Sumo-rigging born of necessity?

System forces young grapplers to stay ahead of game, or starve


The sumo bout-fixing unearthed in seized cell phone texts points to a practice that, according to at least one expert, was born out of a need by young wrestlers to survive a short-lived career where the spoils at the top are elusive and the threat of demotion and loss of pay is ever-present.

The bout-fixing has led the Japan Sumo Association to cancel next month’s annual spring tournament in Osaka, and an independent panel has been tasked with getting to the bottom of the rigged matches.

But many say a deep probe is needed to identify everyone who was involved and to understand the systemic flaws that prompted wrestlers to sell their performance in the ring, and for how long the wrongdoing has been going on.

“There is a mechanism embedded in sumo that led to match-fixing,” Takanobu Nakajima, a professor at Keio University, told The Japan Times on Monday. The expert on commercial science said sumo’s top-down hierarchy, its narrow, closed practices and anxiety on the part of wrestlers regarding life after retirement may have led them astray.

Throwing bouts were “desperate acts to maintain standards of living,” said Nakajima, who authored “Ozumo no Keizaigaku” (“The Economics of Sumo”).

Nakajima noted that while superstars like yokozuna Hakuho and ozeki Kotooshu enjoy their deserved fame and wealth, there is an army of up-and-coming young wresters basically training for free.

Out of about 800 wrestlers registered with the Japan Sumo Association, only 70 make up the top makuuchi division. Yokozuna, the top ranked in the group, get paid about ¥2.8 million a month.

Wrestlers who reach the second-highest division, juryo, still earn plenty enough to feed a family, or about ¥1 million per month.

But for wrestlers in the third or lowest division, makushita, making ends meet becomes tricky. Despite being fed and housed in stables, they don’t get monthly wages. Instead, they make only up to ¥150,000 in two months for participating in one of the six yearly grand tournaments.

Being ranked juryo or higher also comes with other privileges, including a private room during tournaments, and being provided assistants and offered to eat and bathe first.

The only factor that comes into consideration for how a wrestler ranks is whether he finished the 15-day tournament with a winning record. Eight wins ensures he advances a few notches, but seven or less translates into an automatic downgrading.

Nakajima said sumo wrestlers, who frequently train and eat out when on the road, form strong bonds with one another.

While they are competitors and rivals during tournaments, they are also comrades practicing a traditional sport and trying to protect a culture that has endured for centuries.

“That’s when the idea of mutual aid begins to form. They back each other so that no one loses big. The point is to remain a juryo for as long as one can, and everyone wants that,” Nakajima said.

Another motivation for low-ranked wrestlers to accumulate as much money as possible while still active is their lack of options once they leave the ring, often at a relatively early age. Most wrestlers begin training right out of junior high school, bulking up their bodies for a punishing sport.

By the time they reach their mid-30s, most have passed the peak of their careers and have no education or career option to fall back on.

Chiyonofuji, considered one of the greatest yokozuna of the Showa Era, retired when he was just 35. Yokozuna Takanohana was 30 when he called it quits.

For those who retire with certain qualifications — including spending at least 30 tournaments ranked juryo or higher — there is a chance to become a stablemaster or take up a post within the sumo association.

But for those who retire with a weaker resume, the real world job market is their only option.

“It’s almost like sumo wrestlers don’t have a second shot” and nothing to fall back on, Nakajima said, adding that it becomes all the more reason for them to hold onto their ranking at any cost — including throwing matches for, say, ¥200,000.

Some experts also blame the shady nature of the sumo association itself for being conducive to match-fixing.

Match-fixing and other misdeeds have been rumored for decades. Former stablemaster Onaruto published a book in 1996 detailing the dark side of the sport, including fixed bouts and its relationship with the yakuza.

“It is true the JSA ignored the staged matches in order to have their favorites become yokozuna or ozeki,” Onaruto wrote in his book, “Yaocho” (“Rigged”).

Itai, another retired wrestler, followed as a whistle-blower in 2000 when he held a news conference and confessed that at times when he was active only a handful of tournament matches were legitimate.

The sumo association always denied such allegations and sued the messengers who declared the wrongdoing for defamation.

But the JSA executives are former wrestlers who became stablemasters. They are responsible for running their stables and the training regimens.

Judges in the 15-day tournaments, who sit beside the “dohyo” ring and are likely to be the first to detect signs of deliberate losing or winning, are also stablemasters.

There isn’t much incentive for stablemasters to point out a fixed bout, let alone investigate whether a trainee is rigging matches, Keio University’s Nakajima said.

The sumo association doesn’t have a mechanism to keep itself clean, he said, noting this ultimately set the stage for disgruntled wrestlers to take the disgraceful dive.

The list of what sumo elders should do to restore dignity to the sport is long. Some say the first step should be to replace the association with outside executives.

Hardliners recommend a complete overhaul, including disbanding the stables, increasing the number of matches between juryo and makushita wrestlers, and even keeping wrestlers in the dark about who they will face in the ring.

Another way to redeem the sport would be to take a serious look at past allegations of misdeeds, not just focus on the recent bout-fixing revelations, which only surfaced because of the probe into the sumo world’s involvement in illegal, mob-connected gambling on pro baseball.

Doubts are mounting that sumo officials will go beyond merely making a cosmetic gesture of cleaning up its act, such as by promptly firing some of the 14 wrestlers involved in the current scandal linked to text records of fixed bouts — an electronic trail of evidence — and avoid digging to uncover how signals might have been sent before the digital age.

“Declaring that as the end of the matter would probably be the biggest betrayal to fans, and the JSA should be aware of that,” Nakajima warned. “That would put them so out of touch with the public.”