I just returned from Japan, a nation that is in a deeper economic quagmire than the US. To make matters worse, people were scared into a frenzy by the media and the government about the swine flu epidemic. Travelers from North America were stuck on planes for hours for quarantine. Last week, news that the flu had broken through the first and only line of defense shocked the populace. In the Kansai area where the first domestic cases were reported at a high school, commuters wrapped themselves in facemasks. High schools were closed, but the students simply decided to congregate at Karaoke bars and neighborhood coffee shops.
In spite of all the negative news, Japan is a strange place where even in the worst of times, things seem to work. Efficient is probably the best word… They may not be doing all the right things, but whatever they do, usually, it is done with precision. The trains are on time, the stations are clean, the people are polite, and the cabs rarely get lost (all equipped with the latest GPS).
I came back to the California, delighted that I no longer have to deal with the humidity and the crowded trains. I’m happy that I get to watch two-weeks worth of American Idol and 24 that I had missed. For Idol fans, everyone was blown away by the talent of one Adam Lambert, but most were hardly disappointed that a humble 23-year old from Arkansas won the day (or the Season). This was the eighth season of the most successful entertainment show in America today. This is the new American culture, perhaps a tradition in the making. In 2002, a man named Simon Fuller made a bet that a totally different type of star search would one day become the king of reality TV. Music director Ricky Minor, in an LA Times video, commented that the most impressive part about the Idol program is that it’s a “machine.” It is a machine that takes 100+ participants, puts them through the grind, and make music stars out of them. The grueling schedule, the vocal coaching, the production, the Ford music videos, the homecoming, the mentors—these all are part of the “machine” that makes American Idol a blockbuster hit, a mechanism that turns underdogs into instant celebrity. Put it differently, American Idol is a great storytelling machine. Every week, there is a different story line. As I watched the shows that I missed, I was impressed at just how well the producers sold the show. I was a believer.
A few hours later, in the middle of the night, I could not keep my eyes away from a 300-year old tradition televised live from across the ocean. The Summer Grand Sumo Tournament was hitting the final day, where Grand Champion Hakuho and Champion Harumafuji ended up the 15-day tourney with an identical 14-1 record. We are told by the commentators the story of the Grand Champion, a Mongolian wrestler, who’s just had his 33-bout winning streak ended a day ago by none other than Koto-Oushuu, a Bulgarian. As a business professor preaching the importance of globalization to Japanese corporations, sometimes I wish that they would look closer to their own traditional sport as having more guts to transform than the so-called globalized companies. Harumafuji, is also a Mongolian, but he is tiny by Sumo standards, weighing a mere 250 pounds. In fact, he’s the second lightest wrestler in the senior Maku-uchi division. What he lacks in weight, he compensates by technique, speed, agility, and a practice regimen second to none. Hakuho was the grand champion, with 10 Emperor Cups (the grand prize for winning the senior Maku-uchi division). Harumafuji had none. Hakuho won with a perfect record in the March tourney. He was the clear favorite. The one-bout wrestle-off lasted over a minute--long by sumo standards. In a stunning upset, Harumafuji used his speed and skill to beat Hakuho with a throw. The day belonged to the underdog. I became a believer again.
Two traditions, 300 years apart, create stories that we follow. The sumo world had seen its share of scandals, including marijuana smoking by wrestlers, bribes, and match fixing. American Idol has seen scandals in the form of inappropriate contestant behavior and alleged vote rigging. But they have both survived, although I don’t think I’ll ever see American Idol, Season 300.
I am reminded of Ricky Minor’s words—“the machine”. The organization, whether it is a corporation, a show production, or a sports federation, is one of the most powerful creations by people. It is how we reflect the most fundamental of our desires—eternal life. Because we perish as individuals, we create entities that carry on our traditions, our wishes, and our dreams.
The reason that these traditions continue even without us is quite simple. They change with the times. We often confuse tradition with the inability to change. Sumo introduced instant replay as early as 1969--40 years ago--after a scandalous misjudgment by a referee caused then Grand Champion Taiho’s 45-bout winning streak to end. This season, American Idol introduced the judge’s save and a fourth judge.
Although separated by fifty-five hundred miles and three hundred years, Sumo and American Idol continue to give us great story lines that we cherish and underdogs for whom we root. Whether it's here or there, it's nice to come home to traditions...
Joseph Lee is an independent consultant and executive coach. He is also an Adjunct Professor at both the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management and Pepperdine’s Graziadio School of Business and Management where he teaches second-year MBA courses in Management Consulting. In addition, Mr. Lee is also an author, writing International Business Thrillers, including his debut novel The Sky Burns Red (赤く燃える空) which was published in Japan. A sequel is scheduled to be released fall, 2009.