Kotomitsuki, on the right
In 2010, sumo was dealt yet a another blow when ozeki Kotomitsuki admitted he had gambled on professional baseball games and then paid hush money to gangsters, opening the way to an investigation that revealed that dozens of wrestlers and stable personnel were involved with some having ties to gangsters.

Twenty-nine sumo wrestlers and senior personnel, including stablemasters, confessed to illegal gambling on baseball. In the most publicized case a bookmaker with ties to the yakuza guru Yamaguchi-gumi decided the odds for baseball games and passed them on to a low-ranked wrestler and a topknot hairdresser who served as middlemen for wrestlers and other sumo figures making bets. Thirty-six other people from the sumo world, including wrestlers, were found to have engaged in other forms of illegal gambling such as on games of mahjongg and the card game hanafuda.

The JSA had hoped to sweep the issue under the rug by reprimanding the involved wrestlers and handling the issue internally. But the Ministry of Education, sumo’s government sponsor, stepped in demanding an investigation. There was also intense coverage in the media.

Kotomitsuki and Gambling on Baseball

The baseball gambling scandal broke — although rumors of its existence had circulated for some time — when a weekly magazine released an article about the illegal gambling of Kotomitsuki, a popular wrestler and ozeki from Nagoya. Kotomitsuki initially denied the allegations but came clean when other wrestlers admitted their involvement in baseball gambling.

The series of events that led to the disclosure began when Kotomitsuki tried to collect ¥5 million in winning from a makushita division wrestler of the Onomatsu stable, who was the younger brother of Mitsutomo Furuichi, a former low-ranking wrestler and self-described former gang member. Furuichi responded by threatening to expose the ozeki’s gambling, demanding ¥3.5 million in hush money. It was reportedly common practice when a sumo wrestler won big for gangsters to threaten to reveal his gambling if he tried to collect the money.

Using a tokoyama topknot hairdresser as an intermediary Furichi allegedly told Kotomitsuki, “Everybody knows you’ve been gambling in baseball. If the media and police find out, you’ll be ruined.” Furichi called and sent e-mails to Kotomitsuki demanding the money. Kotomitsuki reportedly paid the ¥3.5 million by giving the money to the hairdresser who gave it to Furichi in front of Kotomitsuki’s stable.

In March 2010, two yakuza demanded ¥100 million (more than $1 million) from Kotomitsuki, saying they would expose the names and photographs of sumo wrestlers and elders who had been gambling during the previous four or five years, if he did not what they demanded. Kotomitsuki refused to give in to their threats. Before this matter was resolved the scandal broke.

Kotomitsuki’s fans were obviously disappointed. A member of support group for the wrestler based in his hometown of Okazaki told the Yomiuri Shimbun, said, “We’ve supported him sincerely, both emotionally and financially. I’m sad, beyond angry.”

Sumo Wrestlers Punished over Baseball Gambling Scandal

Kotomitsuki received a lifetime ban from sumo for gambling on professional baseball. The first ozeki to be kicked out of the sport, he was given the boot, the JSA said, not only for his gambling but because he lied in parts of his testimony to the JSA. Kotomitsuki didn’t get the worst punishment. He was allowed to get his retirement money (the worst punishment is being thrown out without retirement money). Kotomitsuki felt his punishment was unfairly harsh.Other wrestlers who essentially did the same things he did but came clean got off with relative slaps on the wrist, having only to sit out one tournament. In April 2011, Kotomitsuki sued the JSA for wrongful dismissal, seeking to reinstated into sumo.

Thirteen other wrestlers’six from the top makuuchi division, five from the juryo division and two from the makshita division — were suspended from one tournament (the Nagoya basho in July 2010) for illegally betting in baseball. The six makuuchi wrestlers were Toyonoshima, Miyabiyama, Toyohibiki, Goeido, Okinoumi and Yakakoyu. With the exception of Kotomitsuki no ozekis, or yokozuna, were involved nor were any Mongolians or other foreigners linked with the gambling scandal.

Kotomitsuki stablemaster Otake — former sekiwake wrestler Takatoriki — was kicked out of sumo without retirement money because he was involved in gambling and reportedly knew that organized crime had links to a bookmaker he was in contact with. Otake admitted to police that he placed bets on baseball games. Associates said he had been gambling on the sport for some time and bet tens of millions of yen, far more than others implicated in the scandal. At the time he resigned he owed ¥25 million in gambling debts. Stablemaster Tokitsukaze was demoted. He bet on baseball when he was a wrestler and is believed to have bet with his wrestlers as a stablemaster.

