Last year, NHK’s popular “Totsugeki! At Home” program featured the Filipino-Japanese sumo wrestler Masunoyama Tomoharu (舛ノ山 大晴) and his Pinay mother Maria Christine.
Co-produced with ABS-CBN, the segment focused on Masunoyama’s plan to surprise his mother with a mob flash dance while she was being interviewed by Korina Sanchez for “Rated K.” Maria’s Pinay and Japanese friends and Masunoyama’s sumo pals joined in performing the energetic sequence–which attracted a crowd of two hundred onlookers–at the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo.
Masunoyama’s winsome personality has won him many fans among sumo enthusiasts. Along with Takayasu Akira (高安 亮), he is one of two top Filipino-Japanese sumo wrestlers active today. Both Masunoyama and Takayasu were born in the same year, 1990. Masunoyama holds the distinction of being the first sumo wrestler born in the Heisei era (1989-present) to become a sekitori, reaching the second highest division juuryou in 2010, the same year as Takayasu. Both reached the top division makuuchi in 2011 and both have won Fighting Spirit Awards for exceptional performance in a tournament.
Both also have devoted mothers, but, as the “Happy Surprise” segment reveals, Masunoyama’s story is a poignant one of adversity, maternal sacrifice, filial piety, and gambare fighting spirit.
Masunoyama was teased for being fat when he was in elementary school. His parents divorced when he was in junior high school, and he and his brother were raised singlehandedly by their mother. Masunoyama lived for a while in the Philippines, where Maria opened a small vendor’s stall and earned the peso equivalent of 500 yen a day from selling fruits and vegetables. The boy lost nearly 50 kilos from the stress of living in unfamiliar (and tropical) surroundings, being unable to speak any Philippine language fluently, and having only intermittent access to electricity and water.
Intent on becoming a professional sumo wrestler, he returned to Japan in 2006 and joined the Chiganoura stable, where he now lives and trains with sixteen other wrestlers.
It was Masunoyama and his sumo cohort (including three Filipino Japanese and one Hungarian), along with his mother’s Pinay friends, who conspired to perform the dance sequence in Asakusa. On the day of the happy surprise, the dancers unfurled a banner that read “お母さん ありがとう！Dahil ikaw ang ina namin” (Thank you, mother!/ Because you are our mother). Masunoyama dreamed of buying a house for his mother; with his elevation to the makuuchi division and his celebrity status, his dream may finally come true.
It is a sign of how times have changed that Japanese like Masunoyama and Takayasu can now be vocal about, and proud of, their mixed parentage. Mestizos in Japan are called “halves” (ハーフ haafu), a term derived from English and dating back to the 1970s. “Half” used to have pejorative connotations, implying lack or incompleteness, as if being mestizo made one less Japanese than so-called “pure” Japanese.
A people whose history has been shaped by contact with Chinese and Koreans, with Portuguese and Dutch and “southerners,” with the British and Americans and the world more generally, and whose written language–with its kanji and katakana and romaji–bears traces of these encounters may be expected to dwell (some obsessively) on the uniqueness of their culture. In this they are not so very different from Filipinos, Americans, Brazilians, Chinese, Thais, French, Germans, Russians, Spanish, and so on, all of whom share the firm conviction that their country is special, exceptional–which is just another way of saying that all are unique in their own ways.
Given a Japanese public that is divided on issues ranging from Japan’s wartime past to the Japanese economy, from the question of national security to the question of what it means to be Japanese, it is no surprise to find the “myth” of Japanese homogeneity coexisting alongside the Emperor’s assertion of his Korean ancestry and efforts on the part of Japanese progressives to push for a more “multicultural” Japan.
Nevertheless, mestizos have become more visible in recent years, especially in sports and in print and television media. They are living proof of the changing face of Japan today: about six percent of marriages in Japan are international marriages, and in cities like Tokyo ten years ago, one out of eight newly registered marriages involved one foreign spouse.
The image of the Filipino/a in Japan, too, has shifted from musician to Japayuki to permanent and long-term resident and spouse or child of Japanese national. In 2000, there were 43,790 entertainers, 46,265 spouses or children of Japanese nationals, 20,933 permanent residents, and 13, 285 long-term residents. By 2009, only 7,465 were on entertainers’ visas, compared to 84,407 permanent residents, 46,027 spouses or children of Japanese nationals, and 37,131 long-term residents.
Masunoyama and Takayasu are not the only Filipino Japanese to achieve prominence. Actress-singer Akimoto Sayaka (秋元 才加) began her career as a high-profile member of the idol girl group AKB48, where she was captain of Team K. A scandal involving manga author Hiroi Oji, who was seen entering and leaving her apartment at night, did not derail her career.
Some Japanese think that Filipino Japanese like Akimoto have the advantage of being able to understand and speak some English, even though Masunoyama sheepishly confessed to knowing only a little. “Halves” were (and some still are) discriminated against because of their “foreignness,” but the irony is that for many of them, Japanese is the only language they speak, Japan the only country they know and call home.
Even so, their mothers’ culture does leave imprints on their tastes and sensibilities. Masunoyama loves turon. Takayasu’s mom Bebelita Reblingca Bernadas lists her son’s favorite Filipino foods as bihon, sotanghon guisado, beef kaldereta, chicken adobo, giniling, Bicol express, lumpiang shanghai, sinigang, nilaga, kare-kare and lechon. In an interview with the Philippine Star‘s Joaquin Henson, she is quoted as saying: “He [Takayasu] eats everything except dinuguan. He loves Mama’s cooking and introduced Filipino food to other sumo wrestlers. He is proud of his Filipino blood and loves anything Filipino.”
In dancing so gracefully and publicly for his mother (and one needs to see sumo wrestlers in action to realize that big can be beautiful), Masunoyama and his friends are helping Japan take a few more small but substantial steps toward becoming an open and inclusive nation.
Note: This essay was originally published in “Letters to Narcissus”