Japan's national sport wrestles with latest act of violence
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[November 21, 2017]
By Ami Miyazaki and Linda Sieg
FUKUOKA/TOKYO, Japan - (Reuters) - A
probe into an assault by a sumo grand champion against a junior
wrestler threatens to stain the image of Japan's ancient national
sport just as its popularity was recovering from previous scandals
and a shrinking fan base.
While some wrestlers say the harsh conditions that can breed
violence in the closed, hierarchical sumo world have improved in the
decade since a teenage wrestler was beaten to death, the new
incident shows the path to reform remains a rocky one.
"Certainly, it's not as widespread as before," said sumo commentator
John Gunning by email, before adding: "The 'reforms' were really
only distributed guidelines... Very little in the way of practical
efforts to change the culture."
Mongolian "yokozuna" (grand champion) Harumafuji apologized last
week after media reported he had pounded junior wrestler Takanoiwa
with his bare fists and a beer bottle while drinking at a
restaurant-bar with other wrestlers last month.
The 33-year-old Harumafuji was angered when he noticed the younger
wrestler checking his smart phone while he was being chastised for
having a bad attitude, the reports said.
Conflicting reports have emerged about what took place and how
serious Takanoiwa's injuries were. However, he is not taking part in
an ongoing tournament due to a fracture, concussion and other
injuries, according to the Japan Sumo Association (JSA).
A JSA official told reporters on Sunday that Harumafuji had admitted
hitting the 27-year-old Takanoiwa but it remained "still uncertain"
whether he had used a beer bottle in the assault.
The affair has grabbed headlines and upset fans, some of whom had
been lured back to the sport after the promotion of Japan-born
Kisenosato to the highest rank in January.
Kisenosato became the first home-grown grand champion in 19 years,
during which sumo had trouble attracting native sons to an arena
dominated by foreign-born wrestlers.
"As a sumo fan, I am so sad and also feel scared. So many things
seem to be covered up," said Kazunari Maguchi, 48, a bar owner who
traveled from Tokyo last Sunday to see the 15-day tournament in
Fukuoka, southern Japan.
Fans packed the convention center where the bouts are being held
through to Sunday, while TV cameras jostled outside trying to catch
key players in the saga.
Police are also investigating the incident after former grand
champion Takanohana, who is Takanoiwa's "oyakata" (the wrestler's
coach and stable master), filed a complaint.
Takanohana, a JSA director, has advocated reforms of a sport in
which only senior wrestlers have monthly salaries, can marry and
live outside "stables", and where juniors are subjected to tough
communal living conditions.
But he has also come under fire for an apparent delay in informing
JSA officials about last month's punch-up.
STRUGGLE WITH VIOLENCE
The origins of sumo, in which giant wrestlers clad in loin-cloths
seek to topple or push their opponents out of the ring, stretch back
centuries and its traditions have links to Japan's Shinto religion.
The sport has struggled with violence before.
[to top of second column]
Mongolian-born grand sumo champion Yokozuna Harumafuji performs the
New Year's ring-entering rite at the annual celebration for the New
Year at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, Japan January 6, 2017. REUTERS/Issei
A former oyakata was sentenced to five years in prison in 2010 after
a court found he had ordered wrestlers three years earlier to beat
17-year-old trainee Takashi Saito, who had tried to run away from
the gym. Saito died from his injuries.
Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu quit the sport that same year after a
probe into reports of a drunken scuffle in Tokyo.
"I'm truly angered by the fact that nothing has changed in the world
of sumo," Saito's father, Masato, told Kyodo news agency in an
interview. "What did Takashi's death mean?"
Some wrestlers say conditions have improved.
"When I entered this world, violence was an everyday thing," said a
wrestler, who has been a professional for nearly two decades and is
taking part in the current tournament.
"But times have changed," he told Reuters.
"Now we should treat newcomers with special care -- no scolding, not
to mention hitting. Even oyakata tell us to be careful and not to
scold young wrestlers, as the tend to easily quit or run away."
Not all stables, however, are as progressive.
"Stables are essentially independent entities akin to families, so
it's impossible for the association to monitor what goes on in all
of them 24 hours a day," Gunning added.
Some at the top may have little sympathy for juniors who prefer a
"I was able to withstand the tough training, as I had heard it would
be really strict," Harumafuji told Reuters in a 2009 interview after
being promoted to the sport's second highest rank of "ozeki".
Japanese media have speculated that Harumafuji will have to quit the
sport, an outcome some fans say they would regret.
Only one grand champion, Mongolian Hakuho, remains in the current
tournament, the last of six held each year. Harumafuji pulled out
after news of the assault incident and two others have dropped out
because of injuries.
"Becoming a yokozuna is such a hard thing and Harumafuji did it,"
said homemaker Akemi Kobayashi, a 52-year-old sumo fan. "I don't
want him to be made the bad guy."
(Editing by John O'Brien)
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