Asashoryu Akinori — the people’s champion?


The 2007 sumo season has drawn to a close, and no sumo fan in his or her right right mind would want to see a repeat of it.

Allegations of bout-fixing surfaced early in the year, first in Japanese tabloids and later in Japanese courts as the Sumo Association sued the finger-pointing publishers. Things got worse when Tokitaizan, a young wrestler from the Tokitsukaze Beya, died during a period of abnormally strenuous morning practice. The case is still under police investigation and convictions will likely follow next year, further tarnishing the stable and the sport.

And then, of course, we have Asashoryu, the dominant force on the dohyo over the past three or four years. The 27-year-old yokozuna handed in a sick note to sit out a regional tour, only to fly home to Mongolia and get caught on camera playing soccer. Rural fans in Japan were left without the chance to see the sport’s Numero Uno, who was subsequently banned for two tournaments. The champion fled again to Mongolia, this time with apparent depression, and his late November return to Japan was covered every inch of the way by the domestic media. But while the yokozuna’s faux pas was arguably the least serious of the year’s trio of major incidents, it has his name was in the headlines the most.

In advance of his return to the ring in January, Sumo Scribblings took to the streets to gauge public opinion of the grand champion’s escapades.

Natsue Watanabe, a school administrator in the capital from the one-time sumo production line of Ibaraki Prefecture, pinned the blame on Asa’s age and immaturity. “We should give him the opportunity to study Japanese culture again,” she said. “He is still too young (mentally) to be a yokozuna, but it looks like he has made effort along these lines.”

Watanabe’s coworker Hiroshi Hasebe, 37, of Sugamo in Tokyo, sees nothing wrong with the yokozuna’s actions. “I think he can come back,” he said. “He’s still a wrestler, and playing soccer is not illegal so he can do whatever he wants. Japanese people are sometimes too conscious of the status of sumo (in society).”

At the opposite end of the leniency scale, Katsura Matsuo, a business executive in his mid-40s, believes that “Asashoryu hasn’t properly apologized to the Japanese people.”

Misa Tatsumoto, a local government official from Tokyo’s Adachi ward, was equally unforgiving: “I don’t think he needed to come back. Asashoryu should have tried Mongolian sumo. He is strong, but he is also selfish and being a yokozuna is about more that just being strong.”

Some people suggested Asa had been failed by those around him. Sachie Ikuma, resident of Kuramae and sumo fan since childhood, said she liked Asashoryu’s character before all this “but people around him haven’t helped him maintain the honor of a yokozuna as they should,” she said.

Lena Giunta, a Japan-born French national in her mid-20s, wasn’t quite as willing to attribute blame, saying, “I think it’s OK to return, but even though he’s a yokozuna he has to respect the culture and morals of sumo.”

Lifelong sumo fan Michiko Fukuda, from Kagoshima in Kyushu, gave the sternest take. “I myself will never welcome him back as he hasn’t tried to be a member of the world of Japanese sumo in the truest sense,”she said, although she added that Japan should shoulder some of the blame: “I feel that it was our own responsibility for bringing him up as we did.”

Graphic designer Atsuko Yanagida of Itabashi Ward thinks Asa should quit “unless he changes his behavior,” but then she leaned toward a feeling shared by many of those for whom sumo is merely a sport rather than semi-religious part of the culture. She followed up her calls for him to quit with the acknowledgment that “he puts on a good show.”

Shamisen teacher Kumiya Fujimoto of Ueno in Tokyo, a young woman with a grounding in Japanese traditions, offered a more moderate view: “A yokozuna should appear in the newspaper for winning something related to sumo, not as a result of scandals.”

And in closing, a thought from Young Japan, a generation so often criticized for their tenuous grasp on Japanese traditions. “The feeling of Japanese sumo is something Asashoryu cannot understand,” said Shuto Ishiguro, a 13-year-old boy from northern Tokyo and the latest in at least three generations of sumo fans. “He should learn more (about the culture).”