A New Japan

Sumo Faces Own Crisis

Recent Features

A New Japan

Sumo Faces Own Crisis

The latest sumo scandal and TEPCO’s ongoing nuclear crisis have some interesting parallels.

As the rest of the country watches Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) try to end its nuclear crisis in Fukushima Prefecture, another bastion of doing things the old-fashioned Japanese way has been suffering a meltdown of its own.

The Japan Sumo Association's (JSA) de facto dismissal of 21 wrestlers and 2 elders for match fixing last month marked the sport's most severe bloodletting in the post-war period.

What this latest sumo scandal and the TEPCO nuclear crisis have in common is that circumstances beyond both organisations' control have now torn down a curtain of tatemae that had up to now protected practices that were at best incompetent, and at worst deeply corrupt.

Tatemae, the practice of maintaining face regardless of the private facts (and according to at least one definition, ‘a lie that is acceptable in Japanese society when it is appropriately used,’) is vulnerable when the rules that govern its use fall apart.

In a natural disaster, that might mean a public that suddenly wants to know exactly what goes on inside its nuclear power stations and government departments. Just as the national government’s tardy response to the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake undermined its reputation for competence, so the 2011 Tohoku quake has firmed up long-standing concerns about TEPCO’s nuclear safety policies.

Whereas TEPCO’s ‘lie’ was condoned by a relatively hidden culture of amakudari and complacency, the JSA's position on match-fixing has to be seen as one of the most audacious examples of ‘acceptable lying’ in modern Japanese society.

In sumo’s case, it’s a case of exposure to cold, hard evidence. The JSA has been defiant in the face of statistical analysis, libel trials, kiss-and-tells from prematurely ousted wrestlers and a big-mouthed elder who bragged of his match-fixing prowess to a mistress who was wearing a wire. The association has been helped by the connivance of a pliable mainstream media (a veteran NHK announcer memorably described his role as that of a ‘cheerleader’) that was all too aware of the association’s itchy trigger finger when it came to litigation.

What changed all this was the ultimate smoking gun— text messages between wrestlers in which they spelt out exactly when and how they would throw bouts. And this has almost brought the whole edifice of the sport tumbling down.

JSA Chairman Hanaregoma seemed to be the perfect person to deal with this situation: he had an unimpeachable reputation as a wrestler and elder. Following the recently established playbook for an old Japanese organisation, he established a committee of ‘outside experts’ sympathetic to the status quo but who make the right noises about reform.

But like the situation in Fukushima, sumo’s problem was beyond salvaging, especially when the committee began selectively leaking to the press. Encouraged by conclusive proof of match-fixing, the press club went to work on the JSA, unraveling all the threads that it had been unwilling or unable to pick at over the years.

Both TEPCO and the JSA appeared to react quickly but nonetheless were unable to manage situations that simply spiraled out of their control. The other thing both shared were friends in high places. While TEPCO was ensuring a friendly regulatory culture, the JSA has offered top figures in media and business prestigious positions within the Yokozuna Deliberation Council and individual stables assiduously court wealthy sponsors and patrons.

However, it’s sumo’s friends in low places that have pre-empted this scandal. While TEPCO has been exposed by an unprecedented natural disaster, sumo’s troubles are linked to a decision by Takaharu Ando, the head of the National Police Agency, to declare war on the yakuza, or Japanese mafia. Sumo's reputation—and mob ties—was collateral damage.

So what now for the association and the way it operates? Sumo watchers might point to a series of mini-revolutions in how it operates that are already underway: the ‘faction’ system that allotted positions and influence has been challenged by a cadre of younger elders and its special covenant (and tax-free) status is likely to be revoked by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science & Technology. Its status as a pillar of Japanese society appears irretrievably lost, along with the secrecy that added to its quasi-mystical allure.

No bad thing, its critics will say. But although a culture of secrecy has devastating consequences, if you run a nuclear power plant in a quake zone, there’s something to be said for sumo maintaining at least a shred of tatemae. Otherwise the spell is broken and it becomes a cultural relic: semi-naked, overweight men huffing and puffing for the edification of pensioners and tourists.