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Close the door on the way out Asashoryu

by Mark Buckton

Every sport has its ups and downs. Every sport has its bad boys. Sumo, in as far as it is classified as a sport, is no different.

While allegations of bout fixing have long been circulated by what many would classify the lower ranks of the Japanese media, they remain unproven and, to date, wholly unfounded.

Violations of Japanese gun laws, involvement with the domestic underworld and problematic gambling habits have all surfaced in the not-too-distant past. Throw in assault of person and property as well.

Two weeks ago, yokozuna Asashoryu was punished for traveling to Mongolia and taking part in a soccer game while he was supposedly injured and on leave from a tour of northern Japan. Theories abound as to why he would do this; whether or not an injured rikishi can, or should, be playing soccer. Were I a betting man, my own yen would be on Asashoryu simply skipping school because he can! He fancied a few days to himself and took them. He had done it before, so why not again?

The issue of whether or not his supposed injury was genuine has fallen by the wayside, though, as the fallout from his latest absence has taken center stage. The tour, in large part, been ignored by the press.

Such tours are intended to take sumo closer to the fans who make it what it is. As with any sport, when you take away the fan base and you remove the oxygen from the fire. Northern Japan has been a rikishi breeding ground over the past six or seven decades and quite simply deserved more respect from yokozuna Asashoryu. Those with tickets must have been devastated to hear the man they so wanted to view in the flesh would not be coming. To then see him running around playing soccer overseas surely compounded their sense of loss.

The yokozuna, summoned back to Japan from his homeland, strode defiantly through Narita upon his return and was eventually slapped with a two-tournament suspension and reduced pay for the remainder of the year. He was also placed under effective house arrest, with outside contact limited to trips to the hospital and to his stable for training.

Today, a fortnight from the release of the next banzuke ranking sheet, he remains at home. According to his doctors, he is on the edge of a mental precipice. Media reports have him disheveled and losing weight, and he was recently said to be communicating in little more than childish sentences when visited by his stable master.

While the man born Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj may be suffering from some very real mental anguish just now, as long as he is allowed to continue in this vein, he will continue to bring shame upon himself, his fans and not least the sport’s ultimate rank; one from which the only exit is retirement.

Sumo is so much more than just a sport. It is visually represented by the sight of two giants clashing on the dohyo, but for many within Japan and abroad, sumo is a bigger entity and embodies honor and respect.

It isn’t only about winning and losing; behavior and manners demonstrated before and after a bout are an intrinsic part of true sumo. Sumo wrestlers must bear this in mind 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Gaffes do happen though, rikishi do make mistakes and punishments are sometimes handed down by the governing body — the Nihon Sumo Kyokai.

Discretion and the odd “blind eye” are used now and again, but with current yokozuna Asashoryu, patience has long been wearing thin.

Admittedly, the modern world has its attractions and the 700 men active in sumo today are not monks. Rikishi have been, and will continue to be, removed from the sport — against their will — for a range of offenses but oftentimes the penalties are kept “in-house” and are borne with quiet dignity.

Kyokutenho is a long-term makunouchi man who was recently prevented from appearing at a tournament after crashing into another car while driving. Nobody was fatally injured and this wasn’t a case of hit-and-run so why ban him? The answer, as archaic as it may sound, is simple: According to NSK rules, rikishi are not allowed to drive. Kyokutenho knew this rule, chose to break it and was rightly punished. He found himself under “house arrest” similar to that under which yokozuna Asashoryu now finds himself. Kyokutenho, however, sat it out in a dignified silence, put his heart and soul into training and returned with a 12-3 record his first basho back.

Other examples of ill manners have occurred over the years but very few have centered on the sport’s ultimate rank of yokozuna. None, to date, have resulted in the yokozuna in question sitting at home in a sulk!

Futahaguro (the 60th yokozuna) was removed from the sport after an altercation with his stable master that ended with a physical assault on his senior’s wife. Frequent NHK commentator, Kitanofuji (yokozuna #51), was apparently once censured for going surfing in Hawaii when he was supposedly not fit for duty.

In the 1940s, yokozuna Maedayama (#39) was left with no option but to step down after being caught secretly leaving a tournament to view a baseball game where he met a visiting American player. His subsequent resignation came about in a bid to save the integrity of the rank and the sport. He had misbehaved, and he paid the penalty.

Asashoryu knew of sumo’s time-honored traditions when he was invited to enter, and he chose to live in and benefit from this world within a world. However, this time, when he bent the rules just a little too far — as he has been known to do on numerous occasions — the rules materialized in the form of a major slap across the mouth.

That the “slap” was limited to suspension and a financial penalty just doesn’t cut it with some long-term fans. The yokozuna got off lightly in the eyes of many Japanese in the street, and is adding insult to injury with his antics in recent days. It is time for him to retire. Be his retirement voluntary or in some way forced, it is time for the sport’s 68th yokozuna to date to return from whence he came or to enter different employment here in Japan.

Statistically, as was covered here, he is up there with the very best. As an individual capable of behaving in the manner expected of a yokozuna, he was given the chance, but failed.

Let’s hope Hakuho does a better job.