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Sumo seeks to recover from disaster of its own making

by Mark Schreiber

If March 13, 2011, had been a normal Sunday in Japan, at around 4:30 p.m. this writer would have popped open a beer, grabbed a packet of shelled peanuts, switched on his TV and watched the first day of the Osaka Grand Sumo Tournament on NHK.

But the day was hardly a normal one. Not only NHK but all of Japan’s commercial and satellite channels were broadcasting uninterrupted news bulletins about the earthquake devastation in Tohoku.

At least the Tohoku Kanto Daishinsai — as history will record its name — cannot be blamed for sumo’s absence from the airwaves that day, since the sport had already suffered its own catastrophe one month earlier.

Police, while poring over text messages recorded in wrestlers’ cell phones as part of a separate investigation into illegal betting on baseball games, discovered exchanges that revealed collusion to fix matches between several rikishi (wrestlers) in the top two divisions. Confronted with these revelations, the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) was left with no choice but to announce, on Feb. 6, that the upcoming Osaka tournament would be cancelled.

More’s the pity: of the six annual hon basho (grand tournaments), Osaka has a notable reputation for startling upsets. The most memorable example of this phenomenon occurred in 1968, when eighth-ranked maegashira Wakanami of Tatsunami-beya won a three-way playoff on the final day for a 13-2 victory.

A dark horse even among the dark horses, 27-year-old Wakanami was one of the top division’s lightest competitors, weighing under 100 kg — small even by the standards of the 1960s. But he boasted tremendous strength in his arms and back, enabling him to lift opponents nearly double his own weight and hoist them outside the straw ring. His specialty, however, was a spectacular throwing technique called uttchari. When larger opponents used their weight advantage to drive Wakanami toward the edge of ring, he would grab hold of their mawashi (belt), dig in his heels, pivot sharply and flip them out, a second before tumbling out himself.

Considering these acrobatics resulted in well over 200 kg of human flesh and bone going airborne — not to mention the risk of injury upon landing — I remain convinced such matches could never have been faked. But if they were faking it, then fans ought to have gladly shelled out money just to watch the show, which was as exciting as anything offered by circus performers.

While fans’ ire over the recent match-fixing revelations is fully justifiable, such troubling disclosures should not have come as a surprise, as the weeklies, particularly Shukan Gendai and Shukan Post, have been nipping at professional sumo’s heels for years.

On March 10, Shukan Post’s publisher Shogakukan reissued a 256-page book titled “Shukan Posuto wa Ozumo Yaocho wo Ko Hojite Kita” (“This is How Shukan Post Reported Sumo Bout Fixing”), originally published in 2000. The book contained a collection of articles and interviews that purported to expose the shady side of sumo that had appeared in the magazine from 1980 onwards.

Meanwhile, Shukan Gendai, which was ruled guilty of libel for a series of articles exposing sumo match fixing, has been on the rampage. In its March 26 issue it even vents its anger at 23 judges — including five on the Supreme Court — who ruled against it, going so far as to publish the judges’ photographs.

Perhaps even worse, sumo has few writers or publications left to defend it, as two of Japan’s three sumo fanzines have already folded. Ozumo, published by the Yomiuri Shimbun-sha, threw in the towel last September. The other, Ozumochukei published by NHK, announced its December 2010 edition would be its last. “After the cancellation of the Osaka Tournament and in consideration of the general situation affecting the sumo world, we have decided to cease publication,” was how NHK’s spokesperson put it.

That leaves the monthly Sumo, a publication of Baseball Magazine-sha, whose cover story for March asks rhetorically, “Ozumo wa Ikinokoreru no ka?” (Can sumo survive?). A short editorial by Hideharu Takase went so far as to present a doomsday scenario, hypothesizing what would become of sumo if the JSA were to be disbanded and its assets absorbed by the state. Perhaps as one way to keep the sport alive, Takase suggests, control could be transferred to the Japan Sumo Federation, which currently oversees amateur sumo.

Or perhaps through tragic circumstance, the disaster in Tohoku may pave the way for the sport’s salvation. In the wake of a historic crisis the public may be disinclined to hold grudges, provided the JSA demonstrates sufficient contrition.

Sawamura Tanosuke, a veteran kabuki actor and member of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council that advises the JSA, went on record in Tokyo Sports (March 16) as favoring the holding of the next tournament from May 8 as scheduled.

“This catastrophe is all the more reason to hold the May tournament,” Sawamura was quoted as saying. “For those in the devastated areas, especially the injured in hospitals, being able to watch hard-fighting rikishi will serve as a national morale booster.”