Roho, one of the Russian
wrestlers kicked out of sumo
for smoking marijuana
In sumo, according to the book “Yaocho” (“Match Rigging”), written by former stable master Onaruto and former wrestler Seichiro Hashimoto, tax evasion is common, the “yakuza” (the Japan Mafia) have supplied wrestlers with women and drugs; and many matches are rigged. A month before the book was published in the late 1990s the two authors died mysteriously of the same respiratory disease within 15 hours of one another in the same Nagoya hospital.

Hashimoto said, "Onatauto realized he had to tell everything and expose sumo for what it was — just show business, like pro wrestling." Onaruto reportedly decided to spill the beans after he was forced to sell his stable because of money problems and then was snubbed by other stablemaster who didn't give him a retirement party.

A study by the JSA found that 90 percent of stables allowed violent beatings of trainees and punishment such as forcing sand and salt into the mouths of wrestlers.

The Japan Sumo Association has been warned over rewarding repair and maintenance contracts without public bidding, in at least case a contract was awarded to the friends of a stablemaster.

See Asashorty and Kyokushuzan Under Mongolian Sumo Wrestlers

Websites and Resources


Good Websites and Sources: Nihon Sumo Kyokai (Japan Sumo Association) official site sumo.or ; Sumo Fan Magazine ; Sumo Reference ; Sumo Talk ; Sumo Forum ; Sumo Information Archives ; Masamirike’s Sumo Site ; Sumo FAQs ; Sumo Page ; Szumo. Hu, a Hungarian English language sumo site ; Books : “The Big Book of Sumo” by Mina Hall; “Takamiyama: The World of Sumo” by Takamiyama (Kodansha, 1973); “Sumo” by Andy Adams and Clyde Newton (Hamlyn, 1989); “Sumo Wrestling” by Bill Gutman (Capstone, 1995).

Sumo Photos, Images and Pictures Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive ; Interesting Collection of Old and Recent Photos of Wrestlers in Competition and in Everyday Life ; Sumo Ukiyo-e ; Sumo Ukiyo-e Images (Japanese-language Site) ; Info Sumo, a French-Language site with Good Fairly Recent Photos ; Generic Stock Photos and Images ; Fan View Pictures ;Images from a Promotion Event ; Sumo Practice ; Wrestlers Goofing Around ; Traveler Pictures from a Tokyo Tournament ;

Sumo Wrestlers : Goo Sumo Page / ;Wikipedia List of Mongolian Sumo Wrestlers Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Asashoryu Wikipedia ; Wikipedia List of American Sumo Wrestlers Wikipedia ; Site on British sumo ; A Site About American sumo wrestlers

In Japan, Tickets for Events, a Sumo Museum and Sumo Shop in Tokyo Nihon Sumo Kyokai, 1-3-28 Yokozuna, Sumida-ku, Tokyo 130, Japan (81-3-2623, fax: 81-3-2623-5300) . Sumo ticketssumo.or tickets; Sumo Museum site ; JNTO article JNTO . Ryogoku Takahashi Company (4-31-15 Ryogoku, Sumida-ku, Tokyo) is a small shop that specializes is sumo wrestling souvenirs. Located near the Kokugikan national sports arena, it sells bed-and bath accessories, cushion covers, chopstick holders, key chains, golf balls, pajamas, kitchen aprons, woodblock prints, and small plastic banks — all featuring sumo wrestling scenes or likenesses of famous wrestlers.

Death of 17-Year-Old Sumo Wrestler

In 2007 a 17-year-old wrestler, Takashi Saito, died after being beaten by his stablemaster, Tokitsukaze, and stablemates. Tokitsukaze, the head of one sumo’s largest and most prestigious stables, said the wrestler had fallen ill and collapsed in a “strenuous” practice session in which wrestler push an inert wrestler from one side of the ring to another. “It was routine training. I didn’t push him. I didn’t think he would die. I just wanted to help him become a respectable wrestler,” Tokitsukaze said.

Photos of the 17-year-old wrestler, who had debuted just two months earlier and went by the name Tokitaizan, showed a deep cut on his right arm, a swollen face covered with cuts, horrific bruising around his neck, and legs covered with burns like those made from lit cigarettes.

