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Sumo in crisis: fat guys and the mob?

Allegations of extortion and ties to the criminal underworld hit Japan's national sport.

sumo wrestlers line up
Sumo wrestlers line up during a ritual ceremony at the start of an annual tournament. (Yuriko Nakao/Reuters)

TOKYO, Japan — When Japan’s sumo wrestlers gather for a major tournament in Nagoya this Sunday, they will no doubt be bracing themselves for 15 days of bruising encounters in the ring.

Some may also take a moment to ponder allegations of illegal gambling, extortion and ties to the criminal underworld that are threatening to destroy the reputation of their 2,000-year-old sport.

The wrestlers who step into the ring will not include Kotomitsuki, holder of the second-highest rank in sumo, who this week received a life ban after admitting involvement in an illegal betting ring reportedly run by the yakuza, Japan’s mafia.

In a crisis meeting last weekend, the sport’s governing body, the Japan sumo association also banned a coach for life and suspended its own chairman, Musashigawa, in response to revelations that as many as 65 of its 700 members had gambled on baseball, card games, golf and mahjong.

In addition, about a dozen wrestlers and several stable masters will be barred from the Nagoya tournament. (It isn't the first time scandals have rocked the sport.)

But the unprecedented punishments are unlikely to mollify those who believe Japan’s de facto national sport has failed in its duty to produce a generation of wrestlers governed by traditional notions of honor and dignity.

Corporate supporters have withdrawn millions of yen from the Nagoya tournament, and NHK, Japan's broadcaster, on Monday decided not to show live coverage of the bouts for the first time since it began airing sumo in 1953.

Musashigawa, who was replaced as chairman by Hiroyoshi Murayama, a former senior prosecutor, apologized “from the bottom of my heart” for the scandal.

''We humbly accept the advice that has been offered to us and we will make efforts to ensure that we do not have another scandal like this,” he said.

The biggest scalp is Kotomitsuki who, along with Kaio, is the highest-ranked Japanese wrestler in a sport whose elite ranks are dominated by foreigners.

The 34-year-old admitted betting millions of yen on baseball matches — a violation of Japan’s strict sports gambling laws — and paying 3.5 million yen to Mitsutomo Furuichi, a former wrestler with underworld connections who had threatened to expose his gambling habit.

Furuichi is being held on suspicion of extortion in the first of what could be a string of arrests among the sumo fraternity.

Apart from exposing the human foibles — some might say rank stupidity — of individual wrestlers, the scandal has also lifted the lid on what many insiders have known about all along: sumo’s ties to organized crime.