The historic Japanese sport of sumo wrestling has endured a number of controversies over the past decade. So much so, that sumo has suffered a huge drop in popularity (and ticket sales). After some years removed from hazing, gambling, match-fixing, or yakuza scandals, the sport looked back on track. However, a new incident has threatened to throw the supposed noble world of sumo back into the gutter.
On November 14th it was reported that Harumafuji Kohei, the reigning yokozuna (the sport’s highest rank), had gotten into a brutal bar brawl with fellow, though lower ranked, wrestler Takanoiwa Yoshimori. The brawl reportedly involved weapons such as an ashtray and an ice pick and it allegedly left Takanoiwa with a fractured skull (per Sankei). Had this had been an isolated incident, the brawl may not have gained such mainstream attention. However, thanks to the sports’ recent history, the brawl has caused outrage.
The first big sumo controversy of the 2000s was the Tokitsukaze stable hazing scandal. Hazing in sumo has probably existed as long as the sport itself, which dates back to the 16th century. In the 21st century, the Tokitzukaze stable in Tokyo, which was established in 1769, was happy to show that the tradition of hazing was alive and well. The stable had masters who were known to beat wrestlers with a shinai (a bamboo sword) if they made mistakes. Elder wrestlers were also charged with bullying the trainees, sometimes forcing them to hold heavy weights for long periods of time.
The hazing at Tokitsukaze stable gained national attention in late 2007 when a 17-year-old trainee wrestler named Takashi Saito died under the watch of his stable-master Jun’ichi Yamamoto. This deadly hazing incident included Saito being thrashed around the head with a large beer bottle by his master. Other wrestlers were also ordered to beat the dying teenager.
Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda publicly expressed his disgust at the incident and Yamamoto and three other wrestlers were arrested in February, 2008. Yamamoto was sentenced to six years in prison, but he appealed the ruling and was granted bail. Later, after claiming to have been involved in match-fixing, Yamamoto’s appeal was rejected and he was sent to jail in 2011 on a five-year sentence. He died of lung cancer in 2014.
While Yamamoto was on trial another huge scandal rocked sumo, as well as Japan. In 2011 police revealed the findings of a massive investigation into match-fixing. The investigation had lead them to believe that as many as 14 wrestlers (and some stable-masters) were involved in match-fixing — a practice colloquially known as yaocho.
The bombshell lead to the cancelling of a major tournament in Osaka, something the Japanese sumo Association (JSA) had not done since 1946. All the accused wrestlers were found guilty of match-fixing and were subsequently forced to retire from the sport.
Throughout this period of hazing and match-fixing, the image of sumo was also suffering because of the highly visible involvement of the yakuza; Japan’s centuries old organized crime syndicate. In 2010 a well known wrestler and stable-master were banned from the JSA for betting on baseball games through a yakuza run gambling-ring. Almost 20 other wrestlers were demoted or banned from tournaments in connection with this scandal.
Around this time sumo took another image-hit when the Yamaguchi-gumi — Japan’s largest yakuza clan — bought out the front rows of a nationally televised tournament. It was obvious for viewers at home that there were gangsters in attendance. This enforced sumo’s long whispered about, but rarely emphasized, relationship with the yakuza. The connection wasn’t palatable to a lot of Japanese fans, who began turning away from the sport as a result.
According to Anna Fifeld of The Washington Post, sumo’s various scandals have caused years of lagging ticket sales. However, recently the sport had seen a slight increase in popularity. With sumo looking to restore its once prized place in Japanese society, this latest controversy could not have come at a worse time.
The bar brawl that is currently eating up column inches in Japan’s mainstream media began when Harumafuji, Takanoiwa, and a wrestler named Hakuho (another yokozuna) walked into a bar in Tottori prefecture in early November. As reported by Fifeld, the elder yokuzunas (both in their early thirties) were lecturing the younger Takanoiwa about what they deemed was a bad attitude.
Takanoiwa listened to the grilling in typical millennial fashion; while looking at his phone. Takanoiwa is also reported to have told the elder wrestlers that their, “era was over.” These acts of defiance are what, allegedly, caused all hell to break loose.
An insulted Harumafuji is accused of grabbing a beer bottle and smashing it on Takanoiwa’s head, while yelling, “Why are you doing that when the grand yokozuna is talking to you?”
The Washington Post reports (via newspaper Hochi) that an eye witness to the fight said, “We heard a large sound that went ‘bong!’ and Harumafuji kept on hitting him 20 or 30 times.” Other reports from the bar state that Harumafuji threatened Takanoiwa with an ice pick, though someone else said it was the other way around. Either way the attack was reported to swell into an all out brawl that may have included an ashtray, a microphone, and a karaoke machine remote control.
Hakuho claims that Harumafuji only used his hands to discipline the 27-year-old Takanoiwa. As a result of the beating, Takanoiwa was taken to hospital with a concussion and a suspected skull fracture. Takanoiwa was also reportedly suffering from a leak of cerebrospinal fluid (the substance that exists between the brain and inner wall of the skull). However, the severity of these injuries was walked back thanks to a doctor’s note that made its way to the JSA.
The fight happened during a touring Grand Sumo Tournament. Takanoiwa understandably withdrew from the competition. So did Harumafuji, who apologized for the disruption he had caused. Afterwards, Takanoiwa’s stable-master Takanohana Koji reported the incident to police. This stunned sumo society.
Takanohana did not initially report the incident to the JSA, which was what he was expected to do. By going to the police first, he has been accused of trying to undermine the JSA. The JSA are reportedly livid with Takanohana as a result.
Now in damage control, JSA chairman Nobuyoshi Hakkaku said, “We will put every effort into clarifying the facts as soon as possible. We will mobilize all our resources and implement measures to prevent this kind of incident from occurring.”
Harumafuji has since been questioned by police over the matter. The yokazuna has also been questioned by the JSA’s specially created crisis management panel. The alleged victim Takanoiwa has also met with police.
Japan’s biggest newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, has also weighed in on the controversy. They called Harumafuji’s conduct “inexcusable”, especially given his rank of grand champion and yokuzuna. “His primary duty to fulfill as a yokuzana is to act as a sparring partner for junior wrestlers in the sumo ring and display his strength, thereby inspiring them to work harder,” said an editorial in that paper.
Yomiuri Shimbun also reported that the JSA were trying to act quickly to resolve this situation for fears that the scandal could cause sumo’s popularity to suffer again. Though the sport has recovered from scandals in the past, it’s never been quick or without a great loss of gold and honour. It remains to be seen what damage this blow, that started with a beer bottle and might have involved a karaoke machine, does to this pillar of Japanese sport and culture.