SUMO BOUT FIXING: HISTORY, INCENTIVES AND THE 2010-2011 MATCH-RIGGING SCANDAL

SUMO BOUT FIXING SCANDAL

20111026-Sumo Forum zuumicake.jpg
One of the wrestlers involved
in bout-fixing in happier days
A match-fixing scandal in 2011 led to the unprecedented cancelation of the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament and the resignations of 18 wrestlers and stablemasters. The Summer tournament was reduced to 'test meeting' status with no Emperor's Cup. The association effectively expelled 25 sumo elders and wrestlers,

Match-fixing is known as yaocho in Japanese. There have been rumors of match-fixing in professional sumo for some time but until recently there has never been hard evidence to confim it. Some sumo fans have long said match-fixing was all part of the game. “It’s been going on from the old days,” 78-year-old Shintaro Ishihara, Tokyo’s governor, told the New York Times in 2011. “We should just let them trick us into enjoying it. It’s just like Kabuki theater.” [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, February 4, 2011]

Fans have long complained of matches in which one wrestler seemed to obviously put up no fight at all, leading the sumo association in 1972 to establish fines for wrestlers who engaged in what it called “deliberately spiritless sumo.” (The association stopped short of accusing wrestlers of match-fixing, however.) [Ibid]

According to a Yomiuri Shimbun editorial: “The JSA had persistently asserted, “There is no match-fixing whatsoever.” The association has established punitive steps for intentionally spiritless bouts and issued warnings to wrestlers every time their bouts were found to lack a fighting spirit. But it had never probed whether they fixed matches.”

History of Match-Fixing in Sumo

Shigetaka Mori wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Ironically, the word yaocho itself appears to come from sumo. According to Kojien and other Japanese-language dictionaries, the word stretches back to a man named Chobei who ran a vegetable store in the early Meiji era (1868-1912). Vegetable stores are called "yaoya" in Japanese, and Chobei went by the name of "Yaocho," the dictionaries say. Wanting his business to prosper, Yaocho deliberately lost when he played games of go with one of his valued clients---a sumo elder with great influence in organizing sumo tournaments. According to the dictionaries, the world yaocho eventually came to mean rigging a game.[Source: Shigetaka Mori, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 5, 2011]

In 1963, Ishihara---then a writer---wrote an essay for a sports newspaper in which he described the bout between two yokozuna on the final day of that year's autumn grand sumo tournament as nothing but a "yaocho show." In 2000, former komusubi Keisuke Sakai confessed at lecture meetings and elsewhere to having been involved in yaocho bouts. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, February 4, 2011]

Various weekly magazines have made accusations of match-fixing in last decade or so, but every time such suspicions were raised, the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) categorically denied them. The JSA even filed a civil lawsuit against one weekly that made such accusations and which the court ruled in favor of the association, saying there was no clear-cut evidence of yaocho. [Ibid]

Sumo Match-Fixing Common Practice?

According to a poll of 40 influential social and sports commentators, nearly all of them said bout fixing was a serious problem. Even so sumo authorities have not investigated the allegations of match fixing nor have Japanese newspapers pursued the stories aggressively or reported the allegations because they do not want to damage their relation with the sport.

In the book, Onatauto reported that fixed bouts were common among wrestlers, who needed points for a higher ranking, and most of the rigged matches were against opponents who had already had enough points to secure their ranking. The losers were reportedly paid between $2,000 and $8,000 to take a fall. Onaruto claimed that half the bouts in the upper division of sumo were rigged, that 29 of the 40 top tournament wrestlers had been involved in rigged matches, and that Kitanojuji, a famous wrestler in the 1970s, achieved the rank of yokozuna through rigged matches.

In 1999, a former wrestler named Keisuka Itai, who left the sport in 1991, told Time that in his day that up to 80 percent of the matches were fixed, with the winner and loser working the result of match in the locker room beforehand. "Match-fixing was kind of matter-of-fact among the wrestlers," he said. "None of us felt any guilt at all.”

Itai said he threw matches in the 1980s and insisted that famous wrestlers, including Akebono and Chiyotaikai, also threw bouts. He said, “Even the best wrestler want some insurance against losing, The fixing used to be much worse than it is now. But I can tell you by watching that they are still doing it.”

