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Sumos shrug off Sarkozy jibe

TOKYO, Jan 16 (AFP) – Japan’s sumo association on Friday shrugged off remarks made by French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy dismissing the traditional sport as fights between “fat guys with slicked-down ponytails.”

“As an individual he is entitled to his opinion,” a spokesman for the Japan Sumo Association said of Sarkozy’s comments in a magazine, displaying the courtesy demanded of sumo’s “gentle giants” outside the wrestling ring.

In an interview with the weekly Paris Match during a visit to Hong Kong last week, Sarkozy said: “How can anyone be fascinated by these fights between fat guys with slicked-down ponytails? Sumo wrestling is really not a sport for intellectuals.”

However the spokesman said: “I suppose he would say such things if he was criticizing President Chirac.”

French President Jacques Chirac is known as an admirer of Japanese culture and avid sumo fan, who keeps abreast of bouts in six annual tournaments on a daily basis.

Sarkozy, 48, has been at odds with Chirac since he made it clear that he hoped to replace the 71-year-old at the next presidential elections in 2007.

The sumo association repeated its appreciation of the French president’s support for the sport, including a French award for each tournament winner.

“President Chirac has sent gifts to the winning sumo wrestlers and for that we are always grateful,” the association spokesman said.

In the interview, the French interior minister was also scathing about Tokyo and the ancient capital of Kyoto, a UNESCO world heritage site and the nation’s most popular city among foreign tourists.

“Hong Kong is a magical city. But Tokyo is not. This capital city is stifling,” Sarkozy said.

“As for Kyoto, I don’t understand how anyone can be amazed by this city. Even the famous imperial gardens, I found them to be gloomy.”

The remarks could not have come at a worse time for Japan’s campaign to double the number of foreign visitors by 2010 which started this week featuring Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in the first-ever tourism-promotional appearance by a Japanese premier.

It is not the first lapse in diplomatic niceties by a French politician when discussing Japan.

In an interview with the US television network ABC in July 1991, the then Prime Minister Edith Cresson described the Japanese people as “ants”.


                                Subject: France news