Sibling rivalry gives sumo a new bounce


The comparison you often hear is to Cain and Abel, but even that doesn't convey Japan's fascination with the fraternal rift in this country's most venerated sport.

Dutiful, quiet Takanohana shook the sumo-wrestling world this fall with a verbal slap to his popular and gregarious older brother. Japan has been agog ever since.

Weekly magazines theorize about Svengali-like trainers and describe an arctic chill within the family; sports commentators eagerly debate the outcome should the two brothers meet in the ring. Just imagine if Jesse "The Body" Ventura had a brother who also wrestled - say, Joe "The Other Body" Ventura - and they had a well-publicized spat.

The brouhaha began when Taka, as he's known, told the press that Wakanohana hadn't "mastered the basics" of their sport. A rude thing to say about your brother, especially when dad was your mutual coach, and in the rigidly structured sumo world it was an unthinkable breach of codes of harmony and dignity.

The Taka-Waka saga reflects some of the difficulties sumo itself has been having in the 1990s. Internal dissension and scandal have tarnished Japan's oldest sport and cost it fans, who are defecting to more-modern athletic contests.

The controversy has boosted interest in sumo slightly: Strife within a great family has timeless dramatic appeal. The pressures the brothers faced as child athletes in an intense professional sport add a fresh twist to the tale.

Hinkaku means dignity

Taka and Waka are the second generation of the Hanada family to become wrestlers, but sumo itself is far older. It's thought to derive from Chinese, Mongolian, and Korean wrestling, and the Japanese have been doing it for at least 1,500 years. A sumo match reportedly settled the succession of one 13th-century emperor.

In modern-day face-offs, competitors in silk loincloths square off inside a small ring. They charge each other, arms flailing, legs pushing, trying to knock the other down or out of the ring. There's no weight limit, no punching or hair-pulling, and bouts rarely last longer than two minutes.

In the 1930s, Japan's militarists shrouded sumo in an aura of nationalism, and today the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) promotes sumo as a distillation of pure Japanese spirit. Wrestlers eat certain foods, wear traditional robes in public, and live together in "stables." Like Taka and Waka, they adopt one ceremonial name once they become wrestlers. Hinkaku, or dignity, is a crucial requirement for the most senior wrestlers. Publicly berating your brother is not hinkaku-like behavior, but this is something Taka surely knows.

The brothers grew up in the sumo ring, the nephews and sons of wrestlers, and both now belong to the stable their father runs. Stories about their childhood depict older Waka as carefree and younger Taka as earnest, with greater sumo potential. Their mother has described watching her husband's sumo matches on TV with Taka in her lap. When his father lost, Taka would cry. At 15, Taka entered his father's stable. Four years ago, at 22, he became a yokozuna, or top wrestler, one of the youngest to attain the rank.

"Taka is a thoroughbred," says sumo fan Miharu Hasegawa, a translator from Nagoya, Japan. "Sumo is all he knows." And that, many commentators say, is the root of his problems today. Like fellow child athletes Jennifer Capriati of American tennis, and more recently Romanian gymnast Dominique Moceanu, Taka is chafing against a life that offered him little choice about his future.

Ms. Capriati rebelled with drugs and alcohol, Ms. Moceanu at 17 recently "divorced" from her parents.

Taka is disrupting the harmony of the sumo world by publicly turning his back on his family and spurning his brother - refusing even to shake hands with him.

"It's something you see across the board in sports, the kid who is given a tennis racket to hold before they can walk," says Mark Schilling, who does English sumo commentary on Japanese TV. "In [Taka's] family, the tradition goes back 50 years. The kid was molded into this chosen role from the very beginning. It can create problems."

The tension began this May, sportswriters say, after Waka was named a yokozuna. Many say Taka had worked harder and made difficult sacrifices for the honor.

At 20, he ended his engagement to a young actress when his parents reportedly insisted the love match would jeopardize his chances of becoming a yokozuna. The press criticized him mercilessly. His older brother doesn't train as hard, doesn't have as good a record, and married the woman he loves. Yet the JSA, of which their father is an influential member, still made Waka a yokozuna. If this brotherly tiff is fueled by Taka's resentment, many say it's understandable. Neither Taka nor his family is granting interviews, but this fall his father spoke to reporters. He blamed Taka's trainer for "brainwashing" his son.

Others see a less Machiavellian scheme. "From what I gather," one sumo commentator writes, "the [trainer] simply told Takanohana that he should start thinking more about what he wants and less about what his family wants."

Will the brothers meet in the ring?

In some ways, the Taka-Waka rift has been a bittersweet blessing for sumo. In the early 1990s, when Taka and Waka were marching up the ranks, they drew crowds of screaming girls. But controversy has tarred sumo, and in 1995 a national poll found baseball had become the country's most popular athletic diversion (see chart at left).

Some fans would like sumo's tradition-bound rules eased to make the sport more exciting. Others say that six 15-day matches a year is too much. Many dislike the JSA's plans to cut back on foreign wrestlers from places like the United States (especially Hawaii) and Taiwan, who they feel are too dominant.

But sumo's real problems have been outside the ring. Last year, authorities nabbed the JSA for not paying its taxes. It was a tame scandal compared to earlier troubles. A magazine series in the mid-1990s charged that sumo was rife with fixed matches, mob ties, and drug use. Two former wrestlers wrote the series and had plans for a book. Just before publication, both men died - on the same day, of the same cause, within hours of each other. The deaths were deemed natural, but suspicions linger.

Now more people are tuning into the sport again, interested in seeing 350-pound Taka meet his 288-pound sibling in the ring. As wrestlers from the same stable, they would compete only if tied for the lead on the last day of a tournament. It almost happened at the autumn contest, and fans are sure to tune in to the next tournament in January to see if it could happen. "When two wrestlers are in the ring, they are enemies, not friends," says Takeshi Hayashi, a JSA spokesman. "It doesn't matter whether they are brothers or friends, they are professional wrestlers. It's the same for Waka and Taka."

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