Love him or loath him, Tokyo’s outspoken Gov. Shintaro Ishihara is on the money in saying that sumo’s special status as Japan’s national sport is ‘absurd.’
Sumo has been on the front pages as much as the back in recent years for scandals that include the beating to death of a junior wrestler; a former grand champion with a penchant for fisticuffs outside the ring; and mob-linked baseball betting. But the latest allegations of bout-rigging are already overshadowing the sport’s other unscrupulous goings-on.
Mobile phone records have tied 14 wrestlers and elders to yaocho (match-fixing), according to media reports. Three rikishi have even admitted their involvement in yaocho. And on Sunday, the Japan Sumo Association took the unprecedented step of cancelling the sport’s spring tournament to allow a full investigation into the allegations.
James Hardy, a former sumo writer at the Daily Yomiuri, shed some more light on this murky issue for me.
‘This particular scandal is limited to a group of senior juryo wrestlers: that is, a group of wrestlers who have a great deal to lose by being relegated to the third-tier makushita division,’ Hardy said. ‘Makushita is unpaid and the gap between the two divisions is so great in status and quality of life as to make match-fixing a completely logical step to take for a wrestler in danger of demotion.
‘That said, there's little reason to suggest this doesn't happen across the whole of the salaried divisions. There’s plenty of historical speculation about individual records achieved by yokozuna and the “ozeki-mutual assistance association” is believed to have kept certain weak ozeki in the rank for years. In that light, the statement by (JSA elder) Hanaregoma that there previously was “no yaocho in sumo” is laughable. The JSA has had a zero-tolerance attitude to yaocho allegations for years, suing anyone who made the slightest allegation. The fact that there’s finally proof is one of the best things to come out of this.’
But while the bout-fixing allegations may force the sumo’s governing body to open up the thick curtains that conceal its shady workings, Hardy said he doesn’t see the sport regaining its dwindling following any time soon.
‘The short-term future for sumo is bad,’ Hardy told me. ‘There really is no way for the JSA to regain public trust. It bases its popularity and justifies its special status with intangible notions of trust, honour and stoic self-sacrifice. If the public decides that it has had enough of watching pro wrestling with Meiji Era haircuts and pretty historical clothing, then it is doomed.
‘The problem is that sumo holds itself up as some higher paragon of moral rectitude. The reality – mob ties, bullying, hazing, back-scratching – rubs up against its quasi-official status and position as the “national sport,” in (Prime Minister Naoto) Kan’s words.’
The government is considering repealing the JSA’s status as a public interest corporation (a status that gives the body tax breaks on the revenue earned from tournaments), and should follow through on this conviction as a means of forcing sumo to clean up its act and bringing the sport into the 21st century. The JSA should also swiftly suspend all wrestlers (regardless of rank) for which proof of match-fixing can be established, and radically reform its pay and ranking structure to give wrestlers less incentive to throw bouts.
Only then can the ruling body begin to claw back sumo’s reputation and win back some of its hoodwinked fans.