The departure of Takanohana from the Japan Sumo Association is a tremendous loss for both the professional sumo community and fans of the sport that should not have been allowed to happen. It means the exit from the world of professional sumo for a legendary former yokozuna with an illustrious career of 22 Emperor’s Cup wins whose presence in the ring, along with his elder brother Wakanohana, marked an era of heightened popularity for the sport. However, the stablemaster had became increasingly isolated within the governing body as he called for reform of sumo.
What triggered the confrontation between Takanohana and the JSA is said to have been the incident last fall in which a wrestler in Takanohana’s stable was beaten up by then-yokozuna Harumafuji during a drinking session also attended by other wrestlers. The JSA faulted Takanohana for not reporting the incident to the association and instead filing a criminal complaint with police over the violent behavior of Harumafuji, who was eventually forced into retiring from sumo over the case. Takanohana was also faulted for failing to cooperate with the association’s own probe into the incident and refusing to let the JSA’s crisis-control committee interview the injured wrestler. In January, Takanohana was relieved as director of the association for dereliction of duty in his position over the incident.
Then in March, Takanohana filed a letter of accusation with a Cabinet Office committee tasked with certifying public interest organizations, saying that the JSA’s handling of the Harumafuji incident was inappropriate and asking for corrective measures. The JSA was certified by the committee as a public interest incorporated foundation, eligible for preferential tax treatment, in 2014. Although the letter was withdrawn a few weeks later by the stablemaster, following revelations that another wrestler from the Takanohana stable had violently attacked his attendant, the rift between Takanohana and the JSA only deepened.
During a news conference last Tuesday announcing that he had tendered his resignation to the JSA, Takanohana claimed that he was being pressured by the sumo association to quit as stablemaster unless he acknowledged that his charges against the JSA in the accusation letter to the Cabinet Office were “groundless.” He said he “could not bend the truth” and that he made the decision to quit to protect the future of the disciples in his stable.
The JSA has denied that it placed any such pressures on Takanohana. It remains unclear what actually transpired between the sumo elders in the association and the 46-year-old stablemaster. However, there are views that a new rule adopted by the JSA’s board of directors in July — that all stablemasters and the wrestlers in their stables must join any of the five existing clans (a group of multiple stables) by the end of September — was in fact intended to push Takanohana into a corner because he had just disbanded his own clan to take responsibility for his recent spat with the JSA and no other appeared ready to take in his stable due to his dispute with the association.
Whatever the truth behind the standoff between Takanohana and the JSA, it seems clear the stablemaster and the association’s leaders harbored a deep-seated mistrust of each other — and that they did not appear to have made any attempt to resolve their differences. There are no signs that JSA Chairman Hakkaku (former yokozuna Hokutoumi) and Takanohana held any talks over the past several months to prevent their division from deepening further. And the end result was something that most sumo fans would not have wanted.
After retiring from his 1988-2003 career in the ring, Takanohana as a stablemaster was not the type to build alliances or pursue harmony with others in the inner workings of the sumo association. The isolation of the former yokozuna who was calling for reform of the sumo world deepened as his relations with the JSA worsened while the Harumafuji incident dragged on. He may have been at least partly at fault for his isolation and the rift with the JSA, but the association should also reflect on why Takanohana had to quit.
The recent series of scandals affecting sports governing bodies has been marked by revelations of the organizations being run by a closed circle of top leaders under nontransparent and rigid rules that reject diverse views and opinions. Given its status as a public interest foundation that governs the professional competition of the nation’s traditional sport, the JSA must be transparent and accountable. Takanohana’s departure should prompt the association to once again review its operation.