What Do the Japanese Think of Our Sumo Chapter?

That’s the question answered here in an e-mail we just received from the very lovely and hard-working man who translated our book into Japanese:


Gentlemen,

This is Mamoru Mochizuki, your translator for the Japanese edition. About a month passed since the Japanese edition of Freakonomics was published. I would like to report how Japanese people reacted to the book, especially regarding your discussion on Sumo wrestling.

The reaction to the Sumo part is mixed. There were mainly 5 kinds of them:

a) The controversy is finally settled: there IS a corruption in Sumo. (rare)

b) Yeah, they are right, but is it new? I thought everybody already knew it. (some)

c) Do you call THAT a corruption? That’s too harsh, and they are definitely different from Chicago Black Sox. (some)

d) Lies, damned lies and statistics. It’s just a data, doesn’t prove anything. (some)

e) No comment on the part, just say the book has a part on Sumo corruption. (many)

Let me explain each of them. I do not think a) needs any explanation. On b), Shukan Post, the weekly magazine you mentioned in the book is quite popular, and old timers (including me) remember the controversy and the “mysterious death” of the two ex-Sumo wrestlers. One possible counter-reaction from my side to the reaction b) is “why it isn’t a big scandal NOW, if everybody knows it?” I personally speculate it has something to do with Robert Aumann’s mutual knowledge/common knowledge concept. According to my understanding, when everybody knows it but the “everybody” does not know everybody knows it, it’s a mutual knowledge. When everybody knows it and everybody knows everybody knows it, etc, it’s a common knowledge. When a mutual knowledge turns into a common knowledge, the information structure
changes drastically, and the change may bring a big consequence. One way to change a mutual knowledge into a common knowledge is an announcement from somebody whose credibility is a common knowledge. So, if I am right, a reputed foreign professor, an author of three bestsellers, or statistical hypothesis testing by foreign professors could not cause such a change. A deep throat from two insiders could, and that might be the reason that somebody should kill those two.

On c), they mean it is the same thing as you see in MLB right before the post season. A match does not mean much to one wrestler, but means a lot to the other, so it is an unwritten rule that the one who does not need the win too much should lie down for the other. I am not sure if those in this camp were not impressed by the results of the next meeting (only 40% win by the ex-7-7 wrestlers) or they think it is perfectly OK to pay back on quid pro quo basis. If the latter is true, Steven was correct when he said it’s based on cultural difference, and Japanese people are much more generous to corruption. I remember that one of the executive committee members of Sumo Association (not an ex-wrestler though) allegedly said Sumo was a traditional entertainment when he was asked about the fairness of Sumo as a sport. He meant Sumo wasn’t really a sport not more than WWF is, I guess.

On d), I found a blogger even writes “their statistics may be pretty, but it is unfortunate that their claim cannot be proved by hard facts” (please do not ask me what the guy means by saying “hard facts.” I don’t know either). Also, one of newspaper reviews says “Statistics sometimes show the truth, but they are also used to mislead.” I am not sure what kind of “evidence” would convince them in their daily life. Maybe things that go along with their “conventional wisdom” do.

On e), many of them look definitely interested, but did not say what they think. Some of them may be afraid of saying something and being killed (yes, I was a bit scared too for a while. You two are safe in US, and I am in a country where two people died maybe because of their attitude against Sumo!) and some of them may be much more impressed by other parts of the book and did not have enough time and/or space and/or energy to write about what they thought about Sumo.

Now, there were two reactions that I was impressed. One was from Hideomi Tanaka, a macroeconomics professor famous in the Japanese blogosphere. He was curious about the fact that two ex-insiders died on the same day, in the same hospital, because of the same illness. He found one alternative explanation plausible. It was proposed by an ex-gang novelist Joji Abe some years ago. According to news reports at that time, those two ex-wrestlers went to play golf and to a whorehouse together on the day before they died. You might not know how the “whore house industry” is in Japan. The most popular style is called a soapland, which they went. You can find the description here. Anyway, as you can imagine, such a whore house is not necessarily the cleanest place in the world. Here were two senior (over 50 years old) people, played golf in the morning, had sex with prostitutes a big time. Also, because of their eating habits when they had been wrestlers, they might not have been too healthy. They must be exhausted, breathed the air deeply, and the air might be contaminated by Legionella. Young prostitutes could be fine because they were young, but for two old, exhausted, possibly unhealthy men, the germs were strong enough to lead to onset of the disease. The author Abe is not an insider and he just guessed, but his story was possible enough for me to stop worrying that Sumo Association might come to kill me, who dared to translate a book which explained convincing evidence on corruption in Sumo.

