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Match-throwing final nail in sumo coffin?

'Yaocho' sets sport up for clashes with NHK, litigants

by Alex Martin and Mizuho Aoki

The sumo world has had its share of scandals in recent years but the latest one — text messages indicating match-fixing — is rocking the “dohyo” ring hard.

Police investigating illegal gambling by sumo figures on baseball games turned up the e-mails implying match-fixing on the cell phones of several wrestlers, suggesting they routinely bought and sold wins for cash. The fix has long been claimed but routinely denied by the sport’s governing body.

But while the traditional all-male sport has reeled in recent years over illegal gambling, drug use, beatings of young trainees, one fatal, and connections to the underworld, the “yaocho” (bout-fixing) scandal could, some experts say, have long-lasting consequences for the beloved sport.

Below are a questions and answers regarding sumo’s longtime suspicions of bout-fixing.

What have been recent notable allegations of match-fixing?

In 2007 an article in the weekly magazine Shukan Gendai, published by Kodansha Ltd., alleged that then yokozuna Asashoryu was buying wins for ¥800,000 a match, using these victories to help him win 11 tournaments.

Asashoryu denied the allegations, and the Japan Sumo Association filed a civil lawsuit against Kodansha and Yorimasa Takeda, who wrote the article.

In October, the Supreme Court ordered Kodansha and Takeda to pay around ¥44 million in damages to the association and three retired wrestlers, saying the evidence they provided to support allegations of bout-rigging fell short.

What about Keisuke Itai’s famous claims of bout-fixing?

One past allegation that rocked the sumo world was made in 2000 by former top-division wrestler Keisuke Itai, who named 20 active grapplers he alleged were rigging matches.

Among them was former yokozuna Akebono.

During a speech at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Itai said he once received ¥400,000 from Akebono in exchange for throwing a match to him in 1991.

The former komusubi said bout-fixing is rampant, and during his time in the ring between 1978 and 1991, probably about 80 percent of the matches were fixed.

Asked if he had any evidence, Itai said: “I am the evidence.”

The sumo association denied the allegation and issued a protest letter to Itai, demanding an apology. But it didn’t take any further action against him. Itai didn’t apologize, saying he was merely speaking the truth.

Itai later wrote a tell-all book titled “Nakabon” (the term is allegedly used to describe a person who mediates match-fixing in the sumo world) published by Shogakukan Inc. in July 2000.

What other accusations have surfaced?

The weekly tabloid magazine Shukan Post has run articles on bout-fixing since the 1980s with comments from former wrestlers who spoke under their real names.

Among the wrestlers accused in the articles was the great yokozuna Chiyonofuji.

In 1996, the sumo association filed a libel suit against the magazine, but the case was dropped in 1998 due to insufficient evidence.

The following year, former makushita wrestler Takamio claimed ex-yokozuna Akebono was involved in match-fixing.

But the past allegations lacked solid physical evidence.

What is the origin of the term “yaocho” and is there any law regarding the practice?

According to the Kojien Japanese dictionary, the origin of the word is believed to date back to be the early Meiji Era (1868-1912), after a greengrocer who would regularly beat a stablemaster at games of go and then lose on purpose to make the results even out.

Because the greengrocer’s nickname was “Yaocho,” the word came into use to describe match-rigging.

Today, gambling on fixed bouts is a crime, but there is no law against match-rigging itself.

Because there has been no evidence of betting in this week’s scandal, at least as of Thursday, the wrestlers involved won’t face charges.

For sports where betting is publicly approved, such as horse-racing and bicycle-racing, the act of match-fixing is a criminal violation.

What are the implications of this scandal?

Sumo writer Mark Buckton said it could “put the nail in the coffin in terms of NHK coverage” of tournaments.

NHK is the only TV station that broadcasts live sumo matches.

When sumo was mired in a scandal last year involving illegal gambling on professional baseball games, NHK dropped its coverage of the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament.

NHK pays a reported ¥2.5 billion annually for tournament broadcast rights, which would amount to a fourth of the sumo association’s annual revenue estimated at around ¥10 billion.

But Buckton added that what may be even more damaging to the sport than losing fans over the scandal may be the possibility of the government repealing the sumo association’s qualification as a “public interest corporation.”

The corporate tax on revenues from matches organized by the association stands at 22 percent thanks to its status as a public-interest body. If the association loses its title as a public entity, this figure will increase to 30 percent.

“They could lose millions in benefits in the course of any single year,” Buckton said.

Buckton said the fiasco also could raise questions about former wrestlers who in the past pointed out the existence of bout-rigging and then were “disgraced and kicked out.”

“Kodansha paid a lot of money after they alleged this happened. Will they get their money back now?” he asked.