Even with all that police in Aichi Prefecture determined the cause of death was “heart disease” and decided an autopsy was not necessary. No coroner was called in; no investigation was conducted; no criminal charges were filed. Police put pressure on doctors to make the same conclusion. The police themselves seem to act as if they were pressured by people in sumo or least took it upon themselves to protect sumo’s reputation.

Doctors at the hospital where Saito was brought in unconscious and battered said they originally wanted to attribute the death to acute cardiac arrest which occurs when the heart stops suddenly and does not rule out foul play. They said the police were quite insistent about their conclusion so the hospital signed a death certificate that blamed a diseased heart. The body was then returned to the stable, where the stablemaster Tokitsukaze called the family and told they don’t worry picking up the body, that they’ll take care of the cremation.

Saito’s family demanded to see the body and had it taken to a medical examiner in another prefecture for an autopsy. The autopsy revealed that the wrestler’s heart stopped from the shock of injuries inflicted upon him. Had family demanded to see the body the true nature of the incident might never have been known. A formal investigation wasn’t ordered until more than a month after the death and it only occurred because of heavy pressure from the family and muckraking journalists.

Stablemaster and the Death of the 17-Year-Old Sumo Wrestler

The stable master Tokitsukaze initially told the JSA he did not direct the violence and in fact tried to stop it. But these statements were contradicted by wrestlers who were there. Tokitsukaze later admitted forcing Saito to sit in a kneeling position during dinner and striking him a beer bottle ten times on his forehead, legs, stomach and shoulders the day before he died, with the wrestler screaming in pain each time he was hit. Later wrestlers beat Saito in the face after tying him to a column.

Leaks from the investigation that reach the media disclosed that the Saito was beaten again the day he died under Tokitsukaze’s orders. This time he was kicked and hit with a metal baseball bat by sumo wrestlers for 20 minutes while other wrestlers and the stablemaster watched. The stable also delayed calling for an ambulance when it became clear Saito was seriously hurt.

The stablemaster said the beating was punishment to Saito for trying to quit sumo and escape from the stable. Saito’s escape attempt ended when he was caught at a convenience store 700 meters from the stable. “As he had this vague attitude about whether he would continue in sumo, I flew into a rage and beat him,” the Yomiuru Shimbun said Tokitsukaze told police. Tokitsukaze also reportedly told wrestlers in his stable to keep quiet about events before the wrestlers death, .

On the Saito’s death he Japanese leader, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, said, “That this has happened in sumo, the national sport and symbol of Japan is a serious matter.” The incident no doubt will turn of kids and their parents off from joining sumo. A number of new recruits quit. A sports lawyer told the Washington Post, “I am sure parents will not wan their sons to go into such a scary place. This going to decrease participation by the Japanese, make more room for foreign participants and hurt the sport’s popularity even more.”

Trial and Fall Out Over the Death of the 17-Year-Old Sumo Wrestler

Seven months after Saito’s death three wrestlers in his stable — Masanori Fujii, Yuichiro Izuka and Masakazu Kimura — were arrested on assault charges and inflicting injuries that lead to death. The three claimed they had no intent to kill Saito and that there were acting under Tokitsukaze’s orders, telling police they dared not “talk back” to him. The JSA suspended them and said if three wrestlers were found guilty they would be expelled from sumo.

In October 2008, the three wrestlers pleaded guilty. One of them said Tokitsukaze told them to keep quiet about the beer bottle incident and said beating Saito was necessary to “straighten him up” and “teach him a lesson.”

The three wrestlers received suspended sentences. The court recognized the wrestlers were following orders from their stablemaster and the violence that Saito was subjected was unusual and constituted an illegal act of violence. The presiding judge said, “The act was contemptible and malicious. The roles played by each of the three was was big, but the stablemaster’s supervision has strong influence and it was difficult for them to disobey him.”

Tokitsukaze, whose real name is Junichi Yamamoto, was tried separately. Responding to public outrage over the incident the JSA banned Tokitsukaze from sumo.

Yamamoto (Tokitsukaze) denied the charges in a Nagoya District Court. Prosecutors asserted that sparing session that Saito was subjected to was a form of punishment not part of normal training. Yamamoto denied the allegation, saying, “I never ordered them to assault [Saito]. The extra session was just part of regular training, and was not intended for the purpose of punishment.”

