• Kyodo


A fired sumo elder denied Thursday that he ordered wrestlers in his stable to harass and assault a teenage grappler who later died from the ensuing injuries.

On the opening day of his trial at the Nagoya District Court, Junichi Yamamoto denied his involvement in a conspiracy related to the 2007 death of Takashi Saito, 17.

Three wrestlers have already been convicted in the same court for their role in the high-profile case, which marred the sport. Their sentences were suspended.

When the court handed down its guilty verdict for the wrestlers in December, the presiding judge ruled that stablemaster Yamamoto had instructed them to assault Saito. The court also recognized that the excessive sparring session they conducted on the teen deviated from normal training and constituted illegal violence.

Yamamoto, 58, admitted Thursday he hit Saito with a beer bottle and apologized to his family. But he flatly denied ordering any of the three to engage in violence.

He argued that the so-called excessive training blamed for Saito’s death was never intended as hazing or punishment, saying it was “done for the purpose of discipline.”

“I never ordered them to assault (Saito),” Yamamoto said in his first public appearance since being banned by the Japan Sumo Association in October 2007. Yamamoto went by the name Tokitsukaze when he was a sumo elder.

Yamamoto’s lawyers, insisting the death did not result from a criminal act by their client, said the lesser charge of “omission” should be applied.

They said the three wrestlers carried out the assault of their own volition, not under the direction of the stablemaster, and beating Saito with a beer bottle did not directly cause his death.

Wrestlers Yuichiro Izuka and Masakazu Kimura were sentenced to three years and Masanori Fujii to 2 1/2 years. All three sentences were suspended.

Yamamoto faces charges of conspiring with the three wrestlers to beat Saito and subject him to excessive exercise at their lodging and training venue in Inuyama, Aichi Prefecture, on June 25 and 26, 2007.

According to the indictment, the three wrestlers beat Saito with a wooden stick at the instruction of Yamamoto, who was upset that the teenager had fled the lodging area.

Still angry about Saito’s indecisive behavior the next morning, they allegedly subjected him to an excessive sparring session lasting about 30 minutes, during which they slammed him to the ground and beat him with a metal baseball bat. Saito collapsed after the session and died in a hospital that afternoon.

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