Hazings, Weed and Corruption: Nobody Wants to Be a Sumo Any More
If, like me, you were ten years old around the turn of the century, then there's a chance that you shared my dream of becoming a pro wrestler. The last months of my childhood were largely spent in the park trying to harm my friends with all the moves I'd seen on TV. Fast forward a few years and the 90s had become the 00s, the WWF had become the WWE and my days were still largely spent in parks, but this time I was getting fucked up with my friends rather than fucking up my friends. The wrestling dream had died with the onset of girls and drink – it was as if the first time we drunkenly fingered someone at a house party we found a switch up there that instantly made us stop wanting to be wrestlers. Now it seems that even pro wrestling's noble Japanese cousin, sumo, is faced with the same problem.
I don't know how closely you've been following, but sumo's reputation has been on the slide since 2007, when a 17-year-old trainee was beaten to death in a vicious hazing ritual. The boy was tied to a pole by his trainer and three wrestlers who then decided it'd be a good idea to attack him with beer bottles and a baseball bat for 20 minutes. This was followed by another scandal in 2011, when the Japanese Sumo Association was forced to cancel the March tournament amid widespread allegations of match fixing. This was the first time a tournament had been cancelled since the Second World War and 23 wrestlers ended up being expelled from the sport. In 2012, there was the lowest intake of sumo recruits in 54 years.
As the Western media has a tendency to sensationalise things, I wanted to find out if people in Japan thought the sport could ever reclaim its honourable image, so I decided to have a chat with Doreen Simmons. Originally from the UK, Doreen has lived in Japan for 38 years. She is a writer and English language commentator and has been known as the “Voice of Sumo” since the 70s. Nobody knows more about sumo than Doreen. At least no one whose first language is English.
Doreen with three sumo trainees in 2010.
VICE: Hey Doreen. So where does your fascination with Sumo come from?
Doreen Simmons: I visited Japan in the 60s and I saw sumo on TV – incidentally my first experience of colour TV. Five years later I went to live there and as soon as the Tokyo tournament opened, I went and I've been going every Saturday, Sunday and public holiday since. My original interest was in its survival from the past, but after a while I got to know some of the middle-ranking wrestlers, along with some extremely knowledgeable Japanese fans, who fuelled my interest in the sport.
Is the sport still popular with spectators?
There are different ways of looking at it. The people who pay their money and keep on going are as interested as they always were. The people who complain that sumo isn't what it was mostly turn out to have no deep connection. Maybe they used to go with their fathers or grandfathers as kids, and have never been as adults unless they get one of the free seats that come with bags of goodies.
Most of the good downstairs seats are managed by so-called "chaya", which means tea houses. The chaya make very little on the sale of tickets and make their profit from providing carrier bags of goodies – they include lunches, drinks and souvenirs such as cups with sumo motifs.
Okay. The reigning yokozuna [champion] Harumafuji has said that the decline in new recruits is the result of the "age of convenience" – he says that Japanese kids today don't want to work hard to attain their goals. Do you agree with him?
Basically, yes. That and the fact that Japanese kids mostly have a lot of other options. Parents, too, often urge their sons to try for a bit more education.
Reigning yokozuna, Harumafuji takes down an opponent.
So do modern Japanese parents not see sumo as a desirable career?
Very few make it to the top ranks, where they get a regular salary, have their own fan clubs and are waited upon by their juniors. So for the kids who haven't got much talent, sumo has never been much more than a way of getting room and board. Some experts are saying that the lower numbers now entering consist more of really talented youngsters who have a real chance of succeeding; the ones being dissuaded, are the ones with no noticeable talents for anything; so driving a delivery truck or something may be a better way of earning a regular living.
That's a bit depressing. Do you think the scandals in sumo in recent years has seen the sport lose its honourable roots?
It's always had the good and the bad, the only problems that are more recent are the smoking of pot (particularly by a small number of foreigners), taking steroids and people fixing matches. They found evidence of the latter on people's cell phones.
Match fixing lead to the cancellation of a tournament last year. Is this an emerging threat to the sport?
Actually match fixing has always been a part of sumo as we know it, since the late 18th and early 19th century. But it was considered "gentlemen's sumo" – on the last day, if you have your eight wins and are therefore safe from demotion, and your opponent is on 7-7 and desperately needs that extra win, it used to be considered a done deal to give him the favour (and you would expect him to pay you back with a similar favour when you needed it). What's different with the cell phone stuff is that this was all for money.
The biggest scandal in recent years was when sumo trainee Takashi Saito died in a hazing ritual. What happened there?
It was a hazing that went badly wrong, and of course it didn't make the headlines that the other 50-odd heyas did NOT kill anybody. The particular features of the Takashi case were that the father more or less forced him into sumo. He had got in with a bad crowd after leaving school and was wasting his youth. Like many parents before him, Tokashi's father hoped that the strict life of a sumo stable would straighten him out. But then the kid got in with another wrong crowd. The stable master had a drinking problem and was genuinely pissed off with Takashi's behaviour, and ordered the beating. When he sobered up and realised T was dead, he informed the parents but tried to get the body cremated so as to only send the ashes to the family.
Junichi Yamamoto was sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter in 2009.
So he tried to cover it up, but was found out?
The father thought it was fishy and demanded his son's body. Then all hell broke loose because anybody could see the kid had been beaten to death. However, once the facts emerged, the Sumo Association bigwigs stripped the stable master of his stable and his elder status (worth millions of yen), leaving him with nothing and then let the justice system take its course. The ex-stable master is now doing time.
Obviously the case with Takashi was an extreme case, but are hazing rituals commonplace in heyas and are they usually violent?
Sometimes it can be hard for an outsider to tell what is a hazing and what is encouragement. I once watched an oykata [sumo elder] train a new recruit, a teenager. He was giving him a real going-over, urging him to charge at his chest, again and again; the kid ended up on the ground, panting and his mentor kicked him and shouted, “Get up! You're not in primary school! What are you made of?” From somewhere inside, the youngster found extra strength, picked himself up, and eyes blazing, charged again and again and again.
The whole time a man in a suite was watching from the stalls. The man was the teenager's father and had been a contemporary of the trainer. They had been in sumo together and had a strong bond, even in their retirement years. A year earlier the man in the suite had a severe stroke and could never again train with his son. So the father's old friend had become the teenager’s trainer and was doing his best to get the message across – since the boy's father couldn't do it himself any more. So sure, the life of a sumo trainee is hard but that doesn't mean that they are mistreated.
Has the popularity of Western sports affected sumo's following?
Well baseball has always had a larger following than sumo, and back in the 1990s a whole soccer business was started up – J League. This stole a lot of fans as they preferred to see their local team every week rather than going to a once-a-year local exhibition.
What do you think the future holds for the sport?
Popularity comes in waves and when I was doing live commentary yesterday the hall [in Fukuoka, Kyushu] was a full house, and full of cheers. Nearly all the naysayers don't bother to pay their money and go and see sumo. Good sumo is good sumo and will be applauded, no matter who is doing it.
Follow Matthew on Twitter: @matthewfrancey
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