Wrestlers in the stable of Musashigawa, chairman of the JSA, were involved in the baseball gambling. Musashigawa — formerly the yokozuna Mienoumi — was suspended from duty during the Nagoya tournament, He resigned as JSA chairman. Three other JSA board members and stablemasters — Dewanoumi, Kokonoe and Michinoku — were also disciplined because wrestlers in their stables were involved in baseball gambling.

Investigation of Sumo Baseball Gambling Scandal

Police raided and searched sumo stables and lodging places for sumo wrestlers in Tokyo and Nagoya to search for evidence. Lockers and bedrooms were checked and cell phones were seized and their call and e-mail histories were analyzed. Investigators were trying to get handle in how often bets were made, how much money was involved, how the bets and pay outs were made and who was involved, with a focus in uncovering gangster connections. A number of wrestlers deleted their calls and got new handsets to hide their activities.

One of the stables implicated in the gambling scandal was the Tokitsukaze stable, the same one that was connected to the death of 17-year-old wrestler Takashi Saito. Before his death his father told the Yomiuri Shimbun the wrestler said, “I saw several people in the stable room gambling with in bundle of notes worth ¥2 million to ¥3 million.

Impact on Sumo of Baseball Gambling Scandal

Several stables were ordered to suspend activities, There were concerns that stable run by Otake might close because of having difficulty finding a replacement for Otake. The stable was founded by legendary yokozuna Taiho and the husband of Taiho’s daughter.

Live television coverage of the 2010 Nagoya summer sumo tournament was cancelled (taped highlights were shown later) and no Emperor’s Cup was given. It was the first time NHK dropped live broadcasts of sumo since it began the service on television in 1953.The arena where the event was held was full on a couple of weekend days but was half empty on some of the other days. Some thought the tournament should have been canceled.

Because so many wrestlers were suspended for gambling an usually high number of lower-ranked wrestlers were promoted to the top two divisions. Sponsors such as instant noodle maker Nagatanien, which provides ¥12 million in prize money, and Fuji Xerox, which runs ads with yokozuna Hakuho, said they were considering pulling out of sumo. Prize money fell off sharply. Some ticket sellers said if things didn’t improve they might go out of business. One surprising thing though was the television rating for NHK’s sumo digest in the Tokyo area were higher than they were for tournaments in the past.

Fans were upset. One Tokyo homemaker told the Yomiuri Shimbun , “I thought the [gambling] issue was over, but new problems keep appearing. I feel like I’ve been betrayed.” Some wrestlers said the were rattled in the tournament. One juryo wrestler in the Omonamtsu — which had eight suspended wrestlers — lost his first nine matches in the Nagoya basho. He said, “I lost because I wasn’t strong enough. I couldn’t practice properly” before the tournament.

Gangsters Arrested in the Sumo Baseball Gambling Scandal

In July 210, former sumo wrestler Mitsumomo Furuichi was arrested on extortion charges for allegedly extorting ¥3.5 million in hush money from Kotomitsuki by threatening to leak the wrestlers participation in illegal gambling on baseball games if he didn’t forfeit the money.

In August 2010, four members of Yamaguchi-gum crime syndicate were arrested for extorting millions of yen in hush money from an unnamed sumo wrestler in the Onomatsu stable. They were: Furuichi, arrested again on the new charges; Yoshihiko Yasuda, a senior gang member based in Fukuoka; Satohiro Mantani, a senior gang member based in Osaka; and Katsuhito, a member of the same gang.

In trial that started September 2010, Furuichi pleaded guilty to charges of trying to extort ¥3.5 million from Kotomitsuki. He pleaded not guilty to charges of extorting ¥3 million from another wrestler. Furuichi’s co-defendant in both cases, Yasada, pleaded not guilty in both cases.

