TOKYO — Covered in bruises and burns, Takashi Saito lay motionless in his sumo stable.
The 17-year-old novice had entered the competitive world of sumo wrestling just three months before and was training with other apprentices. But on that summer day in 2007, he collapsed in what the stable and the sport’s regulator chalked up to a training mishap. Police ruled his subsequent death as caused by heart disease.
But it was no accident. Following an autopsy demanded by Saito’s father, it was revealed he had been beaten to death.
An investigation would later find that his stable master, Junichi Yamamoto, had ordered three other wrestlers to beat him as punishment for his alleged poor performance in training. The wrestlers fatally pummeled the newcomer using a metal bat and a beer bottle.
Saito’s violent death at the time rattled Japan, where sumo wrestling originated hundreds of years ago and continues to be held in high regard.
Yamamoto was expelled from the sport and sentenced to six years in prison. In a subsequent investigation, the sport’s governing body, the Japan Sumo Association, found that more than 90 percent of stables had wrestlers who used baseball bats or similar blunt objects to beat their wrestlers.
But the violence didn’t stop there. Despite pledges by the Sumo Association to end abusive practices in the sport, hazing has continued largely unabated behind the closed doors of sumo stables, with complaints downplayed or concealed from the public by the powerful association, current and former wrestlers told VICE World News.
Such violence has caused scandal as recently as December, when two wrestlers were found to have bullied a member of their own stable by pouring boiling water on his back, stomping on his abdomen, and hitting him on the head with timber during training.
Despite the occasional uproar over these incidents, abusive behavior remains prevalent in sumo stables, Shota, an active wrestler, told VICE World News.
“I don’t think the world of sumo will ever see violence completely eradicated. No matter how hard you try to change it, I think it’ll definitely still happen,” Shota said, using a pseudonym for fear of jeopardizing his career.
“I can only hope that the same thing doesn’t happen to other wrestlers.”
Shota said he had wanted to be a sumo wrestler since the age of 10, but if he’d known what would happen to him years later, he might never have set foot in the ring.
Tasked with carrying his senior stablemate’s belongings one evening several years ago, Shota forgot an item, prompting his senior to punch and slap him for an hour, leaving him covered in bruises.
“I can only hope that the same thing doesn’t happen to other wrestlers,” he said.
Kanata Matsubara, a 30-year-old retired wrestler formerly known as Takatenshu, said violence was commonplace when he was an active sumo wrestler just three years ago. “I saw everything from light knocks on the head to people getting beaten with shoes or hangers,” he told VICE World News.
In 2016, a sumo wrestler and his stable master paid 32.4 million yen, or about $300,000, to a fellow wrestler who allegedly endured such violent daily abuse that he lost sight in one eye.
Sometimes the violence was so bad, Matsubara said, that wrestlers wouldn’t be able to compete in their bouts, which they win by shoving each other until they successfully push their opponent out of the ring or onto the ground.
“I think that violence crosses a line when it affects their ability to make a living,” he said.
It’s difficult for the public to grasp what actually goes on inside the sport because crimes are swept under the rug, the wrestlers VICE World News spoke to claim. The Sumo Association, which maintains a tight grip on access to wrestlers and sport events, wields great influence over what is reported in Japanese media.
“On Japanese TV shows, I am specifically told to refrain from criticizing the association—to avoid any trouble,” Nobuya Kobayashi, a freelance sports writer who has covered sumo for two decades, told VICE World News. He said he felt more comfortable commenting on the association to a foreign news outlet.
Like with many other sports in Japan, in order to get access to and report on the Sumo Association, reporters must usually be part of an exclusive journalists’ club governed in part by the organization. If journalists overstep, the association could restrict their access to wrestlers or even ban them from attending certain bouts, Kobayashi said.
This kind of gatekeeping is a common practice in Japan, where large organizations closely guard access to themself using a system called kisha club, or journalist club. Researchers have found that journalists regularly self-censor in order to keep their membership and maintain access to official sources. Human rights groups and Japanese journalists have criticized the system for inhibiting criticism of major institutions.
In 2018, when stable master Takanohana was dismissed from his director post by the Sumo Association for the way he handled an assault scandal, reporters on the sumo beat withheld that information from the public in fear of offending the organization, Kobayashi said.
When the broadcaster TV Asahi featured a solo interview with the ousted Takanohana, ignoring the association’s wishes, it was banned from using sumo footage on its channel.
The Japan Sumo Association declined VICE World News’ repeated requests for comment.
Violence in sports and the martial arts are not unheard of. But in sumo, which has largely remained unchanged since it first became a competitive sport at the beginning of the 17th century, abuse is seen as par for the course, athletes say.
“That’s what happens when the people in charge are still stuck in the Showa way of thinking,” Shota, the wrestler, explained, referring to the reign of the Japanese Showa emperor from 1926 to 1989, when it was commonplace even for school teachers to hit kids if they did something wrong.
As a tide of accusations inundated sumo’s governing body following Saito’s premature death at 17, the Japan Sumo Association vowed to eliminate behind-the-scenes violence from the sport.
In 2017, the Sumo Association moved to provide wrestlers with a hotline they could call to report any violence they faced. But Shota, the active wrestler, said the phone number is all the support he’s provided, and it’s barely used because many fear risking their careers by reporting cases.
A year later, the association also composed a seven-point list that all sumo wrestlers and stables had to abide by. The guidelines included raising awareness of violent crimes and defining abuse.
Experts say that the sport’s inability to stamp out violence comes from the very structure of sumo itself.
