Sumo failed to keep champ in check

by Minoru Matsutani

Yokozuna Asashoryu, who announced his retirement Thursday, is one of the strongest sumo wrestlers of modern times.

But his frequent misbehavior — long overlooked by the Japan Sumo Association — also made him one of the most controversial grand champions of all time, critics said.

“It’s not only Asashoryu’s problem. The root of the problem is the association’s economic motive,” said journalist Yorimasa Takeda, who accused Asashoryu of match-fixing in an article published in a weekly magazine in 2007.

Despite his “bad guy” image, Asashoryu was a fan magnet and thus generated a lot of money for the sumo industry, which was behind the association’s reluctance to punish him severely, Takeda said.

“The biggest responsibility lies with association executives who have spoiled Asashoryu this much this long just because he is strong,” Takeda said.

The 29-year-old Mongolian announced his retirement amid an investigation by the sumo association into his alleged beating of a man in a drunken rampage in the Nishi-Azabu district of Tokyo last month.

His unprofessional behavior, including skipping out on a sumo tour in 2007 for supposed back pain — only to be filmed playing soccer later in Mongolia — got him in hot water so many times that the association should have expelled him long ago, Takeda said.

Expelled wrestlers forfeit their retirement allowance, he noted.

Traditionally, Japanese expect a lot from a yokozuna. The number of wins alone is not enough to secure the sacred title. A key official requirement to be chosen is “dignity.”

According to the association, sumo is more than a sport since it traces its roots back to an ancient ritual of prayer to the gods for a rich harvest.

A yokozuna is a “living symbol of sumo” and should excel in both personal virtue and wrestling skills, the association and many traditional sumo enthusiasts agree.

“Japanese sanctify yokozuna. Yokozuna are that special, and Asashoryu disgraces Japanese tradition,” sumo journalist Takeda said.

“The sumo association also did not want to create a disgraceful history of expelling a yokozuna. That’s why I suspect the association pressured Asashoryu to hand in his resignation,” he said.

Hanako Dosukoi, author of the book “Kawaii Ozumo! Josei no Tame no Osumo no Hon” (“Cute sumo! A Book About Sumo for Women”), said Asashoryu did not study how to behave as a yokozuna, unlike many other foreign yokozuna.

“Akebono (the first foreign yokozuna) talked to ‘gyoji’ (sumo referees) and did other things to learn how to be a respectful yokozuna. Musashimaru and Hakuho have done the same. Asashoryu never did that,” Dosukoi said by phone.

“Taiho once tried to educate Asashoryu, but he gave up,” she added, referring to the yokozuna legend at the top of the victory list.

But Dosukoi, a friend of Asashoryu, also described him as “a cute, naughty boy.”

“He never hesitates to show his emotions. He would feel dejected every time his stable master reprimanded him for his bad behavior. But he forgets it. He is unable to learn from his mistakes,” she said.

With his permanent residency status, Asashoryu is free to remain in Japan, she added.

Sumo journalist Kiyoshi Nakazawa also criticized the sumo association.

“Asashoryu is the first yokozuna who behaved as if yokozuna could do whatever they want as long as they are strong,” Nakazawa said.

“His stable master, Takasago, allowed this because Asashoryu is a yokozuna. If not, (Takasago) would have fired him much sooner.

“The sumo association must tighten disciplinary rules to protect sumo’s 300-year tradition,” he said. “The association should never let anyone like Asashoryu be a yokozuna.”

Asashoryu is not the only one to tarnish the sumo industry’s reputation of late. Over the past few years, other wrestlers have been arrested for marijuana possession, while a stable master and some wrestlers were found guilty of inflicting injuries, in the name of discipline, resulting in the death of a teenage sumo apprentice in 2007.

Dosukoi said the association may have to educate sumo wrestlers just as elementary schools teach pupils morality.

“Just like teachers say, ‘Repeat after me. I shall never do illegal drugs. I shall never commit violent acts.’ That’s what they have to do,” Dosukoi said.

“The sumo industry lacks the common sense of ordinary people, and they need to correct this,” she said.