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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:


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