Some years ago, a Japanese friend suggested we have dinner together at a chanko-nabe restaurant because neither of us had ever been to one. Chanko-nabe is the fortifying stew that sumo wrestlers grow fat on, and they all learn how to make it. Many rikishi (sumo wrestler) who don’t become stable masters after they retire but want to stay connected to the sumo world open chanko-nabe restaurants.
To me the food was typical izakaya (Japanese restaurant/pub) fare, and I thought it strange that there were no prices on the menu. When the bill came, our eyes almost fell out, it was so big. My friend asked for an item-by-item breakdown since it only listed the total. The proprietor, who had been cheerfully regaling us with tales of his short career in sumo’s upper division, suddenly turned into a fire-breathing monster. What kind of restaurant did we think this was?
I thought of that embarrassing incident when I read about the recent scandals involving sumo and the criminal underworld. Last month NHK scored a rare scoop when it reported that two oyakata (stable masters) had helped members of yakuza organizations obtain choice seats at the Nagoya sumo tournament last year. The two oyakata have since been punished by the Japan Sumo Association.
The relationship between sumo and yakuza is an old one. As sports journalist Masayuki Tamaki explained on TV Asahi’s “Sunday Scramble,” yakuza groups once controlled all “performance activities,” including sumo, and connections remain even if they aren’t as apparent as they were before the war. Since the enactment of tougher antigang legislation in the 1990s, the relationships have been buried even deeper, with the JSA forced to condemn, outwardly at least, any associations its members have with yakuza.
At a glance, the scandal looks like much ado about nothing. Executives of the Kodokai obtained third row seats at the Nagoya Basho with the assistance of the two oyakata. The seats closest to the dohyo (ring) are reserved for sponsors who pay large sums of money to hold them for six years. However, if a sponsor, usually a company, knows it isn’t going to use its seats sometime during a tournament, it can allow third parties to purchase them.
Special ticket agencies broker these seats for as much as ¥100,000 a piece. Most of the money seems to go to intermediaries, which in this case were the oyakata. What made the transaction particularly objectionable to NHK was that the yakuza executives wanted these seats so that they could be on TV. Spectators who occupy them often end up in the cameras’ lines of sight during live broadcasts of sumo tournaments, which are one of the few programs allowed to be shown in prison. The executives wanted their underlings in stir to see that they hadn’t forgotten about them and their sacrifice for the organization. According to several ex-yakuza interviewed by the press, it’s a tradition as old as television.
When NHK found out about this, it reacted strongly. On its evening news show of May 25 the public broadcaster led with the story, even though Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima caused quite a fuss that day by meeting with anti-U.S. base people in Okinawa. As media commentator Terry Ito said on “Scramble,” NHK pays a lot of money to the JSA for exclusive rights to tournaments, and these yakuza were “hijacking” the broadcasts for promotional purposes, even if the target was a very small portion of a literally captive audience.
But NHK may have been taken advantage of even more than it thinks. The magazine Shincho reported that ozeki (champion) Kotomitsuki likes to gamble, and a hairdresser turned him on to a baseball betting operation. Kotomitsuki started making wagers and at one point was owed several million yen in winnings. When he tried to get his money through an intermediary, he was visited by a former grappler who also happened to be a former yakuza and who demanded Kotomitsuki pay him, or he would leak his illegal betting activities to the media. Kokamoto Kotomitsuki paid . . . and the yakuza kept demanding more, up to ¥100 million.
The ozeki might still be paying but he then asked the powerful oyakata Tokitsukaze — who is not his stable master but nevertheless a mentor — for advice, and then Shincho published the story, which prompted the police to get involved. They called Kotomitsuki in for questioning May 22, during a major tournament, which was highly unusual and extremely humiliating.
Tokitsukaze belongs to a faction that supports oyakata Takanohana in his bid to reform the sport, a movement the JSA isn’t fully behind. The magazine Shukan Post reports that someone in Takanohana’s group leaked the information about the yakuza seats to NHK in order to draw media attention away from Kotomitsuki’s gambling, which seems to be the more serious matter as it involved not only illegal gambling but also extortion.
Tamaki pointed out that the scandal demonstrates how people in sumo are disconnected from the real world. However, this lack of “common sense” is evidenced less by their ties to gangsters than by their different conception of money. Supporters, and not just yakuza, are always throwing cash at them, and since sumo is the “national sport” and the JSA basically a nonprofit organization, all the money they receive is tax-free. Commentator Ito said that if sumo were forced to operate as a profit-making enterprise, like baseball, most of these problems would go away because the sponsorship would have to be transparent. As it stands now, nobody knows how much money sumo wrestlers make.
The normal financial rules don’t apply to them, which is why the proprietor of that chanko-nabe restaurant reacted the way he did. He couldn’t believe we would bring up such a dirty subject in his establishment. He was once a rikishi. How dare we imply that he cares about money.