The other one is from another Economics professor, Takanobu Nakajima. He is a long time fan of Sumo, and even published a book called “The Economics of Sumo Wrestling” a couple of years ago. In the book, he admitted there may be corruption in Sumo, but did not treat it as a big problem. According to the email the editor of Japanese edition received from him, the Sumo Association did a couple of things to reduce (what might look like) fixed matches in 1999. Among them are: not to let 7-7 wrestlers fight against 8-6 ones on the final day; do not decide who fights against whom before the day before. Professor Nakajima claims that he can tell if a match is fixed because of his long experience as the sumo fan. According to his observation, few matches look fixed now. I haven’t seen the data to see if his claim stands or not.

So, the reaction to your research on Sumo is a bit disappointing up to now. You are probably right when you say people are upset when somebody says their national sport is corrupted, and most Japanese people decided not to react to the argument. There hasn’t been a big debate going on or any death threat to me. There will be many reviews from printed media in the near future, though. Some of them might write a lot about Sumo part, and the publisher sent a copy to the Shukan Post, the one who reported extensively about corruption in Sumo. I will report if anything interesting happens, AND if I am still around at that time.

Best, Mamoru Mochizuki


JanneM

Int the case when a win matters little to one party but means a lot to the other, it would be mighty strange if you did _not_ see a heavy bias for the second party in the statistics. After all, you'll see a similar bias in just about any sport where this situation can occur. Quite apart from the will to win - which by itself can account for a lot of it - you have the downsides of really trying.

Trying hard is not cost free. If you do your utmost, you'll tire yourself and run the risk of injury, both deleterious for later bouts that _are_ important to you. You'll see the same in team sports, where a non-essential game will see the star players safely on the bench and the second-stringers put up to play.

MM01

So, is it OK too to intensionally lose (or not try too hard to win) at the next meeting in order to pay back? possibly at the first meeting in the next season in MLB?

Jeremy.liberius

Int the case when a win matters little to one party but means a lot to the other, it would be mighty strange if you did not see a heavy bias for the second party in the statistics. After all, you'll see a similar bias in just about any sport where this situation can occur. Quite apart from the will to win – which by itself can account for a lot of it – you have the downsides of really trying.

Trying hard is not cost free. If you do your utmost, you'll tire yourself and run the risk of injury, both deleterious for later bouts that are important to you. You'll see the same in team sports, where a non-essential game will see the star players safely on the bench and the second-stringers put up to play.

Steven took this into account, however, by examining the reciprocality of such losses. If I remember correctly, the fall was almost always payed back at a later date.

sredni vashtar

I think it's easy to understand what those fellows mean by 'hard facts' - it's the kind of stuff you'd see in a trial.

And yes, I remember that article by Levitt, it included several relatively successful attempts to refute the 'trying harder' explanation, based on reciprocality, on comparing statistical data with allegation by those two insiders, and on the fact that the effect disappeared when media attention turned to the problem.

MM01

> it's the kind of stuff you'd see in a
> trial.

I kinda doubt this. Remember, two insiders already confessed 10 years ago (not at a trial though), AND those people are yet to be convinced.

meteorplum

Baseball and Sumo, what a lethal combination! :-)

The Legionella theory is an interesting one. The questions it raises are: a) how frequent do Japanese men in their 50's die of Legionella, or even get sick enough to require hospitalization; and b) how often have these same two men spent entire days playing golf and nights in vigorous sexual congress? If the answer to a) is more than a couple of percent (by man-visits), then obviously the answer to b) is less relevant (and Japan has a pretty major public health crisis). On the other hand, if a) is low (say on the order of being in a severe car accident) or very low (struck by lightning), then someone should be asking questions. Of course, all this conjecture ought to be obviated by a proper autopsy, which no one seems eager to perform/have performed.

As to the analogy to baseball, this is both spot on and off base. Where it matches up is in the incentives for the entire sport(s). Both Baseball--in particular Major League Baseball--and Sumo are cultural signifiers rather than pure "sports". The case for Sumo is set out Freakonomics (and in the majority reactions of the Japanese themselves to allegations of cheating). Baseball is protected by Supreme Court precedents from most anti-trust legislations (Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore, Inc. v. National Baseball Clubs, Toolson v. New York Yankees, Inc., Flood v. Kuhn). This means that for both "sports", the only incentives to have fair competition would have to come from the fans, and perhaps the players. If that fairness comes with a financial cost for the team or league, then it's hard to expect them do the "right" thing. I should also note that even with the proper financial incentives, MLB is not acting particularly intelligently: they've not expanded into Mexico or Puerto Rico, both sources of talent and fans (spelled M-O-N-E-Y); and moving the Expos from Montreal (where average attendance was a couple of thousand people per game, towards the end) took much too long.