Itai said that most fixing went on the in the lower ranks and produced tapes be secretly made during sumo meetings in 1989 and 1991 that backed up his claims. He said that wrestlers who had a certain number wins or losses that meant their remaining matches were meaningless would exchange a loss for "points" to be redeemed later, or for money, around $2,000 to take a loss. Around the same time another wrestler, Takamio, said that he conspired to fix matches with Akebono. A third retired wrestler, Shikonohana, said that senior members of Japan Sumo Association's ruling body conspired to fix match when they were active wrestlers in the 1960s and 70s.

Sumo Match-Fixing Claims in the 2000s

In January 2007 the Japanese magazine Shukan Gendai ran an article by freelance journalist Yorimasa Takeda that said match-fixing in tournaments in November 2006 and January 2007 occurred. The article led readers to believe that yokozuna Asashoryu routinely paid opponents to lose. In February 2007, the Japan Sumo Association and 17 wrestlers, including Asashoryu and five ozeki, sued the magazine’s publisher, Kodansha and the writer of the article, seeking ¥460 million in damages and an apology for defaming their names.

Shukan Gendai also alleged that a championship match at major sumo tournament between yokozuna Kitanoumi and ozeki Takanohana, held in 1975, was fixed, Takanohana won the bout and the tournament. All involved denied the allegations. In a second suit, the Japan Sumo Association, headed by the same Kitaoumi, sued Kodansha in April 2007, seeking ¥110 million in damages and an apology for defaming the wrestlers named. A third suit also filed in April demanded ¥176 million in damages from Kondasha.

In September 2008, Asashoryu made an appearance in the trial against Shukan Gendai, denying the magazines allegations of match fixing. In the first every court testimony by a yokozuna, Asashoryu refuted claims by the magazine that he paid opponents ¥800,000 to allow him to win. “These are complete lies,” he said. “Each match is real.” As he glared at Takeda, the journalist who wrote the article, he said, “I am sad and disgusted.” Afterwards Takeda said of Asashoryu, “He’s a big liar. I wished he told the real story.”

A Tokyo court ordered Kondansha, the publisher of Shukan Gendai to pay the JSA ¥15 million in compensation and damages and publish a retraction on a March 2007 article on match fixing, saying “the article was base don flawed research and lacked supporting evidence.”

In September 2008, Russian sum wrestler Wakanoho, who was kicked out of sumo after being arrested for possessing marijuana, said, “The current sumo world is dirty...I was forced to play unfair matches in return for money as soon as I entered” the highest sum ranks. “My stable master and others knew [about bout-fixing] but nobody stepped in because they had also been playing unfair matches themselves.”

In an interview published in Shukan Gendai. Wakanoho accused Bulgarian wrestler Kotooshu of buying wins. Wakanoho said Kotooshu approached him three times, offering him money to throw bouts and threatening him if he didn’t. “We’re both Europeans,” Kotooshu reportedly told Wakanoho. “If you do this for me. I’ll never forget it. I will give you ¥1 millon. I’m okay with even ¥1.5 million. Please help...You have scruples, but you will get used to this. The sumo world may look good from the outside, but inside it’s different. So don’t worry.”

Wakanoho said, “the current sumo world isn’t a professional sport. It’s a show, a circus. Some mafia-like wrestlers control winners and losers by fixing bouts.” he said he threw bouts to Kotooshu in tournaments in May 2008---when Kotooshu won the Emperor’s Cup---and in July. Wakanoho said he received a box containing ¥1 million in cash after the May victory and Kotooshu gave him another ¥1 million on the street before the July tournament. Kotooshu denied the charges.

Wakanoho later said the statements he made about match-fixing and bribes were a lie and that he said them after being offered money in cash from a man.

In December 2010 there was talk that Hakuho’s stablemaster Miyagino would be demoted in for having confessed to match fixing to a female acquaintance, as reported by a weekly tabloid in 2007. The JSA won a defamation suit a month before against Shukan Gendai over the article in question from 2007. The magazine alleged that Miyagino confessed to an unidentified woman that he approached wrestlers, including former yokozuna Asashoryu and Hakuho about rigging bouts. The conversation between Miyagino, a former juryo wrestler called Kanechika, had been recorded on tape but he claims that the content was a fabrication. [Source: Kyodo, December 30, 2010]

Sumo Bout Fixing, the Law and Other Sports

Shigetaka Mori wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “According to the National Police Agency, jockeys, cyclists and others involved in activities subject to government-run gambling are liable for criminal penalties if they fix races in return for money. Those who engage in yaocho (match fixing) in sumo and other sports, however, are not subject to criminal charges unless they gamble on the results of the games, the NPA said.”

