Commentary / World

Sumo will change or die

“Please hit hard at the faceoff and then go with the flow.”

“Will do!! I’ll put up a little resistance to make it look good.”

— Text messages exchanged by wrestlers Kiyoseumi and Kasuganishiki (May 10, 2010)

In the film “Back to the Future,” a scientist invents time travel, which leads the character played by Michael J. Fox to prevent his parents from meeting, thus imperiling his own existence. It is a fine and funny film — and a cautionary tale for sumo, which is now facing its most serious crisis ever.

The match-fixing documented in text messages and acknowledged by several wrestlers raises serious questions about the future of Japan’s national sport (kokugi). If sumo is to survive, it cannot pretend to “reform” by clinging to its dysfunctional “traditions,” as it has routinely done in the past. If sumo keeps going back to the future, the end result will be self destruction.

I have followed sumo since I first came to Japan in 1984. The matches are small volcanoes of violence, and the rikishi are impossibly powerful, flexible and fat. If a television is near, it is hard not to watch.

I also am intrigued by sumo’s hybrid nature: part martial art, part sport, part theater. Like karate and kendo, sumo has many ritual elements, a strong emphasis on tradition, and a hierarchical structure. Unlike other martial arts, promotion and demotion are supposed to depend solely on performance in tournaments, with each elite wrestler competing once a day for the 15 days of each of the six tournaments each year. The crucial question is one’s record, and there is a world of difference between finishing with eight wins as opposed to seven. Statistical studies suggest that many wrestlers near that threshold throw matches to achieve the coveted outcome.

Depending on status, there is also a world of difference in how wrestlers are paid and treated. To make it into the highest divisions, where revelations of match-fixing are concentrated, is to be guaranteed an income of more than ¥1 million per month and the services of one or more “assistants” (tsukebito) to help perform such arduous tasks as the pulling on of socks and the wiping of the buttocks.

It’s not a bad lifestyle — if you can make it into the juryo or makuuchi ranks, which employ 70 of Japan’s 900 pro wrestlers.

In principle, achieving that elite status is based solely on one’s record, not (as in karate or kendo) on how perfectly one has mastered “form” (kata). But the reality of match-fixing suggests that this principle is pretension. For an activity supposedly premised on merit and governed by norms of fair play, the match-fixing (yaocho) scandal is sumo’s worst nightmare — a direct hit to the heart of Japan’s national sport. It is also a massive betrayal of trust.

Sumo will change or die. The illusion of reform — press conferences, bows, apologies, promises — is not enough. And for real reform to occur, it cannot be entrusted to the 105 elders (toshiyori) in the Japan Sumo Association who govern the sport and who have tolerated, condoned and caused the problems that have long plagued this pastime. Allegations of match-fixing have nagged sumo for decades, tainting the reputations of many elite wrestlers, including some yokozuna (grand champions). The JSA has dismissed all allegations as lies or as the misperceptions of ignoramuses. Until now, when there is digital evidence that cannot be denied.

After the telltale text messages were made public, Hanaregoma, the chairman of the JSA, performed the predictable bows and apologies and then insisted — repeatedly — that “this kind of thing has never happened in the past.”

His claims are contradicted by what many rikishi have confessed. “Match-fixing was kind of a matter of fact among the wrestlers,” former komusubi Keisuke Itai told a magazine in 1999. “The fixing used to be much worse than it is now” and “none of us felt any guilt at all.” Itai’s career as a wrestler, which ended in 1991, overlapped with that of Hanaregoma.

Besides denouncing whistle-blowers, the JSA is willing to sue to see its truth claims prevail. Some observers believe sumo elders and their agents are also willing to use extra-legal means in order to enforce their version of reality.

In 1996, after a former wrestler and his supporter went public with allegations of match-rigging, drug use, tax evasion and close connections to the yakuza, both died in the same hospital, hours apart, of “respiratory illness.” No proof of poisoning was ever found, so the deaths cannot be called homicides, but causes of death are often misdiagnosed in Japan. In a country where the clearance rate for homicide is 95 percent, these deaths remain two of the most mysterious in postwar history.

Since the deaths of those two whistle-blowers, a series of scandals has exposed many of the JSA’s assertions as self-serving nonsense. Wrestlers do not consort with gangsters, we have been assured, nor do they engage in illicit gambling. And that bar that was all broken up? Sorry about that, but our boys have big bodies, and one of them slipped and fell.