In Japan, sumo is the only professional competitive sport that requires all wrestlers to live in stables, which function like a house. Athletes endure gruesome and lengthy practices in these homes for up to five hours each day and take most of their meals here. As of November 2022, there were 44 stables across Japan, some housing as many as 24 wrestlers.
Wrestlers are banned from having their own social media accounts and aren’t allowed to live outside these stables unless they marry. Their stable masters assume the role of adoptive father, one whose word is absolute law.
But the prospect of enormous riches and glory have enticed thousands of new recruits over the years, who are all promised housing and food. The select handful of wrestlers who make it big can earn millions of dollars yearly after bonuses and sponsorships. Conversely, lower ranking competitive wrestlers only make 13.2 million yen (about $98,700) annually. Apprentice wrestlers, those who aren’t considered professionals yet due to their inexperience, pocket about 462,000 yen (about $3,400) a year for participating in six tournaments annually.
As a result, a huge wealth disparity can exist between the wrestlers. But living expenses will be covered, they’re assured, and an allowance is given to cover basic things like athletic taping for mild injuries, clothing, or cellphone bills. If a wrestler is ever in need of surgery, the stable will provide.
But Daisuke Yanagihara, who retired two years ago during the COVID-19 pandemic, said he experienced something very different.
Before entering his stable about nine years ago, 24-year-old Yanagihara recalled how considerate his master was. He’d reassured the young wrestler that a high school education wasn’t necessary and he’d take care of him like a son. Yanagihara, formerly known as Kotokantetsu, was raised by a single mother and hadn’t grown up with a fatherly figure.
But after entering his stable, Yanagihara would see his stable master less and less frequently. Pretty soon, he and his fellow wrestlers were left to their own devices, fending for themselves with little money to spare on food.
Normally, when a sumo wrestler in Yanagihara’s stable required major treatment, his stable master offered financial compensation. But the 24-year-old received none of that support, he claimed, and when Yanagihara required heart surgery, he was forced to pay the entire bill himself. Eventually, it got so expensive that he had to ask his mother for help.
“I had to bow my head down and ask her for it, which was embarrassing because I told her that I’d look out for her from now on,” he told VICE World News.
Yanagihara also recalls being forced to pay his master 25,000 yen (about $196) at every Tokyo competition, which was held three times annually. It was a tax, the retired wrestler was told—though for what, his master never explained.
Then when COVID-19 began spreading rapidly throughout the world, Yanagihara asked to live in separate quarters or opt out of competitions. He was at high risk of health complications if he caught COVID-19 due to his recent heart operation, and he was worried about his health. But the Sumo Association maintained its strict rules throughout the pandemic. Wrestlers were still expected to live in close quarters and were only allowed to pull out of games if they contracted COVID-19 or came into close contact with someone who was infected.
Eventually, the fear of catching the virus would be too much for Yanagihara after he watched a fellow wrestler die from it. At age 22, a time when he was just coming up to his physical peak, he cut off his chonmage, the special topknot hairstyle of the wrestlers, and quit the sport.
“The biggest struggle for me was that I no longer had a home,” Yanagihara said about his retirement. His former stable declined VICE World News’ request for comment.
But the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the only health issue that’s rattled wrestlers. Obesity is also a serious concern for sumo athletes, who are known for their bulky and often overweight appearances.
Past reports show that the average life expectancy of sumo wrestlers was between 60 to 65, about 20 years shorter than the average Japanese male. Their BMI, a common measure of body fat, is often over 50 percent higher than the World Health Organization’s definition of obesity. Some wrestlers get so overweight that they have to sit while they sleep to breathe, wrestlers have said.
In May 2020, 28-year-old wrestler Kyotaka Omori died after contracting COVID-19. The virus is known to be more fatal for those with underlying health conditions, including diabetes, which the 111-kilogram wrestler had.
Just three months later, Masaru Maeta, 38, died after suffering from a heart attack while teaching sumo to children. He weighed more than 200 kilograms for most of his career. In November, Toyonoumi Shinji—one of the heaviest wrestlers of all time at over 200 kilograms—died at the age of 56 due to an unspecified illness.
After the death of Omori, Russian-born Anatoly Mikhakhanov, who has the record for being the heaviest sumo wrestler of all time, spoke about the dangers of obesity in the sport.
Mikhakhanov weighed over 292 kilograms at his peak and competed while having hypertension. When he retired to Russia in 2018, he struggled to walk long distances and had to use a breathing tank on strolls. “It’s never easy to stay healthy as long as you’re living the life of a sumo wrestler,” he told the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun.
“You are the only person that can take care of you. Nobody in your sumo stable cares about you,” he said.
To address health concerns, the Sumo Association has published 10 health guidelines for wrestlers. The advice includes avoiding fatty food, such as strawberry shortcake and potato chips, and chewing food well. The association also conducts biannual health check ups for its wrestlers. But despite these protocols, wrestlers say their health usually takes a backseat—in order to remain competitive and keep up in the sport, they must keep on fighting.
Wrestlers are effectively on their own, said Shota, the active wrestler. If all the violence and abuses in sumo come to light, “I think it’ll cease to exist,” Shota said.
“It won’t be considered a good sport to practice anymore, but more of a national embarrassment,” he said.
Despite these criticisms, change seems elusive for sumo.
Wrestlers like Shota are wary of trusting the Sumo Association, citing its refusal to let athletes sit out of tournaments even if they were fearful of catching COVID-19.
For Kobayashi, the sport’s future is in peril if changes aren’t introduced. Granting wrestlers more freedom and autonomy would be a start, he suggested, but that’s unlikely without a shock to the system.
“Perhaps if something big, like a scandal happened, then it’d change," he said.