The JSA has an internal regulation providing for disciplinary measures against what it calls a "torpid bout," a bout lacking in fighting spirit. The language used in the regulation seems to ignore the possibility of yaocho.

The Nippon Professional Baseball agreement contains a provision that prohibits players from intentionally losing games. Any player or person found to have rigged a game are permanently disqualified from any further involvement in baseball. In the so-called black mist incident that took place in professional baseball in 1969'several pitchers were found to have accepted bribes in exchange for assisting in gambling on pro baseball games. They were expelled from professional baseball, although one was later reinstated.

The J.League stipulates that players and other team members must not get involved in any wrongdoing that could affect the outcome of a soccer match. An executive of the prestigious Juventus team in Italy's Serie A soccer league was found in 2006 to have asked a league official to assign referees in a way advantageous to his team. Juventus was demoted as a result and subject to other punitive measures.

Incentives to Rig Sumo Bouts

Journalists who have long covered sumo say lower-ranked juryo wrestlers are the most prone to rigging bouts because demotion from juryo cast them back into a near amateur sumo league. “Compared with Juryo wrestlers whose monthly pay can amount to more than one million yen (about $12,200), those who are demoted to lower rungs receive almost no salary, Hiroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times. “They say that in the chummy world of sumo, where young wrestlers train alongside one another from an early age, the big difference in salaries between the various leagues creates a strong incentive for collusion and match-fixing.”

John Gunning, author of the Daily Yomiuri column Inside Grip, called the sumo world a “feudal system that pays no salary to nine out of 10 of them.” Wrestlers below the juryo division get a monthly stipend of about ¥60,000 ($700)---about five percent of the $12,000 a month a juryo division wrestler makes.

“Sumo holds up the “Heaven and Hell” distinction between juryo and makushita as the ultimate motivating factor for rikishi,” Gunning wrote. “However, many wrestlers get married, have children and take out a mortgage when they become sekitori. It's unrealistic to expect them to take a 97 percent cut in salary and go back to sharing a room with 20 other wrestlers if they drop down in rank.

Studies and Statistical Evidence on Sumo Match- Fixing

Some intellectuals have argued that yaocho bouts are just part of sumo and their existence should be no surprise based on the organization of the sumo world as a grouping of peers and the sport's unique history. Among them is Yoshihiro Oinuma, a professor of sports sociology at Tokai University who wrote a book titled Studies of the Sumo Community . "There's a phrase widely known in the sumo world: 'ninjo-zumo' (sympathy bout), which means losing on purpose out of sympathy for the opponent's circumstances," Oinuma said. "I wouldn't be surprised to learn there have been yaocho fights." [Source: Shigetaka Mori, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 5, 2011]

In their 2005 book, Freakonomics , Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner said statistical analysis suggested that match-fixing was rampant in the sport. The authors studied outcomes of the final match, particularly when wrestlers who had seven victories and seven losses, and needed an eighth victory to avoid demotion, were pitted against wrestlers who had already won eight bouts. They found that in these bouts, the wrestler with only seven victories beat his opponent 80 percent of the time. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, February 4, 2011]

Based on these statistics, the authors concluded that wrestlers who had already avoided demotion by winning eight bouts routinely colluded with those who had 7-7 records and let them win, presumably in the hope that the favor would be returned in the future. In a sumo tournament, wrestlers in top divisions fight 15 matches and are demoted to lower ranks if they do not win at least 8 of them.

2010-2011 Sumo Bout Rigging Scandal

In January 2011 hard evidence of bout-fixing emerged in the form of text messages between wrestlers that they fixed a bout discovered by police on cell phones seized during an investigation into illegal gambling by wrestlers on baseball. Among the total of 28 juryo division wrestlers (the second highest division in sumo) 10 were implicated in the scandal. [Source: Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, February 4, 2011]

In a sumo bout that took place in May 2010 two wrestlers fought at each other at the ring’s edge, before one sent the other crashing to the dirt with an the over-arm throw. In a text message exchange between the two wrestlers the previous day---leaked to local news media and published by the daily newspaper Mainichi Shimbun---one of the wrestlers, Kiyoseumi, wrote: “Please hit hard at the face-off, then go with the flow. “Understood,” Kasuganishiki, his opponent in the following day’s match, quickly replied. “I’ll go with the flow and put up at least a little resistance.” [Ibid]

An investigation by police found text messages on confiscated cellphones that link as many as 13 wrestlers in match-fixing schemes, Japan’s sumo association said. Two wrestlers---Chiyohakuho and Enatsukasa, both in the juryo dividion---and a coach and former wrestler---Takenawa, who wrestled under the name Kasuganishiki and just retired in January 2011--- admitted to fixing bouts.

