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Asia

Japan acts to shed sumo's scandal-plagued past

Japan is reforming its national sport, sumo, to increase transparency and stamp out allegations of illegal gambling, rigged fights and bullying, which, in at least one case, led to the death of a young wrestler.

The last ten years have not been kind to a sport that can trace its roots back to more than 2,000 years and remains synonymous with Japan. The world of sumo - deeply conservative, traditional and resistant to change - has grudgingly given in to pressure from the government to reform its organizational structure in order to make its activities and operations more transparent.

The aim, Tokyo says, is to give the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) more influence over the individual stables that it nominally oversees.

It is also hoped that by making the JSA into a public interest incorporated foundation, which will also give the sport preferential tax treatment, will inject renewed interest in it among the young people.

Falling popularity

Sumo tournaments, known as "basho," have been taken off prime-time television slots. The number of spectators for the six annual sumo events have also been in decline for a long time, and young Japanese are more interested in other sports.

Japan Tokyo Soja Bohnen ceremony

Sumo's popularity is declining in Japan

In late 2012, there was much concern at the state of the national sport when only one teenager decided to join a sumo stable ahead of a winter tournament. Over the year, only 55 youngsters had applied, which was the lowest figure since 1958, according to the JSA.

For many observers, the changes at the sport's governing body were long overdue.

"It's a good move because people associated with sumo believe their actions and decisions are based on history, tradition and, in particular, the sport's special status in Japanese culture," Makoto Watanabe, a communications lecturer at Hokkaido Bunkyo University, told DW. "The kept many things as secrets, but that has led to scandals within the sport," he added.

"Changing the JSA's status to a foundation should be good for sumo," said Watanabe.

But sumo still has some way to go to convince many of those who have drifted away from the sport to return to stadiums.

Illegal gambling allegations

In June 2010, the sport took a blow when wrestler Kotomitsuki admitted gambling in baseball matches. A magazine claimed that the wrestler was deep in debt and was being blackmailed by members of a crime syndicate to pay them 100 million yen (98,1800 USD) to keep silent.

The JSA conducted an investigation in which 29 other wrestlers admitted to illegally betting on baseball matches, while another 36 gambled on mahjong, cards, and on rounds of golf.

Kotomitsuki's admission came just days after the head of the Kise stable of wrestlers, whose real name is Naoto Sakamoto, admitted giving tickets for bouts to senior members of the "yakuza" crime group. Sakamoto apparently gave in to requests from leaders of the Yamaguchi-gum, Japan's largest underworld group, for expensive ringside seats so that they would appear on television and show themselves off to the jailed members of their group.

The JSA responded by disbanding the stable and demoting Kise.

In 2011, the association conducted an internal probe that implicated 14 wrestlers and elders of the sport in rigged bouts. Two wrestlers, Chiyohakuho and Enatsukasa, admitted match-fixing, along with a former wrestler who had become an elder of the sport, Takenawa. Another wrestler was found guilty based on incriminating text messages on his mobile phone.

Violence

But arguably the single most damaging incident was the death of a 17-year-old wrestler in June 2007.

Takashi Saito was admitted to a hospital in Nagoya with severe bruising that his fellow wrestlers and stable master Junichi Futatsuryu claimed was the result of a training accident. An autopsy subsequently showed that his injuries were not consistent with an accident.

Futatsuryu and three wrestlers were arrested nine months later after police learned that Saito had tried to run away from the stable because he found the systematic hazing and physical demands of the training too tough. Caught by his fellow, the young wrestler was taken before Futatsuryu and beaten around the head with a beer bottle. The stable master then ordered the other wrestlers to continue the assault, hitting Saito with a metal baseball bat.

Sumo wrestling in Tokyo

Sumo 'elders' resist changes

"The JSA has tried to clean up the sport's problems in the past, but it does not seem to have worked very well," argued Watanabe. "That is because the sumo elders have a lot of control within the sport and they refuse to accept intervention. These changes mean that they will have to open up to outside scrutiny.”

Positive signs

While it appears that plans to put sumo forward as an official event at the Olympic Games have been put on hold, there are many who insist that there are reasons to be optimistic for the sport.

"I was at the New Year basho in January and I have to say that there were a lot of people in the stadium over the course of the tournament and there are some promising young Japanese wrestlers coming through the ranks," said Doreen Simmons, an English-language commentator for the Japan Broadcasting Corporation's coverage of sumo tournaments.

"The old guys still complain that there are no Japanese 'yokozuna' [the highest ranked wrestlers in the sport], but there are some with that potential," she said, pointing to the promising 23-year-old, Shota Endo. "More people should go to the tournaments and they would very quickly see that there is a lot of life in sumo yet."