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Japanese Sumo Wrestlers Make Historic Debut in S. Korea - 2004-02-16

Japanese sumo wrestlers are competing in South Korea for the first time since the country was freed from Japan's rule in 1945. The tournament is part of a recent effort to build better cultural ties and improve relations between the two countries.

Japan's 40 leading sumo wrestlers received a warm welcome from thousands of sports fans as they battled each other in Seoul's Jangchung stadium.

The spectators watched the huge wrestlers clap, stamp and throw salt on the ring as part of an ancient rite of purification. They cheered as the massive men fought each other in the exhibition tournament - the first in South Korea in nearly 60 years.

Japan's grand champion Asashoryu, just 23 years old, easily won the first two days of matches on Saturday and Sunday. He thanked his hosts - in Korean - for staging the event. He says he appreciates all the applause at the Seoul tournament.

But this series of matches is much more than a sports event - it is an attempt to build a cultural bridge between two nations, after decades of ambivalence and mistrust.

This is the first time that Japan's national sport has been displayed in South Korea since the end of Tokyo's brutal 35-year colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula in 1945. During its occupation, Tokyo tried to stamp out Korea's cultural identity and even forbid people from practicing a Korean sport similar to sumo, called ssireum.

When the occupation ended, Japanese arts - music, dance, even literature - were banned in South Korea. Seoul has slowly been lifting the restrictions, and the sumo tournament follows South Korea's decision to allow broadcasts of Japanese television programs.

Sumo officials in Japan pitched the idea of the match after South Korea and Japan were co-hosts of the football World Cup in 2002.

Sumo, unlike football, is a unique Japanese sport, which traces its origin back to ancient rituals related to Shinto, the national religion.

South Korea rewarded champion Asashoryu on Sunday with a year's supply of a traditional South Korean liquor made from rice, and of kim-chi, the spicy pickled cabbage that is one of South Korea's best-known foods. Outside of the stadium, spectators had a chance to taste the sumo wrestler's staple food- a rich stew called chanko-nabe, made with meat, tofu and vegetables.

The tournament continues Wednesday in the southeastern city of Busan.