Japan's sumo scandals

TOKYO — It is the bout the crowd in the Osaka gymnasium has been waiting for all day. And it is over in seconds.

A few adjustments to his positioning, a seamless change of grip and Asashoryu, the world’s greatest sumo wrestler, dispatches yet another opponent with consummate ease.

As his fans celebrate, all seems well in the sweaty, testosterone-charged world of Japan’s national sport, a highly ritualized test of strength and spirit stretching back 2,000 years and steeped in the superstitions of the indigenous Shinto religion.

Tied at nine wins apiece in the 15-bout tournament in Osaka, Asashoryu and his fellow grand champion and Mongolian compatriot Hakuho have pundits and Joe Public alike savoring the prospect of a bruising, winner-takes-all encounter on the last day of the tournament March 29.

But outside the ring, sumo is grappling with an even trickier nemesis — a string of scandals that has severely dented its reputation.

It would be easy, for those who have caught no more than a glimpse of a sumo bout, to dismiss the sport as a shoving match between two men in oversized thongs with an overdeveloped interest in lunch.

But that would be to ignore sumo’s singular place in Japan’s sporting history and the reverence in which its 700 professional wrestlers are normally held — from the diminutive, gutsy wrestlers capable of lifting men twice their size off the floor, to the old-school bruisers who use their body weight to send opponents into the third row.

When revelations surfaced late last year of marijuana use among three young wrestlers, the public sense of betrayal was palpable.

At about the same time, senior wrestlers were fending off allegations of match fixing made in a weekly magazine. Among those named was none other than Asashoryu, a fearsome, technically unrivaled wrestler with a reputation for flouting etiquette, much to the fury of the sport’s conservative elders.

But by far the most damaging accusations have centered on the tragic death of a teenage recruit, sent to a famous sumo stable by his parents to learn respect, discipline and, perhaps, to build a career for himself.

His former coach and stable master, Junichi Yamamoto, is now on trial accused of ordering his fatal beating in June 2007. The victim, 17-year-old Takashi Saito, collapsed and died after a grueling training session during which he was allegedly beaten with a baseball bat and ordered to spar until he could no longer stand.

Combined, the allegations shook the sport to its core. In its most dramatic U.S. context, it was as if the New York Yankees had been accused of taking recreational drugs before handing out ritual beatings to their farm team subordinates, then running out to take on the Mets in the World Series.

In Japan, the damage is taking a toll.

In the face of these alleged crimes and misdemeanours, sumo today attracts a third fewer recruits than it did in the 1990s, as stocky Japanese teenagers turn their backs on its spartan lifestyle in favor of throwing their weight around on a rugby pitch or basketball court.

But Doreen Simmons, a sumo commentator for the state broadcaster NHK, says reports of sumo’s decline are premature. “Sumo is not in steady decline, its popularity has always come in waves,” she says.

“When there’s a single, dominant wrestler people naturally find it a little boring. The excitement comes from not knowing who’s going to win.”

While she condemns hazing, Simmons is quick to defend sumo’s somewhat medieval training techniques. “It’s important to determine when training stops and hazing begins, but at the same time, if you can’t take the punishment in the ring when someone is shoving you in the face, then you’ll never get anywhere in sumo.”

That an increasing number of the top-ranked wrestlers, including the two grand champions, hail from beyond Japan’s shores — a trend started by the Hawaiian Jesse Kuhaulua (aka Takamiyama) in 1964 — only adds to the siege mentality gripping sumo’s traditionalists.

“They really want a Japanese grand champion, but it’s difficult to see when that’s going to happen,” Simmons says. “No Japanese wrestlers are casting a particularly long shadow at the moment.”

While it awaits the arrival of a Japanese protege, sumo is at least trying to clean up its act, buoyed by a successful 15 million yen ($155,000) defamation suit against the magazine that published the match-rigging claims.

Stable masters have been warned that hazing will not be tolerated, and the use of bamboo poles to administer “tough love” has been banned.

The watching public have responded in kind. Several days of the current tournament in Osaka have been sell-outs, and an expectant nation awaits next weekend’s probable showdown between Asashoryu and Hakuho.

With an expert throw at the end of a scintillating bout, either man could help re-launch a golden age for a sport that has cowered in scandal’s shadow for too long.

At least that's the hope of many sumo fans here in Japan.

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