Many felt this was just the tip of the iceberg. Sports journalist Seijun Ninomiya told the Yomiuri Shimbun: "I can't help but think that match-fixing very likely occurred. It's natural to believe that there are more cases than we know about." No criminal charges were made as there are no laws banning match fixing and there was no evidence anyone gambled on the bouts or gangsters were involved.

Cell Phone Conversations and Sumo Match Fixing

The match-fixing scandal was brought to light after investigative authorities analyzed data left on about 50 cell phones seized from wrestlers during a separate probe into a baseball gambling scandal in 2010. The police succeeded in restoring e-mail messages deleted from the mobile phones, including those exchanged among wrestlers implicated in the bout-rigging case. In reference to messages a senior police officer said: "The text messages explain everything. We're astonished by how naturally and directly” they refer to the match-fixing. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 4, 2011]

Police said wrestlers Enatsukasa, Chiyohakuho, Kasuganishiki and Kiyoseumi exchanged mails that implied fixing matches and exchanging money over wins was a mundane occurrence. A March 17 text message from Kasuganishiki to Enatsukasa said, "Who do I owe a win now? Koryu and Yamamotoyama are the only ones who owe me, right?" On May 12, Enatsukasa wrote Kasuganishiki saying, "To finish, it's best to grab [your opponent's] right side and force him out or do an arm throw." According to transcripts of the text messages, the wrestlers appear to have charged one another thousands of dollars per match to fix bouts. In other cases, they seemed to trade victories and losses, with no money involved.

The subject of money was discussed openly and frankly. "Would you let me win at the next tournament?" Kiyoseumi asked Kasuganishiki on May 23. "If not, I want the 200,000 back." This message implies that 200,000 yen was handed over in advance of fixing a match, and the sender demanded its return if they could not agree on how to handle the next tournament. The wrestler who answered back said, “Sure thing! Could you wait a little? I need to make a payment of 700,000 after this tournament so let me get back to you after that.” In another message one wrestler said, “I’ll bump you straight-on today” and “20, 30, 50, 75"---probably a reference to money.” Some of the messages had been erased and deleted from cell phones but later retrieved by investigators.

Kiyoseumi and Kasuganishiki occupy the juryo division of sumo, below the top-ranked players. Kiyoseumi, the wrestler who won the suspicious bout, had been on the brink of demotion in the May tournament after a disastrous showing at a previous meet in March. The two wrestlers who admitted to fixing bouts, Chiyohakuho and Enatsukasa, were in the juryo division.

Investigation of the Sumo Match-Fixing Scandal

A seven-member special investigation panel, consisting of four lawyers and three other outsiders, was given the task of uncovering the truth behind the scandal. The panel, headed by Waseda University professor Shigeru Ito, conducted a questionnaire survey of all wrestlers and other JSA members concerning their involvement in the match-fixing scandal.

Wrestlers suspected of being involved in match rigging were asked to voluntarily submit their cell phones and bankbooks. Many wrestlers refused to turn over their cell phones, saying they lost them or they were “submerged in water by accident.”

According to police authorities and private companies experienced in analyzing electronic data, even if deleted, cell phone e-mail data remains in binary format in the handsets' memories.This is known as data remanence. Thus, even if the handsets are ruined or immersed in water, data can still be recovered unless the phone's memory chips are destroyed. However, the conditions required to recover such data differ depending on how often each cell phone was used and its data-storage capacities. Furthermore, the data can be completely overwritten. "Until the work [checking the memory chips] is actually done, it's unknown whether any analysis can be made," a police source said. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, February 9, 2011]

Juryo division wrestlers Enatsukasa and Chiyohakuho and coach Takenawa (a former wrestler who wrestled under the name Kasuganishiki) were the only ones who admitted to bout fixing. Text messages implying their involvement in match fixing were found on their cell phones. Other than the text messages the only other real evidence the investigators had was testimony from sumo figures such as Enatsukasa, Chiyohakuho and Takenawa who cooperated to some degree with investigators.