In January 2011, four people, including three former wrestlers, were arrested on charges of operating or assisting in a gambling ring. Arrested were Sadahide Furuichi, 34, former wrestler in the second-tier juryo division; Tetsuya Yabushita, 29, a former makushita lower division wrestler; Shunsaku Yamamoto, 35, former makushita division wrestler; and Furuichi's mother Yoneko, 63. All three former wrestlers belonged to the Onomatsu sumo stable. According to investigation sources, Sadahide and Yoneko are suspected of taking bets on professional interleague baseball games on May 15, collecting a total of ¥230,000 from three people, including sumo wrestlers. Yabushita and Yamamoto are suspected of soliciting bets on baseball games in April and May 2009, collecting a total of ¥1.08 million from six people, including sumo wrestlers. In October 2011, Mitsutomo Furuichi was sentenced to 4 ½ year in prison for extortion.

Sumo Wrestlers and Gangsters

The baseball gambling scandal revealed the degree to which organized crime had infiltrated sumo. It has been long known that tanimachi, the financial supporters of the stables, sometimes had ties with gangsters and there have been rumors of criminal organizations being involved in sumo events such as local tournaments.

The depth of ties between gangsters and the sumo world is not known. In May 2010 it was disclosed that front-row seats usually reserved for people that make large contributions to the JSA were offered to gangsters at some tournaments. Some of the stablemasters that initially denied knowing anything about how gangsters got ring side tickets later admitted they socialized occasionally with gangsters, One former wrestler told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “I visited the office [of Yamaguchi-gumi] several times when I was a wrestler and had meals” with gang members. Several stablemasters were demoted for providing gangsters with tickets to tournaments. Some of them denied knowing that tickets given out by their stables ended up in the hands of gangsters.

In July 2010, it was revealed that stablemaster Matsugane used a building rented from gangster-related real estate agency for 20 years, and used it to lodge his wrestlers, and said the president of the real firm was a major supporter of his stable. The agency president has been convicted of loan sharking and driving tenants from their apartments by playing Buddhist sutra tapes at full volume and harassing them in other ways.

A number of incidents of sumo wrestlers hanging out with gangsters were also reported. In August 2010, a weekly magazine published a photograph of ozeki Harumafuji playing golf with a senior gangster. In July 2010, there were reports that famous yokozuna Takanohana had dined and met with gangsters in June 2010 and in 2008. Takanohana denied any links with the gangsters. In both cases the gangsters were among more than a dozen people at event Takanohana attended.

Reforms and Response to Sumo Baseball Gambling Scandal

Musashigawa was replaced by Hanaregoma, formally ozeki Kaiketsu. Some had hoped that someone outside of sumo who take over the chairmanship but that didn’t happen. In any case Hanaregoma promised to clean up the sport, something Musashigawa had also promised to do. As this was taking place a backroom struggle emerged between the JSA and an independent panels investigating the gambling scandal over how the JSA should be organized and the role insiders and outsiders of the sumo world should have.

A plan proposed by an independent panel of the JSA recommended that the JSA should issue a declaration of intent to sever ties with criminal gangs. A draft of the plan stipulated that: 1) people in the sumo world would be prohibited from associating with gangsters and receiving or demanding money from them; 2) JSA members would be prohibited from gambling on sumo matches; 3) sumo members would be obliged to report any improper activity; 4) an anti-gang council to educate wrestlers about gangs would be set up. Other proposals included reducing the number of stables.

Ken Marantz wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “The JSA will have to do more than post “Gangsters Keep Out” signs outside areas where sumo tournaments are held...To suddenly say that they will crack down on illegal gambling in the stables, just like they have allegedly cracked down on beating up junior wrestlers or assure there are no thrown bouts, doesn’t get to the root of the problem...The much bigger issue is that the sumo association must realize it cannot continue functioning as a modern-day sport while maintaining feudal customs under guise of traditions....The culture of sumo wrestlers as infallible supermen, under the leadership of ex-wrestlers carrying out their duties with the mentality of a college fraternity needs a swift kick in the mawashi.”

“It is time for the JSA to get with the times, get out from behind its veil of secrecy as an old boys’ club and get out from under the thumb of the ministry of education. It should reincorporate itself as an independent, professional sport, with a nonpartisan commissioner equipped with a written rulebook, establishing fines and penalties for specific, errant behavior — instead of vague “acts unbecoming of a wrestler”...Drop this “dignity” facade. Like pro athletes around the world, the young men in the upper ranks make vast sums of money — with very few living expenses there are going to be dalliances, and they have to be subjected to the same laws as everyone else, but not expected to live up to a Mother Teresa-like standard.”

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.

Last updated January 2013

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