Sumo stable boss axed for death

Ailing sport least served by bullying that killed Kyodo News

Kyodo News

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Stable master Tokitsukaze is mobbed by reporters Friday after attending an executive committee meeting of the Japan Sumo Association, which fired him over the death of a junior wrestler in June. The panel's top executives, including Chairman Kitanoumi – , make a show of apology afterward at a press conference in Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan.
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The unanimous decision by the JSA executive committee means Tokitsukaze, who is employed by the association, will be forced out of the world of sumo for good.

It is the first time an “oyakata” (master) who actually runs a stable has been fired by the association. Some oyakata carry the title but do not run a stable, such as Yamahibiki, who was axed in 1997 for failing to show at a tournament.

“We dismissed stable master Tokitsukaze for severely damaging public trust in the Japan Sumo Association,” JSA Chairman Kitanoumi told reporters. “That was the chief reason for the decision and we deeply apologize to the family” of the victim, Tokitaizan, whose real name was Takashi Saito.

The incident has dealt a fresh blow to Japan’s tradition-bound sport, which is struggling to find young recruits amid a lack of Japanese champions and long-alleged match-fixing.

The sport dealt itself another black eye in the summer by suspending young Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu, who was found to be playing soccer while on injury leave.

In a meeting at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo, the association also decided to cut the salaries of the other nine executive committee members by 30 percent for three months, noting the incident at the Tokitsukaze stable had defamed the association.

Kitanoumi gave himself a 50 percent pay cut for four months.

“(Tokitsukaze) hit (Saito) with a beer bottle and sat idly by while others beat him — actions unacceptable for a stable master,” Kitanoumi said. “Each stable has its own junior wrestlers and is angered by this incident. In this sense, public confidence in sumo has been ruined.”

Kitanoumi questioned Tokitsukaze earlier in the week about the death of Saito, a junior-division wrestler. It is believed Saito was severely beaten and kicked by several senior stablemates the day before he died on June 26.

The incident took place in Aichi Prefecture, where the wrestlers were training for the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament in July.

In earlier questioning by police, Tokitsukaze himself admitted hitting Saito in the head with a beer bottle before the senior wrestlers began beating him up.

In a news conference last week, Masato Saito, the wrestler’s father, said someone from the stable master’s staff called his family and offered to cremate his son before the family got to see the body. The father refused.

Tokitsukaze eventually had the body sent to the father’s house. When he saw his son, he was shocked by the multiple cuts and burns on his body — wounds that the stable master, who visited later, attributed to “regular training.”

Although Tokitaizan was initially diagnosed as having died from heart failure, an autopsy later performed at the request of the family pointed to the possibility that his death was caused by shock induced by multiple external wounds.

In August, Tokitsukaze visited the Saito family again to apologize and admitted hitting the wrestler with a beer bottle before he died.

Police are trying to build a criminal case against Tokitsukaze and his senior wrestlers on charges that include assault resulting in death.

The association said it is withholding punishment on the senior wrestlers at the stable pending the outcome of the police investigation.

A decision on who will take over as master of the stable will be made by Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Tokitsukaze, a former komusubi known as Futatsuryu and whose real name is Junichi Yamamoto, sent letters to the members of the JSA executive committee arguing that no excessively violent action was taken against Saito leading up to his death.

Tokitsukaze also asked in the letter for an opportunity to account for himself before the JSA executives, but at their meeting Friday, he was only there for five minutes before his dismissal was finalized.