But facts are stubborn realities. Last summer the JSA was forced to dismiss an ozeki and a stable master for betting on baseball in a ring run by gangsters. Other culpable wrestlers and elders could have been fired or indicted, but meaningful accountability and reform were not pursued. The scandal was put to sleep with the demotion of two more stable masters, the banning of 18 wrestlers for one tournament and displays of bowing.

The JSA also administered a “survey” to its wrestlers, asking if they had ever gambled or been encouraged to do so. Those who said yes were punished. How’s that for an incentive to tell the truth?

Last month, the gambling scandal was reawakened with the arrest of three former wrestlers — again for betting on baseball. This led to the smoking cell phones.

Gambling on baseball is a crime, and so is gambling on sumo. It is reasonable to wonder whether one motivation for fixing sumo matches is the desire to guarantee gambling payoffs for self, family, friends and mob affiliates. It is also reasonable to suppose that the text messages discovered so far are from the whole shebang.

Rigged matches and illegal gambling are one part of a much larger pattern of bad behavior and customs in the insular world of sumo. Connecting the dots is a precondition for meaningful conversations about reform.

There have been numerous revelations of illicit drug use among wrestlers, and there would be more if the JSA required testing for the use of performance enhancing drugs. In an age when pills and injections can markedly increase power and decrease recovery time, and in a sport where those qualities are cherished, the failure to test for PEDs reflects the depth of the JSA’s “see no evil” philosophy.

Violence outside the ring is a persistent problem. There has been a steady stream of churlish and brutal behavior by sumo wrestlers partying in bars, restaurants and clubs, occasionally with consequences, as when Asashoryu was forced to retire after one tantrum too many. Usually the thuggery is covered up and glossed over by sumo elders and their adoring friends and fans — as it was at least once during the January tournament in Tokyo.

Violence also permeates life inside the country’s 51 sumo stables. Extreme “hazing” is common, ostensibly to “toughen up” young wrestlers and to teach them to respect their elders. Some stable masters have used wooden swords and baseball bats to drive their messages home.

In 2007, a teenage trainee named Takashi Saito died after his stable master (Junichi Yamamoto) beat him with a beer bottle and a bat and then ordered senior wrestlers to continue this pedagogy of the body on their own. At first the cause of death was falsely reported as heart failure; the real cause was revealed only when the victims’ father insisted on an autopsy. Yamamoto and three of his wrestlers denied wrongdoing, but all were eventually arrested and convicted. Yamamoto has been sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter; the others received suspended sentences.

Nonviolent but premature death is a fact of life for most retired wrestlers. Sumo is the only sport in the world where the rate of morbid obesity approaches 100 percent. The stress of lugging around scores or hundreds of extra pounds results in chronic health problems, from high blood pressure and diabetes to heart attacks and arthritis. Retired wrestlers have a life expectancy of 60 to 65 years, compared to almost 80 for the average Japanese male.

Sumo also fails to respect norms of equality. Women are excluded from many competitions and ceremonies. They are not even permitted to touch the “sacred” ring lest they pollute it with their two X chromosomes. When Osaka Gov. Fusae Ohta was asked to present a prize to the champion of the annual Kansai tournament, she was required to make the exchange on a walkway next to the ring or to send a male representative. She repeatedly asked to perform this role inside the ring, as her male counterparts do, but her requests were rejected because, the elders insisted that to change this tradition would dishonor their predecessors who had observed it.

This kind of specious reasoning is common in sumo’s echo chamber — as it is with respect to foreigners’ participation in the sport. Sumo’s top ranks are now dominated by foreign wrestlers, and many elders regard this as a crisis. Last year, the JSA responded by announcing that it would limit sumo stables to one foreign wrestler each — a reduction from the two gaijin rule it established in the late 1990s. The same reform defined “foreign” as “foreign-born,” which means that naturalized Japanese citizens are now counted as “foreign.” That’s back to the future with a vengeance. It may also be illegal.

The fan in me would like to see sumo survive. But another part of me recognizes that its problems are so severe and so pervasive that perhaps this dinosaur does not even deserve treatment. For sumo to endure in a form that is worth caring about, fundamental reform is essential. That won’t be easy, but one thing is clear: The JSA has proven itself incapable of modernizing the sport on its own.

Meaningful reform will have to be pressed upon it from the outside, by those agents of government charged with overseeing the country’s national sport, by the media, which have long been too cozy with the sport to call it properly to account, and by people like you and me, who must decide whether to watch something that, in its present form, is more farce than competition. Sumo has imperiled its own existence. It will take more than the familiar script to save it from extinction.

David T. Johnson is professor of sociology at the University of Hawaii.

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