The violence and scandals that have plagued Japan’s sumo world came full circle just after the year’s sixth and final tournament, leaving maiden victories by the sport’s young up-and-comers in the shadows.
Revelations of violence, harassment and antiquated traditions dogged the country’s once-venerable sport in 2018 as it began its slow ascent into a new era of transparency, spearheaded by a generation of wrestlers learning to challenge the status quo and culture of the old regime.
Less than two weeks after 22-year-old komusubi Takakeisho won his first top division championship in November, Mongolian rank-and-file wrestler Takanoiwa submitted his resignation to the Japan Sumo Association for assaulting a younger stablemate.
Takanoiwa, 28, was a victim of an assault in October 2017, which sparked a feud between his then-stablemaster Takanohana and the JSA, and led to the retirement of his assailant, Harumafuji.
The former yokozuna put an end to his 17-year career after it was revealed he had struck his lower-ranked compatriot with a karaoke machine remote control during a drinking party in an attempt to teach his underling manners.
Harumafuji later admitted he “took things a bit too far” in his scolding, which resulted in Takanoiwa being hospitalized for head injuries, forced to sit out two grand tournaments and subsequently demoted to the second-tier jūryō division.
Takanoiwa, who had worked his way up to maegashira No. 6 by the Kyushu Basho in November, reportedly hit an attendant from his Chiganoura stable several times at a hotel during the winter regional tour in December.
The incident occurred just two months after the JSA issued a “declaration to eradicate violence,” a clear indication of the deep-seated issues tainting the sport which has roots going back to the Edo Period (1603-1868).
The JSA later in the month held a special 15-minute workshop for juryo wrestlers and above on how to treat attendants with instructions on rooting out violence.
The sport’s governing body suffered a string of humiliations that arose in the wake of the first Takanoiwa episode and put a damper on impressive championship runs from Tochinoshin, Mitakeumi and Takakeisho amid withdrawals throughout the year by the three remaining yokozuna.
Run-ins with the law
In January, top-ranked referee Shikimori Inosuke resigned after sexually harassing a teenage referee while intoxicated, and Egyptian Osunaarashi was involved in a vehicle collision while driving without a license. The JSA later asked the first-ever professional African sumo wrestler to resign as punishment.
The same month, Takanohana lost his JSA directorship over his handling of the Takanoiwa affair, and in March, the sumo elder’s woes continued when his juryo-division wrestler Takayoshitoshi admitted to beating a subordinate as the JSA revealed new cases of physical abuse.
As a result, the 46-year-old former yokozuna, who helped sumo gain popularity alongside his older brother Wakanohana in the 1990s, was demoted to the lowest of seven ranks within the JSA’s hierarchy.
At the beginning of April, the sport attracted attention worldwide when a referee ordered female spectators out of the ring where they had rushed in to provide emergency treatment to a city mayor from Hyogo Prefecture who suffered a stroke while giving a speech.
In a moment of panic, the referee decided to uphold the sport’s ritualistic tradition, which has Shinto origins, wherein the ring, or dohyō, is regarded as sacred and women are forbidden from entering as they are considered “unclean.”
Hakkaku, the JSA chairman, apologized for the incident, but the issue was raised again at a local exhibition later that week when Takarazuka Mayor Tomoko Nakagawa was forced to make a speech outside the ring despite seeing her male counterparts making speeches inside the dohyo.
Nakagawa asked the JSA to reconsider its longstanding policies excluding women and embrace gender equality, but the association failed to reach a resolution after an extraordinary meeting of its board of directors was held to address the discriminatory tradition. They clarified, however, that women can enter the raised ring in times of emergency as an “exception.”
The spate of scandals appeared to cool over one of Japan’s hottest summers on record, as yokozuna Kakuryu, 33, added back-to-back top division championships to his record, and 26-year-old sekiwake Mitakeumi became the first Japanese wrestler born in the Heisei Era (1989-present) to win a top division title in Nagoya after all three yokozuna had pulled out.
This summer also saw the promotion of Tochinoshin to ozeki after he racked up a combined 37 wins from three tournaments, making him the first Georgian and third European to reach the sport’s second-highest rank.
Then after falling ill and being rushed to the hospital in August, Takanohana decided to end his long-standing friction with the JSA and submitted his resignation to the association in late September, resulting in the dissolution of his stable and the transfer of his wrestlers to Chiganoura stable.
Takanohana, who submitted a letter to the Cabinet Office in March accusing the JSA of improper behavior over their handling of the Takanoiwa assault, said he had been pressured to step down after refusing to agree with the association’s conclusion that his complaint was “groundless.”
After that controversy was seemingly put to rest, 32-year-old Kisenosato, who missed a yokozuna-record eight-straight meets due to a lingering left chest muscle injury, set his sights on a third top division championship.
At September’s Autumn Basho, the only grand tournament of the year to feature all three yokozuna for the entire 15 days, Kisenosato racked up 10 wins in an inspiring comeback with his career hanging in the balance.
But after being shown up by Hakuho, 33, who earned a record-extending 41st makuuchi division championship despite competing in only two full tournaments this year, Kisenosato lost four straight bouts to open the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament, the most by a yokozuna in 87 years. His subsequent withdrawal left the tournament without a yokozuna and prompted the Yokozuna Deliberation Council to issue a notice to show its dissatisfaction with his performance.
With Kisenosato and his Mongolian colleagues battling injuries, the top spots may soon yield to the next generation of wrestlers as they attempt to compete with the attention garnered by incidents outside the dohyo.
Takakeisho, who debuted in 2014, was more than willing to take the spotlight in Kyushu during a dramatic 13-2 run that saw him beat a handful of the ring’s elite and claim his first top division title, marking the third tournament this year won by a wrestler ranked sekiwake or below.
His victory also brought the spotlight on other young dynamos vying for the sport’s elite ranks — rank-and-filers like 25-year-old Yutakayama, 24-year-old Asanoyama and 22-year-old Onosho, who gave Takakeisho a run for his money in Kyushu and finished with an 11-4 record.
Takakeisho’s moment was short-lived after the distressing news of a victim-turned-perpetrator broke earlier this month, once again exposing the sport’s inherently violent and scandalous underbelly and leaving the JSA scrambling to rebuild the sport’s tarnished image.