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Scandals expose venerable sumo's shady underbelly

Scandals expose venerable sumo's shady underbelly

Sumo is more than a sport to Japan. It's like a religion, a bastion of traditional culture and a matter of national pride. Wrestlers aren't just athletes - they are icons, role models and, often, larger-than-life heroes.
Unless, of course, they are getting busted for smoking marijuana, breaking noses in drunken brawls or hobnobbing with gangsters.
And, these days, that's pretty much all the time.
Causing Japan much consternation, recent police investigations have exposed the colorful sport's cozy connections to the "yakuza" underworld, outside-the-ring violence and widespread recreational drug use, dragging sumo's venerable image through the dirt and prompting many to wonder if it can stand up to modern scrutiny.
Sumo's unrelenting scandals have gotten so bad that Japan's public broadcaster, for the first time since 1953, has pulled its ongoing tournament from the air, scrapping three hours of live, daily coverage for a 20-minute program of taped highlights.
Sponsors have bolted and fans are staying away in droves. At the 15-day contest now under way, where the stands are only about half full, police officers are prowling entrances under signs saying "Gangsters Keep Out." "It's a very tough situation for the wrestlers," said Tamako Imoi, a 63-year-old fan. "I love the sport, that's why I'm here. But I don't want them hanging around with criminals. They should live up to their traditions."
Sumo's latest quagmire involves a criminal investigation into dozens of top wrestlers and coaches who allegedly wagered tens of thousands of dollars on baseball, with gangsters as go-betweens.
The fracas started in the tabloid press, which has long alleged sumo is rife with underworld influences, including bout-fixing - allegations officials have repeatedly denied.
This time, however, the charges have stuck. Popular wrestler Kotomitsuki, who held the sport's second-highest rank, admitted last month he bet on professional baseball. Police say he was then extorted by a gangster who threatened to go public. Soon after Kotomitsuki's fall, coach Otake, who is a former wrestler, cried on national TV as he acknowledged running up betting debts of more than US$50,000.
The association sidelined both, and punished more than a dozen others - an unprecedented seven top wrestlers are sitting out the tournament. The association's chief was temporarily replaced by a former public prosecutor. "The crisis that we face is one unlike any we have experienced before, and we apologize to our fans," outgoing chairman Musashigawa said.
But many sumo watchers say the latest scandal merely underscores a close relationship sumo has had with the yakuza for decades, a relationship they say is likely to continue.
"Sumo is involved in organized crime because they've had a symbiotic relationship for years," said Jake Adelstein, a former crime beat reporter for a Japanese newspaper and author of the best-selling book "Tokyo Vice." "The wrestlers and the yakuza have a macho admiration for each other. The yakuza by being seen with the sumo wrestlers, acquire 'status' and the sumo wrestlers get money, booze, food, and women."


Updated : 2021-05-06 23:28 GMT+08:00