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Japan's national sport, sumo wrestling, has had some serious problems the last few years. There have been incidents of violent hazing and drug use, and the sport's popularity has been sagging.

Well, now, sumo wrestling has been shaken again, this time by revelations of gambling and mob connections. The Japan Sumo Association said it may force 15 wrestlers and 14 club owners to sit out the next tournament, and a handful are facing expulsion.

Lucy Craft reports from Tokyo.

LUCY CRAFT: Dozens of sumo wrestlers and club owners, known as stable masters, have confessed involvement in illegal gambling. Sumo journalist Takayuki Watanabe says the worst offenders were 29 sumo wrestlers and officials who bet on baseball.

Mr. TAKAYUKI WATANABE (Journalist): (Through translator) To wager on baseball, you need to know the game well, and you need plenty of cash. That excludes junior wrestlers because they don't earn salaries. So only the most talented, most popular wrestlers seen on TV are able to gamble on baseball. That's whats been so shocking.

CRAFT: In the last few years, scandal has become as much a part of sumo as loincloths and bulk-up diets. The legendary sport seemed to start its tailspin back in 2007, when a teenaged recruit was killed during a violent training session. Later, four wrestlers were fired for marijuana use.

And then, this year, one of the two reigning champions was forced to retire after a series of problems, ending with a drunken brawl. That one-time sumo star, Asashoryu, was from Mongolia. This episode seemed to reinforce perceptions that the globalization of sumo was bringing down the sport.

Sumo has come to be dominated by men from developing countries, those willing to endure the grueling regimen for a chance to become champions and multimillionaires.

Sumo has always stood for more than just sport, though. It dates back at least 1,500 years and is part of the founding myth of Japan itself. Legend holds that the Japanese won their islands in a sumo bout of the gods.

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University Tokyo, says wrestlers are an impressive sight on Tokyo streets.

Mr. JEFF KINGSTON (Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Tokyo): If you look at them walking around the streets with their flowing yukata on their wooden geta, and they have their topknots, I mean, they do look like throwbacks to the past. And so they are sort of modern representations of traditional mores and virtues. And so, yeah, I do think the public holds them to a higher standard.

CRAFT: But this time, in the worst scandal to hit sumo in memory, there aren't any foreign suspects to blame, notes veteran sumo commentator Doreen Simmons.

Ms. DOREEN SIMMONS (Sumo Commentator): Yes, it is a huge crisis. All the other problems that have surfaced recently were one-offs that could be treated as individual problems. This is the bedrock. This is the whole sumo association, I mean, not everybody, by any means, but an awful lot of people, including major stable masters, some of the most successful men.

CRAFT: The details of the scandal involve a hairdresser who served as courier between wrestlers and yakuza, the Japanese mob that placed the bets. Hairdressers, who create the perfumed and oiled topknots that wrestlers wear, are a constant presence at sumo stables.

One of the more outrageous allegations is that yakuza foot soldiers are able to get coveted front-row seats to sumo tournaments and literally communicate with their pals in prison thanks to national TV, says journalist Watanabe, of Japan's TBS TV network.

Mr. WATANABE: (Through translator) Convicts are allowed to watch sumo live on TV. The reason why Mafioso want to sit close to the ring is to get on TV. Then their boss in prison can see that they're doing well, and they can demonstrate their loyalty.

CRAFT: Doreen Simmons says sumo and the yakuza have a long and complicated history.

Ms. SIMMONS: As long as I've followed sumo, which is 30, 35 years or so, there's been this fight against the yakuza, the gangsters, established crime. But, of course, the reason there's a fight is that there's a lot of money around. And some of the oyakata and the famous wrestlers are involved, always have been.

CRAFT: Rumors of match-fixing have swirled around sumo for years. The secretive and insular sumo association has never investigated these allegations.

But Temple University's Jeff Kingston says the latest scandal is the most damning circumstantial evidence yet that yakuza have the leverage to force wrestlers to throw their matches.

Mr. KINGSTON: Mob-linked gambling on baseball, which is illegal, is involving many people in the sumo world. So the fact that the yakuza and the sumo are now sitting uncomfortably close together in the media I think is raising suspicions.

CRAFT: While next month's tournament will proceed without some of its most talented wrestlers, the audience may be drastically reduced.

Japan's NHK state broadcasting network has been deluged with angry letters from citizens, demanding that it pull the plug on sumo programming.

For NPR News, this is Lucy Craft in Tokyo.

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