Scandals Plague Japanese Sumo Culture Allegations of drug use and game rigging are troubling fans of Japan's national sport. Some blame foreigners for the problems, but one retired wrestler says the younger ones have left fame go to their heads.
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Scandals Plague Japanese Sumo Culture

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Scandals Plague Japanese Sumo Culture

Scandals Plague Japanese Sumo Culture

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR news, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Just as fall is World Series time in the U.S., in Japan it's time for the championships of Japan's national sport, sumo wrestling. This year, allegations of drug use and game rigging have left a cloud of scandal hanging over the sport. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Tokyo.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

ANTHONY KUHN: It's 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, and they throw their seat cushions into the ring in approval.

(Soundbite of drumming)

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

Ms. JUNKO KANEKA: (Through Translator) This is a great pity. I think any sort of drug use is bad. This scandal has really damaged the world of sumo wrestling.

KUHN: 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 Gaqloev 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 press conference.

Mr. WAKANOHO TOSHINORI (Russian Sumo Wrestler): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: I have caused great trouble for the Japanese Sumo Association, he said. I'm sorry for this. And to all the Japanese people, I'm sorry. ..TEXT: Mr. TOSHINORI: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Two other Russian wrestlers were recently barred from the sport for alleged pot smoking. 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, push, and grapple. Stable master Kazumasa Murata explains that Sumo was originally not a sport at all.

Mr. KAZUMASA MURATA (Sumo Stable Master): (Through Translator) In ancient times, people practiced Sumo as a form of ritual to thank the gods for a bountiful harvest. That's the origin of Sumo. But over a long period of history, it gradually evolved into a martial art.

KUHN: A framed piece of calligraphy on the wall lists sumo's priorities, mind, technique, and finally body. Like other martial arts, it aims to unify mind, body, and spirit and to cultivate practitioners' moral character. Some Japanese say the scandals are proof that foreigners shouldn't be allowed in sumo. Sumo wrester Akebono says that the problems in Sumo are not because of nationality, they're because the wrestlers have lost their way.

Mr. AKEBONO TARO (Sumo Wrestler): Now a lot of people are just looking at sumo and they're not looking at sumo-do. Do is a lifestyle, a path. So they have to try and get these guys back onto that path.

KUHN: Akebono was born Chad Rowan in Hawaii. He's of Polynesian descent. at six foot eight 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 easily go to your head, and he suspects that that's just what happened to the wrestlers accused of smoking pot.

Mr. TARO: But there was always my stable master there to cut me down and to keep me on that path. 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.

KUHN: Akebono demonstrated his commitment to the way of sumo and to Japanese culture by obtaining Japanese citizenship. But when many other foreign sumo wrestlers retire today, Akebono says, they just pack up and go home. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo.

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