Where the analogy is off base has more to do with a mis-informed baseball public and management. To wit, actively losing an individual game is never a good idea when the results for the season is what counts for post-season activity/income. If a team has to win, say, 60% of its games (I don't know the real number; I'm not a baseball enthusiast, though my best friend is an absolute fan of the "stat-head" persuasion, so my ideas are probably informed by that bias), no coach worth his salt will go around the clubhouse on opening day and say, "Let's take it easy for now and lose the first 40% of our games and then make it up later." If anything, a better strategy is to win your games up front, then give the rest of the season over to the newer players and rest up your proven talent for the post-season. I don't know if Sumo has the same sort of "race for the pennant" as Major League Baseball, but the pattern of cheating discussed in Freakonomics implies that the importance of "seasonal" stats is much less (if at all, except incidentally as a summary) than stats from a particular tournament.

If there is some overarching theme here (to echo the introduction to Freakonomics), it is Incentives. Once again, we find that without the proper incentives (or at least an alignment thereof), the world will operation in contradiction to our expectations and desires. So I salute Messrs. Dubner & Levitt for inspiring us to search out those incentives which surround our lives.

Read more...

Mrs. B

Sumo tangent funny story:
In 1999 I was on a trip ready to head home for my husband's 35th birthday. I went to the local grocery store to order a cake that I could pick up later and take with me on the drive home. I asked the bakery clerk if she could decorate the cake with a computer picture because my husband is in IT.

She said, "No, no! Not at this late notice."

I said, "Well then can you just put 'Happy Birthday Steve' number 35?"

She said, "Sure. No problem."

I stopped at the store later that afternoon to get the cake and drive back to my hometown. Imagine my surprise when I saw the cake which said, 'Happy Birthday Steve' with an air-brushed picture of a Sumo wrestler on it!

It was ridiculous to think someone could draw some rectangles to make a computer on the cake but if you want a Sumo wrestler, you got it baby! It happens to correspond to #35 in the store's cake decorating book. :-)

Read more...

hiroo

Recently, a columnist for a Japanese sports newspaper mentioned this book in his blog, and there were several ungrateful and outraged comments. One line of new argument there went something like this;

"Letting the poor guy (who's on the verge of losing his title) is NOT cheating, unless it was explicitly discussed and written down as a formal contract. It is more an act of mercy, courtesy to the weak, or just plain being nice, and when they meet at another match, they are simply returning the favor. To call that "cheating" is a typical case of arrogant insensitive cold blooded American global capitalist that aims to reduce everything to money and deals, destroying everything that is valid and warm and human and beautiful on their way, where as we Japanese value long term relationship that cannot be bought, and make full use of non-verbal communication while taking human emotion into account. Vulgar Yankee number crunching economist (an economist, for crying out loud) should keep his big nose out of the sacred sports of Sumo."

So it may have been better to phrase the paper as a study of the inherent warmth and compassion in Sumo that transcends vulgar simplistic "fights", if you wanted Japanese votes.

Read more...

JanneM

Int the case when a win matters little to one party but means a lot to the other, it would be mighty strange if you did _not_ see a heavy bias for the second party in the statistics. After all, you'll see a similar bias in just about any sport where this situation can occur. Quite apart from the will to win - which by itself can account for a lot of it - you have the downsides of really trying.

Trying hard is not cost free. If you do your utmost, you'll tire yourself and run the risk of injury, both deleterious for later bouts that _are_ important to you. You'll see the same in team sports, where a non-essential game will see the star players safely on the bench and the second-stringers put up to play.

MM01

So, is it OK too to intensionally lose (or not try too hard to win) at the next meeting in order to pay back? possibly at the first meeting in the next season in MLB?

Jeremy.liberius

Int the case when a win matters little to one party but means a lot to the other, it would be mighty strange if you did not see a heavy bias for the second party in the statistics. After all, you'll see a similar bias in just about any sport where this situation can occur. Quite apart from the will to win - which by itself can account for a lot of it - you have the downsides of really trying.

Trying hard is not cost free. If you do your utmost, you'll tire yourself and run the risk of injury, both deleterious for later bouts that are important to you. You'll see the same in team sports, where a non-essential game will see the star players safely on the bench and the second-stringers put up to play.

Steven took this into account, however, by examining the reciprocality of such losses. If I remember correctly, the fall was almost always payed back at a later date.

sredni vashtar

I think it's easy to understand what those fellows mean by 'hard facts' - it's the kind of stuff you'd see in a trial.

And yes, I remember that article by Levitt, it included several relatively successful attempts to refute the 'trying harder' explanation, based on reciprocality, on comparing statistical data with allegation by those two insiders, and on the fact that the effect disappeared when media attention turned to the problem.

MM01

> it's the kind of stuff you'd see in a
> trial.

