NAGOYA — Sumo is more than a sport to Japan. It’s like a religion, a bastion of traditional culture and a matter of national pride. Wrestlers aren’t just athletes — they are icons, role models and, often, larger-than-life heroes.
Unless, of course, they are getting busted for smoking marijuana, breaking noses in drunken brawls or hobnobbing with yakuza.
And, these days, that’s pretty much all the time.
Causing much consternation, recent police investigations have exposed the colorful sport’s cozy connections to the underworld, outside-the-ring violence and widespread recreational drug use, dragging sumo’s venerable image through the dirt and prompting many to wonder if it can stand up to modern scrutiny.
Sumo’s unrelenting scandals have gotten so bad that NHK, for the first time since 1953, opted to scrap three hours of live, daily coverage and swap it for a 20-minute program of taped highlights.
Sponsors have bolted and fans are staying away in droves. At the 15-day contest now under way, where the stands are only about half full, police are prowling entrances under signs saying “Gangsters Keep Out.”
“It’s a very tough situation for the wrestlers,” said Tamako Imoi, a 63-year-old fan. “I love the sport, that’s why I’m here. But I don’t want them hanging around with criminals. They should live up to their traditions.”
Sumo’s latest quagmire involves a criminal investigation into dozens of top wrestlers and coaches who allegedly wagered tens of thousands of dollars on baseball, with gangsters as go-betweens.
The scandal broke in the tabloid press, which has long alleged sumo is rife with underworld influences, including bout-fixing — allegations officials have repeatedly denied.
This time, however, the charges have stuck.
Popular ozeki Kotomitsuki, who held the sport’s second-highest rank, admitted last month he bet on pro baseball. Police say he was then extorted by a gangster who threatened to go public. Soon after Kotomitsuki’s fall, stablemaster Otake, a former wrestler, cried on national TV as he acknowledged running up betting debts of more than ¥5 million.
The association sidelined both, and punished more than a dozen others — an unprecedented seven top wrestlers are sitting out the tournament. The Japan Sumo Association’s chief was temporarily replaced by a former prosecutor.
“The crisis that we face is one unlike any we have experienced before, and we apologize to our fans,” replaced Chairman Musashigawa said.
But many sumo watchers say the latest scandal merely underscores a close relationship sumo has had with the yakuza for decades, a relationship they say is likely to continue.
“Sumo is involved in organized crime because they’ve had a symbiotic relationship for years,” said Jake Adelstein, a former crime beat reporter for a Japanese newspaper and author of the best-selling book “Tokyo Vice.” “The wrestlers and the yakuza have a macho admiration for each other. The yakuza by being seen with the sumo wrestlers, acquire ‘status’ and the sumo wrestlers get money, booze, food and women.”
Adelstein said smaller training stables don’t have big corporate sponsors and need the money the yakuza offer. “The average salary of a sumo wrestler is a pittance and they need the cash,” he said, adding that once a wrestler is beholden to the mob he is vulnerable to demands to throw bouts — which the gangsters bet on — to clear his debts.
Police anger and TV’s decision to pull the plug go back to an incident last year, when 55 gangsters from the notorious Yamaguchi-gumi syndicate took front row seats at a tournament to bolster the spirits of their comrades in prison.
The gangsters were clearly visible on the live TV broadcasts, one of the few shows inmates are allowed to watch.
The incident led to punishment for two sumo elders, but no criminal charges.
But by that time sumo was already grappling with the expulsion of several top wrestlers — including two Russians — for marijuana possession and the conviction last December of a coach and his proteges for beating a 17-year-old wrestler to death ostensibly as part of hazing.
And sumo’s woes didn’t stop there.
Earlier this year, Mongolian yokozuna grand champion Asashoryu quit the sport in disgrace after a drunken brawl outside a nightclub. As the holder of sumo’s highest rank, his behavior was seen by many as evidence of how low the sport’s moral standards had fallen.
The scrutiny over the scandals has also put the spotlight on the ancient sport’s troubles adjusting to Japan’s modern realities.
Though sumo is still popular, NHK is the only major TV network that still airs the six annual tournaments. Commercial networks pulled them years ago as ratings slid and the sumo authorities requested more money for broadcasting rights.
Today, baseball, soccer and golf more often than not precede sumo on TV newscasts. Sumo audiences are usually made up mostly of middle-age or older fans, further evidence the sport is losing its appeal to young viewers.
Getting youngsters to actually join up is more difficult still.
Because of the rigors of the sumo lifestyle — which often starts in a boy’s early teens with a live-in apprenticeship at Spartan training stables — fewer Japanese are willing to go pro. That vacuum has been filled by wrestlers from abroad, who now make up most of the top echelon.
Only one wrestler with the second-highest rank is Japanese. At 37, he is likely to retire soon.
The sport’s reigning grand champion, a Mongolian named Hakuho — who is not implicated in any wrongdoing — slammed the association’s handling of the scandal and particularly its decision to withhold trophies for the winner, which will likely be him.
But fans were more worried about sumo’s future.
“I don’t think there is any way to deny that the Japanese don’t support sumo as much as they used to,” said Toru Ishii, a fan who came at 8 a.m. to watch the younger wrestlers’ matches. “We grew up with sumo, but young people today hardly ever do sumo. We have high standards for sumo wrestlers. This is all very sad.”