Tokyo Notes

Sumo Down and Out?

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Tokyo Notes

Sumo Down and Out?

Sumo is Japan’s national sport. But it’s looking tired compared with the World Cup stars.

Sumo wrestlers in Japan were no doubt happy to see the country’s soccer team convincingly beat Denmark in the World Cup in South Africa on Thursday. Not because they had a stake on a 3-1 victory, you understand, but because the result might help deflect some attention away from their own sport.

Sumo is once again making super-sized headlines for all the wrong reasons and is even in danger of not being televised by the nation’s public channel for the first time since TV broadcasts of the sport began in 1953.

It seems that sumo wrestlers like to have a bet, and not just occasionally or in small amounts. So what you might ask? The problem is that gambling is supposedly illegal here. That might come as a surprise to visitors to Japan who have had a flutter on the horses or on speedboat racing, or for that matter anyone who has converted pachinko balls into cash or bought a lottery ticket. But these ‘acceptable’ exceptions aside, habitual gambling is a crime for which you can get a three-year prison sentence.

Police Thursday were reportedly looking to build such a criminal case against Kotomitsuki, one of Japan’s leading sumo wrestlers over his gambling, which came to light last month. Kotomitsuki finally came to realize what kind of people his illicit passion involved when he reportedly tried to claim 5 million yen in winnings only to be blackmailed out of 3.5 million yen in hush money.

The last thing sumo elders wanted was yet another scandal to rock their self-styled national sport following scandals involving the sale of privileged seats to gangsters, late night brawls by top-ranked wrestlers, bored contenders passing the time by taking drugs, and the beating to death of a trainee wrestler who tried to run away from his stable.

It turns out that Kotomitsuki, who has sumo’s second highest rank of ozeki, is not alone in his illicit pastime. Twenty-eight other wrestlers have reportedly admitted to gambling, suggesting that the illegal indulgence is rife in the sport and may be helping to provide funds for organized crime.

In participating in a sport with quasi-religious symbolism, these wrestlers are supposed to be squeaky-clean examples of Japanese stoicism. Fist pumping and other obvious shows of emotion after victories are frowned upon, as are long-winded or self-congratulatory interview comments. But the impression these wrestlers are giving is of bored, frustrated men with tawdry links to the underworld and of a sport that is losing touch with contemporary Japan.

Broadcaster NHK is considering whether it should show the next tournament or not, while sponsors are mulling over continued support. It’s a very sorry time for a sport so associated with Japan.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, Japan’s soccer players have been showing off their technical and athletic prowess on the world stage with up to 36 percent of the Japanese public reportedly tuning into the Japan-Denmark game at around 5 a.m. Friday morning local time. Japan’s football team is conjuring up an image of an outward-looking sexy and modern Japan that can hold its own on the world stage in contrast to the cloistered, tradition of an inward-looking sumo realm that can’t produce a top-ranked local wrestler.

Now it’d be difficult to get odds on which image is more appealing for Japan’s younger generation.