Scandals Plague Japanese Sumo Culture

Tokyo's Harigaya Sumo Stable i i

Amateur sumo wrestlers work out at Tokyo's Harigaya sumo stable. Anthony Kuhn/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Anthony Kuhn/NPR
Tokyo's Harigaya Sumo Stable

Amateur sumo wrestlers work out at Tokyo's Harigaya sumo stable.

Anthony Kuhn/NPR

Just as fall is World Series time in the U.S., it's also time for the championships in Japan's national sport — sumo wrestling.

But this year, allegations of drug use and game rigging have left a cloud of scandal hanging over the sport, and the last thing Japanese want is to see their national sport degenerate into an undignified shoving match.

At a packed house at the Kokugikan, or National Sport Hall, in central Tokyo, extra-large Japanese men — and a few Mongolians and Russians — are vying for the sport's top honors.

In the final match, wrestler Kiseno Sato drives the champion out of the ring in an upset victory. The crowd goes wild, throwing their seat cushions into the ring in approval.

Outside the stadium, Sato's aunt, 52-year-old Junko Kaneka, is ecstatic about her nephew's win. But her face turns serious when asked about the problems plaguing sumo.

Sumo's Origins

"This is a great pity," Kaneka says. "I think any sort of drug use is bad. I hope we don't see any more of these drug-related incidents. This scandal has really damaged the world of sumo wrestling."

The first scandal broke in August when police found a marijuana cigarette inside 20-year-old Russian wrestler Wakanoho's wallet.

Wakanoho was born Soslan Aleksandrovich Gagloev in Russia's North Ossetia region. He became the first active sumo wrestler banned for life by sumo's governing body. He later apologized at a news conference.

"I have caused great trouble for the Japanese Sumo Association," Wakanoho said. "I am sorry for this. And to all the Japanese people, I am sorry."

Two other Russian wrestlers were recently barred from the sport for allegedly smoking pot, another wrestler was beaten to death in an apparent hazing incident and Mongolian grand champion Asashoryu has been accused of faking an injury.

The controversies in professional sumo have also disheartened many amateurs. At one Tokyo sumo gym, also known as a stable, wrestlers grunt, flesh collides with flesh and feet slide across the dirt floor as the wrestlers push and grapple.

Stable master Kazumasa Murata explains that sumo was originally not a sport at all.

"In ancient times, people practiced sumo as a form of ritual to thank the gods for bountiful harvests," Murata says. "That's the origin of Sumo. But over a long period of history, it gradually evolved into a martial art."

A framed piece of calligraphy on the wall lists sumo's priorities: mind, technique and body. Like other martial arts, it aims to unify mind, body and spirit and to cultivate practitioners' moral character.

A Retired Wrestler's View

Some Japanese say the scandals are proof that foreigners shouldn't be allowed in sumo, but retired wrestler Akebono says the problems are not based on nationality, but caused by wrestlers who have lost their way.

"Now a lot of people are looking at sumo and they're not looking at sumo-do," Akebono says. "Do is a lifestyle, a path. So they have to try to get these guys back onto that path."

Akebono was born Chad Rowan in Hawaii. Rowan is of Polynesian descent, and at 6 feet 8 inches tall and a fighting weight of 520 pounds, he was not easily pushed around. In 1993, he became the first foreigner to reach the exalted rank of yokozuna, or sumo grand champion.

Akebono says such fame can go to your head, and he suspects that's just what has happened to the wrestlers accused of smoking pot. He remembers that when he was their age, he thought he was invincible.

"But there was always my stable master there to cut me down and keep me on that path," Akebono says. "And at that time, I used to think, 'What else does he want me to do?' But now I realize why he did what he did. His biggest fear was exactly what is happening today."

Akebono demonstrated his commitment to the way of sumo and to Japanese culture by obtaining Japanese citizenship. But today when many foreign sumo wrestlers retire, Akebono says, they just pack up and go home.

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