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Number 1 Shimbun

Sumo - the Grand Champion of Japan's Sporting Scandals

No1-2018-03 3 Edited


Sumo - the Grand Champion of Japan's Sporting Scandals

By Fred Varcoe

Life is always easier when you know who the bad guys are. Thirty years ago, Chiyonofuji was the undisputed star of the sumo world. The yokozuna – grand champion – was handsome, muscular, cool, strong, Japanese and a winner. He was an awesome sumo wrestler. But he had to contend with Konishiki, who was American, fat, way too heavy, surly and inconsistent. Chiyonofuji vs. Konishiki was always one of the highlights of any sumo tournament and if Chiyo got things right, he would lift the oversized American out of the ring for a victory. That was the way things were meant to be because Chiyonofuji was the good guy. And Konishiki was the foreign interloper.

Who are the good guys now? It’s becoming very hard to tell in a sport that is plagued by bullying and violence, mismanagement, rumors of steroid abuse and associations with nine-fingered people.

Chiyonofuji’s last rivalry, very brief, was with Takanohana (Takahanada, as he was known then), as near as you can get to sumo royalty and the man at the center of sumo's current eruptions. Is he sumo's saviour or just a has-been making waves.

The interaction between Chiyonofuji and Takanohana wasn’t so much a rivalry as a passing of the crown. In just his fourth tournament in sumo’s top makuuchi division, Takanohana came in second with a 12-3 record, also picking up the fighting spirit and technique prizes. In the next tournament in May 1991, 44 percent of the people in Japan sat glued to their TVs as they watched him become the youngest-ever wrestler (at 18 years and nine months) to defeat a yokozuna when he ousted Chiyonofuji. Two days later, Chiyo retired, a sumo legend with 31 tournament victories, yusho (at the time second behind Taiho’s 32), and one of Japan’s greatest-ever and most respected athletes.

But even the god-like Chiyo couldn’t escape a whiff of the scandal that permeates the sumo world. After taking over the Kokonoe stable, he enjoyed considerable success and was regarded with reverence even in the elitist world of the Japan Sumo Association. He was a member of the board of directors of the association, responsible for organizing regional tours, until one of his own wrestlers, Chiyohakuho, was involved in match fixing. Chiyonofuji left the association. Although he later returned, his reputation had been damaged and he was a peripheral figure at the time of his death in July 2016.

Fast forward to 2017 and another director responsible for organizing regional tours plays a major role in the latest in a series of sumo scandals. And who might that be but Takanohana?

Like Chiyonofuji, Takanohana became a stablemaster – taking over his ailing father’s Futagoyama stable – and was fast-tracked into the JSA’s hierarchy. As one of sumo’s ablest yokozuna and one of the most popular, he could have been immensely valuable to the Sumo Association. But Takanohana has always taken his own path and while he was popular with many sumo fans, he was not universally liked. He was a media magnet and what the weeklies dug up, or alleged, was not always pretty.

For a start, he dated, got engaged to and subsequently dumped young model and actress Rie Miyazawa, the queen of Japanese TV. He also had a massive falling-out with his elder brother, Wakanohana, also a yokozuna. Together, they had created the “Waka-Taka” boom in sumo, aided by the first foreign grand champion, Akebono. It was boom time for sumo, but Taka never seemed to be at peace with himself or those around him. In addition to falling out with his brother, he also became alienated from his father, who accused his son’s physical therapist of “brainwashing” him. Some elements of Japan’s media even went so far as to accuse Takanohana of joining a cult. Finally, he “disowned” his mother after she had an extra-marital affair. All he had left was sumo, but that blew up in his face in spectacular fashion toward the end of last year.

Sumo is not just a sport in Japan; it’s a sacred ritual. It’s Shinto-based and its participants are meant to be pure in spirit and in body. Well, good luck with that one. Boys will be boys and guys will be stupid. Sumo is not known for recruiting the sharpest blades in the drawer. The boys and men live together in what is appropriately called a stable. They eat, they train, they clean. More importantly, there is a strict hierarchy; slight those above you and you will suffer the consequences. In fact, you don’t even have to go that far. In an interview with the Tokyo Journal many years ago, Konishiki, who eventually rose to the level of ozeki (champion), recounted how he’d once been hit over the head for not taking out the trash properly. And, of course, poor 17-year-old Tokitaizan died in 2007 after being beaten with a beer bottle and a baseball bat for showing a “bad attitude” by running away. Reportedly he was also denied food the day before he died.

And so we come to the latest scandal: the attack by the yokozuna Harumafuji on Takanoiwa. Initially, it was reported that Takanoiwa was hit with a bottle but this turned out to be misinformation. Nevertheless, it was the story that the media clung to for several days. It turned out the weapon used was a karaoke machine remote control. These are deadly not only for encouraging Japanese people to sing, but also because they tend to be quite large and probably sharper than the Champagne bottle Harumafuji apparently planned initially to use. The weaponised attack came after a number of slaps to the face. Up to that point, Harumafuji could have claimed he was just practicing for his next bout, but the remote control ended that defence and left Takaoiwa seriously injured.

The normal routine for such a mess would be to hush it up, pay off the injured parties and carry on as usual. But Takanohana doesn’t do normal, as we’ve seen. Nothing about Takanohana’s life has been normal. More to the point, he doesn’t think like a traditional director of the Japan Sumo Association and is disliked by his elders. Takanohana wants to reform and change sumo, changing the ticket sales system, supporting former wrestlers, boosting sumo in schools, raising wages and making the Sumo Association accountable and transparent. But he’s operating in a world opposed to change. A world opposed to him.

