Why can’t sumo ever seem to get a break?


Sumo is once again under attack in the domestic media — this time on the back of twin allegations. First of all, there’s the one involving seniors in the sport, known as oyakata, rubbing shoulders with the Japanese underworld and supplying choice tickets to their contacts at times. The other scandal covers some of the more famous names in the sport’s senior-most makunouchi division have been gambling on baseball — a no-no in Japan where only limited opportunities to gamble are permitted by law (horse and powerboat racing, as well as football and cycling, the prime areas for those interested in a flutter).

In the past two weeks those most closely connected to the “tickets for the yakuza” allegations have seen their world fall apart and their careers take a serious hit with Kise oyakata perhaps the worst affected; his stable having been closed and his rikishiabsorbed into another stable.

At time of writing around 60 have admitted to some degree of gambling (primarily on baseball or card games), a number of sekitori included. As a result, there have apparently been calls from within the Japanese government to suspend the Nagoya Basho next month. Voices from inside the Sumo Association and Yokozuna Deliberation Council have yet to openly comment on these calls but the condemnation by sumo officials of those who have admitted gambling of any sort deemed illegal has taken a far more serious tone than with other recent scandals involving illegal drug use and even hazing.

Whether or not gambling on baseball and card games is that big a sin in the first place is thus making for more than a few heated conversations down the pub.

As of June 16, at least one of the top-ranked rikishi — Ozeki Kotomitsuki of Sadogatake Beya — has formally admitted to gambling on baseball, and has been suspended. Gambling was something he had previously denied. To this end, his dishonesty in the face of initial gambling claims may lead to the winner of the September 2001 Autumn Basho being forced to retire. In addition to Kotomitsuki, it is thought a number of stable masters could be affected by the most recent revelation of a flaw in sumo’s make-up and at least one other oyakata has gone on record as saying his own rikishi have been known to gamble on cards. In the weeks leading up to the Nagoya Basho in July, once again we’re bound to see those with column inches trying to to bring sumo down, or at least leave it bruised ahead of shonichi.

Many of the most recent allegations in the tabloids — and police are currently speaking to several individuals in or directly linked to the Sumo Association — however, fail to take into account efforts the sumo world itself makes to keep a clean shop in light of the position in society it holds.

Each and every individual in the world of sumo knows what they can expect when they first put on a mawashi. Upon promotion to the upper ranks the media glare and public interest increases greatly and they have to live in that spotlight day in, day out, upholding standards more akin to those forced upon samurai than those enjoyed by modern-day Japanese. That these higher-than-normal standards are used to continually snipe at the sport when its members go off the rails is part and parcel of the world in which they live.

Yet, unbeknownst to most in Japan, offenders are punished from within often more harshly than from without. As for punishment on the outside, it is still unknown if the police will prosecute any of the oyakata, wrestlers or sumo hairdressers who have admitted to gambling. Even if police do not, it is likely the Sumo Association will itself impose penalties on offenders. Oyakata involved can expect some degree of demotion in status, perhaps additional workloads and the like, while a delay in promotions may blight any offenders from the ranks of the referees or hairdressers from promotion any time soon. And this could just be the tip of the iceberg.

New(ish) sumo book out in the bookstores.

Last month, Tuttle Classics released an updated version of David Benjamin’s 1992 book “The Joy of Sumo” (re)titled “A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Japan’s National Sport.” It is far from a serious guide to the sport, but that’s something it never claimed to be. Although the latest version offers more dated than truly contemporary coverage of the sport, this is one not to be missed by anyone interested in sumo.

Benjamin has taken a lot of flak from purists for his approach to the so-called national sport, but in his latest version of the book, which applied less-than-flattering nicknames to many of the stars of the late ’80s and ’90s (and reapplies them to wrestlers in the modern-era), he offers up another round of slapstick humor that should be taken as such — and nothing more. Perfect for the commute to work and to raise a smile when the scandals become a little too much, but nothing too serious.

Several of those closely connected to sumo, NHK guests on the English broadcasts at weekends, and the author of at least one other book on the sport have ridiculed Benjamin’s book in public, and have made repeated efforts to belittle the man behind the book as inexperienced and lacking knowledge. Sadly they fail to take the book in the form its writing style obviously intends: with a tongue stuffed firmly into the cheek and a pinch of salt nearby!

Several of his most ardent of critics have claimed to have a book on the sport in the works, with even “interest” from publishers, but they’ve yet to produce the goods. So for now, Benjamin shows again that in his own form, his own style, he is prepared to do more than talk the “writing a book” talk.