In June 2009, Yamamoto was sentenced to six years in prison after the court decided he instigated the death. The presiding judge said that the stablemaster with “his immeasurable power” ordered the physical abuse that “grossly disrespected the victim’s human dignity” and the abuse the victim was subjected to “obviously deviated from the realm of normal practice.” Saito’s parents were dissatisfied with the sentence and complained they still don’t know what happened.

In October 2011, a sumo coach was warned by the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) for beating three of his wrestlers with a golf club. Golf clubs are often the preferred beating devise of the yakuza. AP reported: “Sumo coach Kasugano visited the JSA after it was revealed he hit three of his wrestlers for ignoring his instructions to wear kimonos when going out. The wrestlers were reportedly beaten in the abdomen and the back, Kyodo news agency reported. A golf iron with a broken grip was found at Kasugano's training facility. The 49-year-old Kasugano is a former wrestler who reached the third-highest rank of sekiwake, competing under the name Tochinowaka. [Source: AP, October 20, 2011]

Sumo Hairdresser Incident

In the summer of 2009, a 23-year-old sumo hairdresser was punched and assaulted by sumo stablemaster Oitekaze and several young wrestlers in the stable. The hairdresser, a former sumo wrestler, reportedly abused and bullied several young wrestlers in Oitekaze’s stable.

Oitekaze said, “I know that [violence] is bad, however, I hadn’t been able to stop the [hairdresser’s] bullying no matter how many times I spoke to him about it.” He said he let six or several wrestlers each hit the hair dresser once. According to Oitekaze the hairdresser’s bullying caused some wrestlers to quit. The hairdresser has resigned. He said he might sue for assault.

Marijuana-Smoking Sumo Wrestlers

In August 2008, Russian sumo wrestler Wakanoho was held for possessing marijuana after his wallet was found with a joint in it. He said he got the drugs from a foreigner at a bar in the Roppongi entertainment district in Tokyo and smoked cannabis mixed with tobacco at his stable. The wrestler’s wallet was found after he lost it. A subsequent search revealed cannabis-smoking paraphernalia in his residence. He reportedly used marijuana frequently at home in Russia and began smoking marijuana when he was 14.

Wakanoho was banned for life for marijuana use, It was the first ban on an active wrestler in the history of sumo. He was offered a $50,000 severance pay. Later Wakanoho filed a lawsuit against the JSA nullifying the dismissal, saying his punishment was too severe and filed an injunction against his possible deportation. He also threatened to spill the beans on drug use, match-fixing and other “evil things” that plague sumo. He said other wrestlers smoked marijuana but were not punished. He did not name names but said he as willing to testify in court about match fixing (See Match Fixing Above).

Two other Russians — the brothers, Roho and Hakurozan — tested positive for marijuana when given a drug test. They denied smoking cannabis and were tested again with more sophisticated equipment with the same result. They continues to deny using cannabis despite the private testimony of stalemates that the two brothers told them they smoked marijuana while in Los Angeles.

After an emergency meeting of the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) Roho and Hakurozan were expelled from sumo. They fought the expulsion. In March 2009, a Tokyo District Court ruled the JSA dismissal of Roho and Hakurozan was “appropriate” and within its bounds, Hakurozan’s stablemaster Kitanoumi, who was also chairman of the JSA, stepped down from his job. Kitanoumi won 24 sumo tournament and is regarded as one of the all time greats in the sport. No other chairman had resigned before his term was completed. To American eyes it was a bit weird that he would resign over s couple wrestlers smoking pot and not resign after a young wrestler was beaten to death by his stalemates.

Wakakirin, a Japanese wrestler, was also arrested for marijuana possession after he and a musician were caught with marijuana in a police raid. Wakarkirin said he smoked marijuana for some time and bought the marijuana he was caught with from a foreigner in the Roppongi district of Tokyo. Suspicion about his drug use had been raised by a positive drug test but the results to drug test were not conclusive. He most contrite than the Russians. He said he would not accept his $50,000 retirement payout even though the JSA said he was entitled to it. In April 2009, he plead guilty to possession in a Yokohama court.

