Japanese sumo scandals threaten to topple Nagoya tournament

Japanese sumo scandals involving gambling and mob ties could upend an upcoming Nagoya tournament. Friday, public broadcaster NHK made the unprecedented threat to pull coverage of the tournament.

Recent scandals involving Japanese sumo wrestlers and gambling threaten to cancel a major tournament. Sumo wrestlers are pictured in Tokyo.
Estonian Sekiwake Baruto (r.) pushed Ozeki Kotomitsuki out of the ring in Osaka, Japan, in March.

The uncovering of an illegal mob-run gambling ring in sumo has further tarnished Japan's centuries-old national sport after a string of recent scandals and may lead to the first cancellation of a tournament in the postwar era. Sponsors have pulled out of the Nagoya Basho (tournament) – due to start July 11 – after dozens of wrestlers, senior officials, and others involved in the sport admitted gambling on baseball through a syndicate run by yakuza, or mafia.

Japan's public broadcasting network, NHK, added to the sport's woes Friday by announcing it might drop coverage of the event. The network said it had received 8,200 public comments, only about 10 percent of which supported going ahead with airing the Nagoya Basho.

"We will wait until after the Sumo Association announces its measures and decide what to do after that," said NHK spokesman Yuichiro Ishii. "We will weigh viewers' opinion about whether it should be shown."

The Japan Sumo Association (JSA) is set to make a decision on disciplinary action on July 4. It is considering suspending or expelling 14 wrestlers and 13 coaches, but announced this week that it would hold its next tournament as planned.

Blackmail over gambling debts

The latest scandal began May 20 when a weekly magazine claimed that senior wrestler Kotomitsuki was being blackmailed over his gambling debts. Ironically, the source of Kotomitsuki's troubles appears to have been his winnings: Having complained to his bookmaker about not receiving 5 million yen ($55,000) in payments on bets, he was approached by a mob-connected ex-wrestler who extorted 3.5 million yen in hush money. The mobster is alleged to have demanded a further 100 million yen ($1.1 million), which Kotomitsuki refused to pay.

Kotomitsuki confessed, leading to investigations – and the confessions of more wrestlers as well as stable-masters, who are supposed to act as mentors to wrestlers. One of the main middlemen is said to have been a hairdresser for the wrestlers' distinctive topknots.

"If the investigation is thorough, it will show that this is widespread and goes back as far as anyone can remember," says longtime sumo observer Mark Schreiber.

Legal gambling in Japan is restricted to on-site betting on horses, speedboats, and cycling – all government-controlled. In addition there is the huge gray area of pachinko, a kind of vertical pinball game.

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, which oversees sumo, has held crisis meetings with the JSA, and there have been calls to put sumo on the same financial footing as other professional sports.

More than just another sport

But despite its recent troubles and relative decline in popularity, sumo is still more than just another sport to many Japanese, steeped as it is in ancient rituals tied to the Shinto religion. In 1854, when American Commodore Perry's Black Ships sailed into Tokyo Bay demanding Japan open up to trade, sumo wrestlers were paraded as symbols of the country's potency.

Many previous scandals of recent years have been centered round foreign wrestlers, much to Japanese relief. In 2008, three Russian grapplers were expelled for drug use, though a Japanese national also later tested positive. This year, grand champion Asashoryu – the third-most successful wrestler in sumo history and a Mongolian – had to retire after allegedly beating someone while on a drunken night out during the Tokyo Basho (which he went on to win).

But foreigners can't always be blamed: In May, as the betting scandal unfolded, it emerged that stable-masters had given ringside seats to yakuza bosses at tournaments. The mobsters allegedly wanted to be seen by incarcerated gang members on the NHK broadcasts. The JSA took the unprecedented step of disbanding one of the sumo stables involved.

Yet some say this still won't be enough to stop the Nagoya Basho, or deprive sumo of its privileged status. "It's hard to believe the ... tournament will be canceled, since the most prominent miscreant, Ozeki Kotomitsuki, is being punished with a suspension rather than an expulsion, while the other wrestlers are getting similar slaps on the wrist," says former NHK sumo commentator Mark Schilling. "A cancelation would result in a huge loss of money and face."

One fan says Nagoya must at least set an example. "They have to get rid of all ... who gambled on baseball," says Koichiro Ohara. "If the Nagoya Basho is ... held, none of those wrestlers can be in it, even if it means the competition is not so strong."


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