A Yomiuri Shimbun editorial read: “We have doubts about the accuracy and exhaustiveness of the JSA investigation. Only three wrestlers "confessed" to the panel and they had already admitted involvement in throwing bouts just after the scandal surfaced. The panel failed to unearth many nuggets of hard evidence other than text messages from several wrestlers' mobile phones implying bout winners had been prearranged.”

“As a result, the investigation panel had no option but to weigh the three wrestlers' testimonies against bout results that appeared dubious as they tried to determine whether they had been fixed. The punishments will be hard to swallow for wrestlers who have been penalized despite denying any role in the scandal. The JSA says it will continue investigating the problem. But as long as the panel has no binding power, it will be extremely difficult to get to the bottom of bout-fixing in sumo.”

Hakuho, sumo’s only yokozuna and the sport’s highest ranked wrestler, publically apologized on behalf of all wrestlers. When asked if had ever been involved in bout-rigging he replied: “The only answer I can give is “no,” isn’t it?” One of Hahuko’s attendants was questioned by investigators after he was named by a magzine as being a go-between in match-fixing by wrestlers in the yokozuna and ozeki ranks.

Punished Wrestlers and Sumo Seniors

As of early April 2011, 25 wrestlers and coaches---including seven top-tier makuuchi division wrestlers and 10 second-tier juryo wrestlers---had been expelled from sumo for their involvement in match-fixing scandal. Most of them submitted resignations before being sacked, which allows them to keep their severance benefits, but were effectively kicked out of the sport permanently.

Initially 21 wrestlers---including six top-tier makuuchi division wrestlers, eight second-tier juryo wrestlers and, four makushita wrestlers and one sandanme wrestler “and two coaches were punished with penalties, including "a recommendation to voluntarily retire" and two-year suspensions from sumo tournaments. No wrestlers in the three ranks below yokozuna of the makuuchi division were among the 23 slapped with disciplinary action. Seventeen oyakata (sumo elders)---including stablemasters---belonging to stables with tainted wrestlers also were punished for failing to properly manage the wrestlers under them.

Top-tier makuuchi division wrestlers forced out were Kotokasuga, Tokusegawa, Koryu, Hakuba, Kasugao (a South Korean) and Mokonami (a Mongolian). The juryo wrestlers that were forced to resign were Yamamotoyama, Kyokunankai, Shirononami, Kirnowaka, Sakaizawa and Wakatenro. Three stablmasters Kitanoumi, Kokonoe and Michinoku quit over their involvement in the scandal.

Stablemaster Takenawa and juryo division wrestlers Enatsukasa and Chiyohakuho got off with a two-year suspensions---apparently because they confessed and cooperated with JSA investigators---but Enatsukasa and Chiyohakuho resigned anyway. Enatsukasa, who allegedly acted as a go-between in the schemes, is said to have cooperated with the panel's investigation. "I was given a two-year suspension from sumo tournaments, but I've decided to retire as I caused a lot of problems for everyone," Enatsukasa said. He then distributed a paper to reporters, which said, "I was not able to resist sekitori [wrestlers in the juryo and makuuchi divisions] and consented to act as a go-between for sumo bouts that were devoid of fighting spirit."

An NHK television reporter was suspended for three months for tipping off sumo stablemaster Tokitsukaze in October 2010 by e-mail that his sumo stables were about to be searched.

Wrestlers and Sumo Seniors Angry Over Their Punishment

Stablemaster Tanigawa was the only one of those punished who went down fighting. He claimed he was innocent and said he could not accept punishment for a crime he did not commit. “In 14 years as a wrestler, I never once was involved in match-fixing...I wrestled hard for 14 years," Tanigawa said. "But [the JSA] gave me a punishment based on an inaccurate investigation. That's nonsense. I will take legal action," he said. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, April 3, 2011]

The paper given to sumo elder Tanigawa, formerly komusubi Kaiho, 37, contained this message: "You intentionally had sumo bouts lacking fighting spirit with Kasuganishiki on the 13th day of the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament in 2010 and the seventh day of the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in 2010." Papers given to other wrestlers made similar accusations. One wrestler angrily showed the paper to reporters and said, "[The reason for the punishment] was only something of this [trivial] level."

Popular wrestler Yamamotoyama brought his anger out in the open and said, "The JSA made up its mind from the start that I cheated without listening to me carefully." Many of the wrestlers said they were not given satisfactory explanations as to why the JSA decided they had done wrong. "If the case were to be brought into court, we're not sure we could win it," a member of the panel said.

