The sacred sport of sumo boasts a history of 1,300 years, but recent scandals and undignified exploits of some of its champions are threatening to reduce its status to heresy.
The first sumo matches took the form of rituals dedicated to the gods, with prayers for a bountiful harvest. But nowadays, Japan’s national sport has become popular fodder for TV gossip shows.
The entire sumo industry has been damaged by scandals, ranging from allegations of systematic match-fixing to the fatal beating of a junior wrestler in October that resulted in the arrest of his stable master and three of his senior colleagues last month.
Meanwhile, a yokozuna, supposed to serve as a role model for the sport, is routinely the stuff of TV gossip, especially in between tournaments.
Most recently, Asashoryu showed up in Hawaii on Feb. 24 wearing an aloha shirt, breaking a long-held but tacit taboo against wearing anything but a kimono in public.
Upon his return to Japan at Kansai International Airport, Asashoryu reportedly told reporters to “go to hell,” a comment plastered on the front pages of the tabloids the following day.
Although he later denied making the remark, the 27-year-old Mongolian has been drawing frequent criticism for displaying an apparent lack of dignity in his role as grand champion.
Last July, he was videotaped playing soccer in Mongolia after withdrawing from the annual summer sumo tournament after claiming he was suffering from stress fractures and an injured left elbow ligament.
The Japan Sumo Association reprimanded Asashoryu and ordered him to stay home for four months unless visiting his stable or getting medical treatment. But he insisted he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and returned to his country for “treatment.”
Tabloid and TV reporters dogged him and taped hours of video footage.
Scandals damaged sumo’s popularity further last year.
NHK’s average household viewership rating for live matches in the Kanto region hovered around 7 percent last year, compared with 21.5 percent in January 1994, according to Video Research Ltd.
Longtime sumo watchers, who lament the lack of humble yokozuna like in the past, frown on Asashoryu. Some are even urging him to bow out.
“I think it’s best for (Asashoryu) to retire by making the decision by himself,” writer Makiko Uchidate, a member of the yokozuna council, wrote in a book published in January.
The council is the authority that assigns wrestlers their rank. It promoted Asashoryu in 2003 on condition that his stable master improved his behavior. But his behavior only worsened, Uchidate said.
“He is making money and a living and getting benefits in a foreign country, but it seems he never shows respect for that country,” she wrote.
But at the same time, TV reports show that many sumo fans — particularly young ones — still support Asashoryu because he is, beyond a doubt, one of the strongest wrestlers sumo has seen in recent years.
Whether good or bad, Asashoryu is still one of the few stars of the sport who can command public attention.
When he came back from his long leave of absence and faced off with fellow yokozuna Hakuho on Jan. 27, TV viewership surged to 24.4 percent. Asashoryu lost the match.
As this year’s spring Grand Tournament gets set to start Sunday in Osaka, the sumo industry hopes the combination of “baby face” Hakuho and “bad guy” Asashoryu will give sumo a shot in the arm.
As Uchidate wrote in 2003: “A bad guy (wrestler) makes a baby face attractive, and a baby face makes a bad guy attractive.”