Soslan Aleksandrovich Gagloev — formally known as the sumo wrestler Wakanoho, before being expelled from sumo for marijuana possession — resurfaced, trimmed down to 140 kilograms (320 pounds) as a defensive lineman at Webber International College, a small NAIA school in south Florida with ambitions of playing in the NFL.

Gagloev came to Japan when he was 15 to devote himself to sumo. He said he had dreams of making yokuzua and missed his stablemates very much. “We were family. I love them very much and I really miss them,” he told the Daily Yomiuri. “My mistake was that I relaxed. I began to pay more attention to the nightlife than the training. That killed me.”

Reforms and Sumo Drug Tests

Saito’s death seemed to have relatively little affect on sumo. Some reforms were made such There as banning baseball bats and bamboo swords from training areas but they seemed to be only window-dressing. Japan Sumo Association leaders continue to enjoy unlimited power in the stables that they run and most of the overisght on the stables is done by the JSA.

In February 2009, the JSA introduced new rules that stated that unannounced drug tests can be performed at any time and any wrestler caught taking illegal drugs will lose his job and retirement benefits.

There has traditionally been no drug testing in sumo. It is believed that performance-enhancing drugs are not a problem. But recent revelations of wrestlers smoking marijuana have resulted in some drug testing being introduced mainly to check for recreational drugs not performance-enhancing ones.

The first random drug tests were performed on 103 wrestlers and stablemasters in April and June of 2009. No positive results appeared. Yokozuna Hakuho and ozeki Harumafuji were among those tested in the second group. All 214 drug tests conducted in June were negative.

In a Yomiuri Shimbun survey of 3,000 people in January 2011, before the match-fixing scandal, 57 percent of those asked said the didn’t think the JSA efforts to reform sumo would do any good.

Decline of Sumo

Even without the scandal Japanese sumo is in decline. After Takanohana retired Japan has not produced a yokozuna and most of the new ozeki have been foreigners. The Japanese ozekis are getting old and often don’t perform very well. Foreign wrestlers are becoming increasingly dominant, The few young Japanese that enter the sport are any good. Asashoryu said, “I think a lot of the younger Japanese wrestlers lack toughness.”

In the past most sumo matches completely sold out. Now there are often empty seats and people don't wait in line as long for tickets like they used. In 1995, baseball surpassed sumo as Japan's number one sport. By 2004 sumo was fifth behind pro baseball, marathon running, high school baseball and pro soccer and stables were closing because the were unable to attract new talent.

Many television viewers prefer K-1 kick boxing to sumo. Japanese purists don’t like the fact the sport has been taken over by foreign wrestlers.

Sumo analysts James Hardy wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, Sumo bumbles “along for the most part. Occasionally walking into crises caused by irreconcilable contradictions...A professional sport that has public responsibilities, a profit-making organization with tax-free status, a secretive and byzantine body that is completely at the mercy of the media, sumo suffers scandals more often than Japan changes prime ministers...If sumo didn’t pretend to some higher purpose, non of this would happen. Setting yourself up as a semi-ascetic, morally unimpeachable, quasi-religious cultural asset is always going to cause trouble when the reality is a lot more prosaic.”

There has been a call for an outsider to be named on the board for the Japan Sumo Association. The famous Buddhist nun and novelist Sakucho Setouchi has been suggested as a possible board member.

Lack of New Talent in Sumo

Young Japanese boys are not interested in trying out for the sport. At one tryout on the mid 1990s only two boys showed up, the lowest number since records started being kept in 1936. In 2007 none came. Those that joining quickly quit. One stablemaster told Ozumo, “Stable life is group life. Youngsters today take time to fit in to such a place.” On two respects that quickly dropped out he said, “Both of them were rather withdraw, so it was especially hard for them. But I was shocked they left as quickly a they did.”

Another stable master said, “Kids today just can’t hack it, One kid said he hated vegetables, so when a senior stablemate told him he had to eat his greens and scooped some cabbage into his rice, the new kid flew into rage and bolted...Even if somebody brings a kid like that back to the stable, he won’t amount to anything. We don’t even try to chase him.”

Some blame the trend on video games and junk food and reluctance to work hard. Few young people want to dedicate themselves to the sumo lifestyle. Baseball and soccer are much more popular.

Image Source: Nicolas Delerue

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), 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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