I kinda doubt this. Remember, two insiders already confessed 10 years ago (not at a trial though), AND those people are yet to be convinced.

meteorplum

Baseball and Sumo, what a lethal combination! :-)

The Legionella theory is an interesting one. The questions it raises are: a) how frequent do Japanese men in their 50's die of Legionella, or even get sick enough to require hospitalization; and b) how often have these same two men spent entire days playing golf and nights in vigorous sexual congress? If the answer to a) is more than a couple of percent (by man-visits), then obviously the answer to b) is less relevant (and Japan has a pretty major public health crisis). On the other hand, if a) is low (say on the order of being in a severe car accident) or very low (struck by lightning), then someone should be asking questions. Of course, all this conjecture ought to be obviated by a proper autopsy, which no one seems eager to perform/have performed.

As to the analogy to baseball, this is both spot on and off base. Where it matches up is in the incentives for the entire sport(s). Both Baseball--in particular Major League Baseball--and Sumo are cultural signifiers rather than pure "sports". The case for Sumo is set out Freakonomics (and in the majority reactions of the Japanese themselves to allegations of cheating). Baseball is protected by Supreme Court precedents from most anti-trust legislations (Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore, Inc. v. National Baseball Clubs, Toolson v. New York Yankees, Inc., Flood v. Kuhn). This means that for both "sports", the only incentives to have fair competition would have to come from the fans, and perhaps the players. If that fairness comes with a financial cost for the team or league, then it's hard to expect them do the "right" thing. I should also note that even with the proper financial incentives, MLB is not acting particularly intelligently: they've not expanded into Mexico or Puerto Rico, both sources of talent and fans (spelled M-O-N-E-Y); and moving the Expos from Montreal (where average attendance was a couple of thousand people per game, towards the end) took much too long.

Where the analogy is off base has more to do with a mis-informed baseball public and management. To wit, actively losing an individual game is never a good idea when the results for the season is what counts for post-season activity/income. If a team has to win, say, 60% of its games (I don't know the real number; I'm not a baseball enthusiast, though my best friend is an absolute fan of the "stat-head" persuasion, so my ideas are probably informed by that bias), no coach worth his salt will go around the clubhouse on opening day and say, "Let's take it easy for now and lose the first 40% of our games and then make it up later." If anything, a better strategy is to win your games up front, then give the rest of the season over to the newer players and rest up your proven talent for the post-season. I don't know if Sumo has the same sort of "race for the pennant" as Major League Baseball, but the pattern of cheating discussed in Freakonomics implies that the importance of "seasonal" stats is much less (if at all, except incidentally as a summary) than stats from a particular tournament.

If there is some overarching theme here (to echo the introduction to Freakonomics), it is Incentives. Once again, we find that without the proper incentives (or at least an alignment thereof), the world will operation in contradiction to our expectations and desires. So I salute Messrs. Dubner & Levitt for inspiring us to search out those incentives which surround our lives.

Read more...

Mrs. B

Sumo tangent funny story:
In 1999 I was on a trip ready to head home for my husband's 35th birthday. I went to the local grocery store to order a cake that I could pick up later and take with me on the drive home. I asked the bakery clerk if she could decorate the cake with a computer picture because my husband is in IT.

She said, "No, no! Not at this late notice."

I said, "Well then can you just put 'Happy Birthday Steve' number 35?"

She said, "Sure. No problem."

I stopped at the store later that afternoon to get the cake and drive back to my hometown. Imagine my surprise when I saw the cake which said, 'Happy Birthday Steve' with an air-brushed picture of a Sumo wrestler on it!

It was ridiculous to think someone could draw some rectangles to make a computer on the cake but if you want a Sumo wrestler, you got it baby! It happens to correspond to #35 in the store's cake decorating book. :-)

Read more...

hiroo

Recently, a columnist for a Japanese sports newspaper mentioned this book in his blog, and there were several ungrateful and outraged comments. One line of new argument there went something like this;

"Letting the poor guy (who's on the verge of losing his title) is NOT cheating, unless it was explicitly discussed and written down as a formal contract. It is more an act of mercy, courtesy to the weak, or just plain being nice, and when they meet at another match, they are simply returning the favor. To call that "cheating" is a typical case of arrogant insensitive cold blooded American global capitalist that aims to reduce everything to money and deals, destroying everything that is valid and warm and human and beautiful on their way, where as we Japanese value long term relationship that cannot be bought, and make full use of non-verbal communication while taking human emotion into account. Vulgar Yankee number crunching economist (an economist, for crying out loud) should keep his big nose out of the sacred sports of Sumo."

So it may have been better to phrase the paper as a study of the inherent warmth and compassion in Sumo that transcends vulgar simplistic "fights", if you wanted Japanese votes.

Read more...