That any life should be lost during sport is tragic, and sumo is no exception.
Had Takashi Saito decided not to enter the world of professional sumo, he probably would still be alive today. Instead, in late June, after a particularly brutal period of butsukari-geiko (a training routine in which a senior, and usually heavier, opponent is pushed across the ring), apparently coupled with physical abuse from his elders, Saito collapsed. He was taken to a hospital where he died a few hours later. A member of Tokitsukaze Beya, one of sumo’s more prestigious heya in terms of history and sekitori output, he was known as Tokitaizan.
At least one police investigation is underway yet no concrete conclusions on accountability can be drawn from comments to date, bar the fact that Saito was physically (and probably mentally) abused. Undoubtedly maltreated, he died having endured the unendurable, all the time while under the supposed care of experienced stable master Tokitsukaze Oyakata.
Futatsuryu, as the 57-year-old Tokitsukaze was known in his active days, has now been removed from his post and relieved of his duties in the Nihon Sumo Kyokai. He was replaced by former maegashira Tokitsuumi last week and is now destined to live out his days haunted by Tokitaizan’s premature passing at age 17. Whether he lives out those days as a free man will be decided in the coming weeks, as he is still legally innocent and the police have not yet detained the former komusubi.
Articles damning sumo as a sport have subsequently appeared in a number of the world’s more prominent media outlets — and more than a few have been a bit off the mark. A piece on The Times of London’s Web site, for example, erroneously described butsukari-geiko as “a bone-crunching process in which young sumo are repeatedly charged into by their peers.”
Domestically, many publications have already joined the lynch mob as well. The question we must ask, though, is: Should sumo in its entirety be held responsible for Takashi Saito’s death?
Wasn’t sumo the cause for celebration in years past when strong yokozuna or never-say-die ozeki captured the imagination of a nation? Did anyone gripe about the physicality of training back in the day? Wasn’t it the spirit of gamman (endurance), so respected in rikishi such as yokozuna Taiho, Hawaiian sekiwake Takamiyama, the elder (ozeki) Takanohana and so many others in more recent times, that helped boost Japan from a nation devastated by war to a financial superpower in less than half a century?
One fact that must be considered is that sumo is a sport bred of a culture. It is that culture — one based for so long on obedience to seniority, unquestioned loyalty to those a rung higher — that must shoulder part of the blame for this boy’s death.
Obviously, the critics of sumo are condemning the sport as a whole because of one man’s inability to maintain discipline in his own fold. However, should the shame of one stable extend to the other 52 and the 700 men in them? Wouldn’t time be better spent reflecting on a collective inability in recent decades to put a stop to physical and mental abuse in classrooms, the workplace and in sporting teams up and down the country?
If anything positive can come of Takashi Saito’s death, it will be the reluctance of would-be bullies in sumo to act upon their desires. At this moment in time, self-administered reform is the best that could be hoped for from the ancient and still largely sealed world of sumo.
As for the former Tokitsukaze Oyakata (or Junichi Yamamoto, as he is now being called) I believe he is guilty in some way, shape or form as relates to the death of young Takashi, but that is my personal opinion. He deserves his day in court and will likely have it. Tokitsukaze’s own comments, which now include him confessing that his beer bottle made contact with Takashi’s head, appear to have sealed his fate, as have those of current and retired Tokitsukaze Beya rikishi, who have now told police they were acting under instructions. Any eventual penalty, however, is one for the judicial system to decide.
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