains profoundly conservative. It continues to prohibit women from entering the ring, evidently because they would “defile” this sacred space.
And so here is my own proposal for the opening ceremony of the 2020 Olympic Games: Get the emperor to wear a kimono.
This might sound a bit peculiar. After all, why shouldn’t the emperor — a living symbol of “Japaneseness” — wear that quintessentially Japanese item of apparel? But the fact is that no modern emperor of Japan has appeared in public wearing a kimono. Ever since the Meiji era, when Japan raced to catch up with the West, the emperor has dressed for formal occasions in a frock coat, a military uniform, or a suit — in Western rather than Japanese clothing. On rare ceremonial occasions, he wears an elaborate costume that dates from ancient times.
(Clothing isn’t the only area in which the emperor has been Westernized; the same is true of the food he eats in public. When foreign visitors dine with the emperor, the typical menu is French. No sushi, no tempura, not even chopsticks.)
As far as I can tell, no politician has ever stepped up to the microphone on the floor of Parliament to request an explanation for this odd fact. Perhaps the reason is clear. There have been only three emperors since the Meiji Restoration, when the Meiji emperor began making public appearances. Each has dressed in Western clothing to show that his family stands among the world’s great royal families, and ancient Japanese costume, to show that he is descended from the earliest emperors. It appears that the Imperial Household Agency doesn’t allow the emperor to appear in public in a kimono because it would make him seem too ordinary — like a common Japanese citizen.
Of course, these days hardly anyone (with the notable exception of sumo wrestlers) wears a kimono regularly, but it remains a deeply familiar form of clothing. Hotels and inns provide guests with light cotton kimonos known as yukata; during summer fireworks displays the streets of Tokyo fill with people wearing them. More formal kimonos still have a place in weddings and funerals, coming-of-age ceremonies, and other lifetime events. And anyone who has ever seen a film by Yasujiro Ozu will recall that most ordinary of his staple scenes: a salaryman comes home and immediately changes out of his suit into a kimono.
Japan no longer needs its emperor to demonstrate, by his choice of dress, that his family is on a par with other royal families — and by extension, that Japan is a civilized nation. We are long past that point. By the same token, there is no reason the emperor should continue to be presented as anything other than a citizen of Japan like any other. At the conclusion of World War II, when Emperor Hirohito renounced his divinity (along with the doctrine of Japanese racial superiority), something known as the “symbolic emperor system” began to take shape.
What better way to complete this process — and thus to neutralize the power the emperor continues to hold for those who see him as more than just another citizen — than to cloak the emperor in that other, more quotidian symbol of Japaneseness, the kimono?
So at the Olympic opening ceremony, I would like to see Emperor Akihito on television, watching from the stands with the empress at his side, both of them dressed in kimonos. They might turn and chat with the foreign guests around them, and even — why not? — pass around boxes of sushi as a snack.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, this would be a much more radical, transformative gesture than a dance by a non-Japanese sumo wrestler wearing a traditional Japanese costume. It would reveal a much deeper sort of openness to the world, and constitute a deeper engagement with our history.
Norihiro Kato is a literary scholar and a professor at Waseda University. This article was translated by Michael Emmerich from the Japanese.