As director of the swing through Tottori, where the incident occurred, he was responsible for what went on – responsible to the JSA and nobody else, the way the Sumo Association would see it. But Takanohana marches to his own tune. As far as he was concerned, his wrestler had been the victim of an illegal assault. So he called the cops.

If for nothing else, Japan is famous for sweeping its rubbish under the carpet – or trying to. Comfort women? Never happened. Unit 731? Fake news. Olympus scandal? Stupid gaijin making trouble. The Japan Sumo Association likes to handle its own problems its own way, even if it involves the beating to death of a 17-year-old kid. Cross the JSA and there may be consequences.

You may die of a respiratory disease . . .

In a book entitled Yaocho (Match Rigging) published 20 years ago, former stablemaster Onaruto and former wrestler Seiichito Hashimoto described the underbelly of sumo, including drugs, rigged matches and the involvement of the yakuza. A month before the book was published in the late 1990s the two authors died mysteriously of the same respiratory disease within 15 hours of one another in the same Nagoya hospital.

Sumo analyst James Hardy described the JSA in the Daily Yomiuri as “a secretive and byzantine body,” also noting that it’s “a profit-making organization with tax-free status.” He added, “Setting yourself up as a semi-ascetic, morally unimpeachable, quasi-religious cultural asset is always going to cause trouble when the reality is a lot more prosaic."

Takanohana obviously did not feel that his first loyalty was to the Japan Sumo Association. He went to the cops. The big question is: Did he go to the cops as an upstanding citizen reporting a crime or did he want to protect his own interests and those of his wrestler ahead of sumo’s image and reputation?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter, because he didn’t sweep the issue under the rug or let the JSA do the sweeping for him. In fact, he refused to cooperate with the JSA even after they had learned of the incident and was duly punished by the Association, who dismissed him as a director. This is puzzling. If Takanohana wants to change sumo, he needs to change it from within, hard though that may be. The Asahi Shimbun editorialized. “Takanohana also deserves to be criticized severely for making the situation worse. . . . If he takes issue with the JSA’s operations and policies, he should express [this] openly and propose steps to reform the way the organization is run.”

By making an enemy of the JSA, Takanohana is likely making it harder to effect the reforms he wants to see within sumo. Not for the first time, the JSA is under pressure to reform itself. As with corporate and political Japan, this is not likely to happen.

“The JSA appears to have become utterly complacent because of the past glory of the sport,” the Asahi editorial stated. “The JSA must grapple with two key challenges. One is to radically change perceptions about violence that seem entrenched among wrestlers and other members of the association. . . . The other challenge facing the JSA is to improve its ability to govern and operate its organization effectively and smoothly. The JSA must be held responsible for its mishandling of the scandal.”

But this is not new. Writing 10 years ago on, C.B. Liddell commented: “The sumo world is a closed cabalistic entity, hidebound with arcane traditions, and highly suspicious of change, of foreigners or any kind of transparency. That’s the reason why this otherwise exciting sport continues its slow and steady decline. If sumo is to have a real future, it must break with the past and shed the arcane culture that once nourished it but now stifles it. An international ruling body should be established, with standards, rules and procedures that meet global standards. Judo and karate have done this; why not sumo?”

Three years later in The Japan Times, David T. Johnson expressed similar sentiments: “Sumo will change or die. The illusion of reform – press conferences, bows, apologies, promises – is not enough. And for real reform to occur, it cannot be entrusted to the 105 elders (toshiyori) in the Japan Sumo Association who govern the sport and who have tolerated, condoned and caused the problems that have long plagued this pastime.”

Last year sumo was able to celebrate its first home-grown yokozuna in a decade. Kisenosato was raised to the sport’s highest rank, suggesting the possibility of a domestic revival in a sport that has suffered terribly in the 21st century. Violence and match-fixing have plagued the sport and there have been drug scandals and rumors of steroid use. After winning his first tournament as a Yokozuna, Kisenosato has proved a bust at the sport’s highest level. In the past year, he has failed to finish a tournament.

For a brief moment, Kisenosato suggested that if the sport had a champion it could be proud of – i.e., a Japanese – it would flourish once again. But there’s no new Chiyonofuji on the horizon. Only ghosts of the past. Both the glory and the grime of the past now haunt sumo’s present and future. The JSA is stuck in the past, unable to move forward and it has just dismissed the one director who wanted to make progress.

“The fan in me would like to see sumo survive,” sociology professor Johnson says. “But another part of me recognizes that its problems are so severe and so pervasive that perhaps this dinosaur does not even deserve treatment. For sumo to endure in a form that is worth caring about, fundamental reform is essential. That won’t be easy, but one thing is clear: The JSA has proven itself incapable of modernizing the sport on its own.

“Meaningful reform will have to be pressed upon it from the outside, by those agents of government charged with overseeing the country’s national sport, by the media, which have long been too cozy with the sport to call it properly to account, and by people like you and me, who must decide whether to watch something that, in its present form, is more farce than competition. Sumo has imperilled its own existence. It will take more than the familiar script to save it from extinction.”

(Fred Varcoe is a Chiba-based freelance journalist and reluctant historian.)

Published in: March 2018

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