Can sumo survive stain of gambling? It’s anyone’s bet

by and

The recent admissions by dozens of sumo wrestlers and stablemasters of engaging in illegal, underworld-linked gambling has sent the ancient sport’s image, already dogged by scandals, to the mat.

The Japan Sumo Association, having failed repeatedly to fix its problems, is now faced with the possibility of canceling next month’s Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament.

Experts interviewed by The Japan Times were divided over whether the tournament should be held but agreed the JSA must take convincing action to regain the public’s trust. The body will decide on the tournament on July 4.

“It’s problematic that sumo wrestlers and stablemasters are a source of revenue for yakuza via baseball gambling. I want police to investigate bookmakers thoroughly as they are worse than gamblers,” said Yoshinori Tashiro, a former sumo wrestler who has written articles on the sport.

The illegal gambling came to light earlier this month when it was reported that Kotomitsuki, who holds the second-highest rank — ozeki — admitted he was blackmailed by the mob last year. On Thursday, Tokyo police arrested Mitsutomo Furuichi, a former wrestler and the brother of a current wrestler, for allegedly extorting about ¥3.5 million from Kotomitsuki in hush money over his betting on Japanese professional baseball. Furuichi allegedly demanded another ¥100 million, which Kotomitsuki did not pay. Recent reports said the ozeki feared for his and his family’s safety.

In a followup survey conducted by the JSA of its 1,000 members — including stablemasters, wrestlers and hairdressers — Kotomitsuki and 28 others admitted to betting on baseball games. Another 36 admitted gambling on card games, mah-jongg and golf within the past five years. So far, there has been no clear revelation about how the betting process worked.

Apart from horse and boat racing, gambling is generally illegal. But in reality, police tend to overlook gambling that does not involve large sums. However, they sometimes use gambling charges to crack down on yakuza and other crime syndicates involved in more serious crimes.

It was reported in May, a month before the gambling scandal broke, that two stablemasters helped underworld figures secure special ringside seats during the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament last July. Two seats usually reserved for sponsors were reportedly occupied by mobsters on 14 days during the 15-day tournament.

Police alleged the gangsters obtained the special seats to appear on TV to show themselves to affiliates in prison. One of the stablemasters, Kise, admitted having links with the underworld until a few years ago.

“Wrestlers and stablemasters who admitted to betting on baseball may be involved in sumo gambling and match-fixing. (The sumo industry and police) really have to investigate that thoroughly,” said Yorimasa Takeda, a journalist who has authored many sumo books.

Magazines that have carried his articles about alleged bout-fixing have been the target of libel suits successfully brought by the JSA. Like Tashiro, Takeda said most of the bookies are gangsters.

Kise was demoted two ranks in the sumo hierarchy and his stable was disbanded. The 27 wrestlers in the Kise stable were taken under the wing of former JSA Chairman Kitanoumi in late May. Meanwhile, stablemaster Kiyomigata was reprimanded.

The JSA has said it will announce July 4 what punishments will be meted out to others for gambling. It has already decided to suspend Kotomitsuki from the Nagoya “basho.”

Takeda believes that the JSA should cancel the Nagoya tournament and act to prevent further wrongdoing. He also said that sumo sponsors, including NHK, which pays the JSA ¥3 billion a year for the exclusive right to air tournaments live, should reconsider their advocacy of the sport.

NHK said Wednesday it may not air the Nagoya tournament because of the JSA’s failure to crack down on the gambling problem.

Sponsors are already backing away from sumo. Nagatanien Co., a major food maker, decided June 21 to cancel its ¥12 million in sponsorship for the Nagoya meet.

But Tashiro, on the other hand, said the Nagoya meet should be held because many other wrestlers did not engage in gambling and trained hard.

Still, those involved in baseball gambling should be suspended from the tournament, and wrestlers who belong to a stable whose master was involved in gambling may have to be suspended, too, he said.

Meanwhile, musician Demon Kakka, or His Excellency Demon Kakka, as he prefers to be called, also supports the idea of holding the tournament. The renowned sumo fan wrote on his official Web site that the JSA should hold the Nagoya meet and make up for the scandal in another way, such as by giving away some of the profits to the public, because canceling it will cause losses to companies and organizations other than the JSA.

The world of sumo has been too tainted with scandals. In February, Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu retired amid allegations he assaulted a man outside a Tokyo nightclub.

In recent years, several sumo wrestlers, including Wakakirin, were arrested for marijuana use. Wakakirin was later sentenced to 10 months in prison, suspended for three years.

And then there was the beating death of a teenage trainee of the Tokitsukaze stable in 2007. The former stablemaster, whose real name is Junichi Sakamoto, was convicted of assault.