Wakatenro ultimately resigned but before he did he denied being involved in match fixing and said the JSA’s tactic of getting suspects to take forced retirement in return for severance benefits was veiled bribery. "The rumor going around is that they want to fire all 14 people and draw a line to the investigation," Wakatenro said. "But how can you pay people into confessing?...If you're going to be forced to quit one way or another, then of course you're going to want to do it with several million yen in your pocket. What that means then is that you may get people who really weren't part of the scam, but may feel pressed to say they have just for the money."

Fall Out of the Sumo Bout Rigging Scandal

Japan’s Prime Minister Naoto Kan said he was angered by the scandal. “If it is true, it is a very serious betrayal of the people,” he said. “It is as if the heavens and the earth have been turned upside down,” said Hanaregoma, chairman of the JSA. “I am very sorry.” Two television networks said they were withdrawing their sponsorship of competitions. Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, said it would cancel live coverage of that tournament.

Some government officials said sumo might lose its status as a national sport, a status that has given it government backing, tax exemptions and guaranteed coverage by NHK. According to a Yomiuri Shimbun editorial: “Match-fixing flatly contradicts any claim that sumo is a real fighting sport. It also represents a betrayal of the fans, who expect to see hard-fought bouts...If sumo becomes suspect, it does not deserve the claim of being the national sport.” Sports journalist Seijun Ninomiya told the Yomiuri Shimbun the scandal was “a desecration of the national sport.”

Former Daily Yomiuri sumo writer James Hardy, who often wrote on the disconnect between the perception and reality of sumo, said those who follow the sport "like it because it embodies intangible notions of honor and stoic self-sacrifice” but “if the viewing public decides that sumo has no right to claim these values, then it just becomes pro wrestling with Meiji era haircuts and pretty historical clothing."

In the last three grand sumo tourneys in 2011 there were only eight days total in which seats were sold out, even fewer than the 12 days in the three corresponding tourneys in 2010, which were overshadowed by another scandal involving sumo wrestlers gambling on professional baseball games. It is estimated the Japan Sumo Association lost $160 million as a result of the match-fixing scandal, with the losses occurring as result of lost revenues earned from the tournaments, regional tours, and commercials featuring sumo wrestlers. Sponsorships were withdrawn. Some local organizations that had made arrangements for regional tournaments that were canceled demanded compensation.

In February 2012, Kyodo reported: “Sumo is in its worst financial crisis ever after ringing up a debt of nearly ¥4.9 billion last year, the Japan Sumo Association announced. "We're in an extremely difficult situation," JSA Chairman Kitanoumi said. "We need to face up to reality and work to regain the faith of the public." In 2011, the JSA scrapped the spring tournament in March in light of the match-fixing scandal and made admission free at the May Basho, turning it into a technical examination meet. After scrapping all tours and being hurt by declining crowds and less TV money, sumo's operating revenue dropped by ¥2.98 billion from the previous year to ¥5.44 billion. [Source: Kyodo, February 22, 2012]

Tournaments After Wrestlers After the Sumo Bout Rigging Scandal

The Spring Grand Sumo Tournament held in Osaka in March 2011 was cancelled. It was the first cancellation of a grand tournament since 1946, when a basho was canceled due to a delay in repair work in a sumo arena amid postwar upheaval, and was the first time one was canceled due to a scandal. JSA Chairman Hanaregoma told a news conference, "We cannot show sumo matches on the dohyo ring until we can eliminate the pus [from the sport]. Among the reasons for the cancellation, the JSA said it would otherwise be impossible to obtain the understanding of fans and it would take time to conduct investigations of accused current and former wrestlers involved in the scandal. Regional tours and events, which are big money makers for sumo, were cancelled for the entire year.

The Summer Grand Sumo Tournament held in Tokyo in May was altered and not nationally televised. Called the “May Technical Examination Tournament, it was held considered a trial competition whose purpose was to decide the rankings for the next tournament, in Nagoya. It began with the top wrestlers assembled in the ring making a bow of apology. Many thought the whole thing was poorly thought out and a bit of a travesty. For example 60,000 free tickets that were snapped up online in 15 minutes quickly reappeared for sale on Internet auction sites. No awards were given. During the matches the arena was darker than usual to conserve electricity and popular foods such as yakitori and chanko were not available.

The Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament held in July was held under normal circumstances. The main difference is that there were a lot of new faces. In May, Kyodo reported: “A record number of sumo wrestlers will be promoted to juryo for the Nagoya tournament to make up for the loss of wrestlers who were banned in April for their involvement in bout-rigging.” [Source: Kyodo, May 27, 2011]

“In a May meeting the JSA decided on the promotion of 13 wrestlers from makushita to juryo--the highest number since the end of World War II. And for the first time since 1945, wrestlers with "makekoshi" or a losing record--having lost more than half of all their bouts in the last tournament--have been promoted. The mass promotions are a direct result of the banning of seven makuuchi wrestlers, and 10 juryo wrestlers due to their suspected involvement in match-fixing. Usually, only a few wrestlers are promoted to juryo at a time. Of the 26 juryo who will be competing at the next grand sumo tournament, half will have been promoted from the makushita division. For seven of the 13 wrestlers it will be the first time they have been promoted.” Among these is Takanoyama, the first sekitori from the Czech Republic. He waited 10 years for the promotion. "Ten years is a long period, but it was worth the wait," Takanoyama said. "I'll keep on going aggressively to have good results in the next tournament."

Unfairness of the Match-Fixing Punishments and Lake of Transparency in the JSA

John Gunning, author of the Daily Yomiuri column Inside Grip, wrote: “The JSA has to become much more candid in its rules and disciplinary procedures. Wakanoho was fired for drug use, yet at the time that wasn't against the associations rules. Kotomitsuki was dismissed despite the JSA previously saying it would be lenient. The JSA's ad hoc approach to crime and punishment, imposed upon wrestlers trying to fit modern lives into an antiquated system, has directly fueled the scandals of recent years. It's vague, reluctant and uncommunicative response to those scandals has only served to alienate fans and the press.”

According to a Yomiuri Shimbun editorial many fans still harbour suspicions that wrestlers other than those who were expelled were involved in bout-fixing. On the match-fixing scandal, nonfiction writer Nagisa Osada said, "The Japan Sumo Association must consider the future of the sport. It's not enough to punish suspected wrestlers, as if they are sacrificing the weak to save themselves."

Fifty-eight-year-old Kitanoumi, who resigned from the post in disgrace in 2008 in the wake of a scandal, became the first in the history of the sport to return to the governing body's top spot. He replaced Hanaregoma, who stepped down as part of the JSA board reshuffle before reaching the retirement age of 65 in February 2013. Kitanoumi is the 12th JSA chairman and the first one to hold the position for a second time. [Source: Kyodo, January 31, 2012]

Previously, Kitanoumi was the ninth JSA chief. He assumed the post in February 2002 and resigned in September 2008 to take the blame for a series of marijuana scandals that ended in the dismissals of three Russian wrestlers and one Japanese wrestler. In April 2011, Kitanoumi dropped out of the JSA executive board after juryo wrestler Kiyoseumi, who belonged to his stable, was found to have been involved in match fixing. [Ibid]

Takanohana Leads Push to Win Back Fans

Kazuari Hirayama wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Just as he piled up wins as one of the most popular wrestlers in sumo history, sumo elder Takanohana is now winning back fans to a sport trying to clean up its image. From personally greeting fans at the door to meeting with local government leaders, Takanohana took an active role in promoting the Spring Grand Tournament, currently underway at Osaka Prefectural Gym. A year ago, the Spring tournament was canceled in the wake of a match-fixing scandal, the latest in a line of shameful incidents to batter the sport. It marked the first time a basho had been called off since 1946, when the main arena in Tokyo was being renovated. [Source: Kazuari Hirayama Yomiuri Shimbun, March 23, 2012]

As the tournament director this year, the 39-year-old Takanohana took it upon himself to come up with ways to win back fans whose loyalty was put in jeopardy. From the opening day on March 11, Takanohana has become the "face" of the tournament, stationing himself at the entrance to the arena, where he always attracts a large crowd and patiently poses for photos and signs autographs. He intends to continue up to the final day. [Ibid]

But the former yokozuna's activities started well before the action began on the raised ring. Takanohana met with Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto to enlist his help in promoting the lone grand tournament held in the Kansai region. He also found other venues to help the cause, including appearing on stage at a theater of the popular Yoshimoto comedy troupe, and dishing out samples of chanko-nabe, the traditional sumo stew, to fans at a Gamba Osaka soccer match.Taking advantage of his own name value, he even helped personally sell expensive ringside "masu" box seats. [Ibid]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, Daily Yomiuri, Japan Times, Mainichi Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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