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A visitor holds a cutout of sumo champion Harumafuji
Image: Reuters/Y. Shino

The violent world of sumo wrestlers

Julian Ryall Tokyo
January 5, 2018

Shaken by the fallout from a new scandal involving grand champion Harumafuji, sumo's elders would still prefer to handle crises internally - and punish those who break ranks. Julian Ryall reports from Tokyo.


Japan's traditional sumo world has been shaken by a scandal that broke in October when it was learned that grand champion Harumafuji had assaulted a lower-ranking wrestler in a bar. The sport had hoped, however, that the fine imposed by the Tottori Summary Court on Thursday of Y500,000 (3,672 euros) would draw a line under the entire matter.

Commentators on the ancient and deeply conservative world of Japanese wrestling point out that Harumafuji's transgression was not as serious as others that have damaged sumo's reputation in the past and that its elders will quickly look to move on, although the very nature of the sport means that it is constantly on the brink of another crisis.

It is just that the Japan Sumo Association might have learned a lesson from this incident and should do a better job of covering up any future transgressions by its members.

"It's obviously not good, but I would say that it is not as bad as some of the scandals they were having 10 years or so ago," John Gunning, a commentator on the sport, told DW.

Read more: Japan acts to shed sumo's scandal-plagued past

Japan Sumo Elementary School Wanpaku Turnier in Tokio
'A few slaps, a bit of physical punishment, not big deal to young wrestlers,' says sumo commentator John GunningImage: Reuters/K. Kyung-Hoon

Gambling and debt

In June 2010, the sport took a body blow when wrestler Kotomitsuki admitted gambling on the outcomes of baseball matches. A magazine claimed the wrestler was deep in debt and was being blackmailed by members of a crime syndicate to pay them Y100 million (734,000 euros) 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 or on rounds of golf.

Kotomitsuki's admission came just days after the head of the Kise stable of wrestlers admitted giving tickets for bouts to senior members of a "yakuza" organized crime group. The JSA responded by disbanding the stable and demoting Kise.

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. Wrestling as Tokitaizan, the boy died and an autopsy subsequently showed that his injuries were not consistent with an accident.

Futatsuryu and three wrestlers were arrested 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 "rikishi," he was taken before Futatsuryu and beaten about the head with a beer bottle. The stable master then ordered the other wrestlers to continue the assault, using a metal baseball bat on Saito.

Read more: What do grisly killings say about Japanese society?

Limited impact

"So yes, this looks bad for the association, but on the other hand the impact has been quite limited and no-one else has been affected," said Gunning, pointing out that Harumafuji has been forced to retire from the sport and Takanoiwa has made a full recovery from his injuries.

But the entire incident only caused a stir because stable master Takanohana initially failed to report the incident to the JSA but later reported the assault to the police before agreeing to an investigation by the association.

"If another stable master had had a different reaction, then it is very likely that the entire matter could have been hushed up and no-one would have ever heard about it," Gunning said.

"A lot that goes on in the sumo world gets hushed up and I am sure that similar incidents in the future will not come out.

"There is a sense within sumo that this sort of violence is acceptable and just part and parcel of the sport," he said. "We have young guys who fight every morning in training, have no money, no rights and no outlets for the aggression that inevitably builds up.

"If a stable master does not keep tight control over his wrestlers, then the violence becomes the only way they can take out their frustrations," Gunning added.

"And you have to remember that stable masters today were wrestlers in the past and they had an even rougher time of it," he said. "They say that young wrestlers today have an easy life. So a few slaps, a bit of physical punishment, should not be a big deal to them."

Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in Osaka
'There is a sense within sumo that... violence is acceptable and just part and parcel of the sport'Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Kyodo

To some, the bigger stain on the sport's reputation has been Takanohana speaking with the police instead of first trying to settle the matter in-house.

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Challenge to modernize

"He challenged the sumo world and tried to modernize some of its ways of thinking. And while I think there are some in the association who would agree with that, it is clear that the majority did not," said Makoto Watanabe, an associate professor of communications and media at Hokkaido Bunkyo University.

"And now they have had their revenge by stripping him of his position as director of the association," he told DW.

"There is still a lot of resistance within the organization to any form of change and too many people who were not comfortable with Takanohana breaking ranks, talking to the police and not following the association's traditional way of dealing with issues," he added.

"So many of these cases in the past have never come to light, and I think most people in society here will believe that he did the right thing by speaking with the police, but the JSA clearly disagrees."

Watanabe is hopeful that the sport can change and that violent incidents among wrestlers will slowly be eradicated, but he believes that will only happen when a younger generation of elders come through and take control of the association.

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