Sunday, February 6, 2011

The End of Sumo?


Last year I wrote a long post detailing a visit to Chiyotaikai's retirement ceremony. For me, it also marked my last time going to a sumo event as the sport had become scandal-ridden and terribly boring. I mentioned that I would write a post detailing the situation but never quite got around to it. I'm glad I waited, because in the past week, yet another scandal broke that may serve to end sumo as we know it.

First, a brief look back at the other stories that left the sumo world embarrassed. In June, 2007, a young wrestler named Takashi Saito died after being beaten with a beer bottle and baseball bat. Initially the incident was covered up but after Saito's father demanded an autopsy, the truth was revealed. The master of the stable was dismissed from sumo and eventually arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 6 years in prison. Meanwhile, 3 other wrestlers involved were not punished until February, 2008, illustrating just how slow the sumo world was to react. Remember, this was murder, pure and simple.

Then in August, 2008, a Russian wrestler named Wakanoho lost his wallet with a small amount of marijuana in it. Japan is usually a libertarian society (at least legally), but not when it comes to any sort of illegal drug. Wakanoho was expelled (he's now playing college football for a small school in Florida) and the following month, drug testing was conducted on all wrestlers. Two more Russians were found to have traces of marijuana in their systems and they too were sent packing.

There were so many differences in the way these two incidents were handled, and it shows how foreigners get short shrift in Japan. If you are Japanese and kill someone, a cover-up ensues and the punishment is withheld until the pressure becomes too much to bear. But a joint in the wallet of a foreign wrestler (or traces of the drug in a test) is an immediate career-ender. It was about this time I gave up on sumo, which seemed to say drugs are bad but beating the crap out of youngsters is OK.

Despite assurances that sumo would improve its image, the problems continued unabated. Exactly one year ago, Yokozuna Asashoryu, a Mongolian who was not well-liked due to his aggressive attitude, (despite their huge size, wrestlers are expected to be polite and humble at all times) was forced to retire after beating up a civilian outside a nightclub. I liked Asashoryu as he added some much-needed colour to the sport, but he had a long history of pissing off the sumo elders and this was the last straw. Since his retirement, fellow Mongolian and Yokozuna Hakuho has won all 6 tournaments. Yawn.

Then later last year, it was revealed that many wrestlers were betting on baseball games. This led to some of them owing large amounts to members of the yakuza, or Japanese mafia. This time, the response was swift and a top wrestler, Kotomitsuki, was fired and other wrestlers were demoted. It seemed like the world of sumo had hit rock bottom.

Until last week. After years of speculation, there was finally proof that some sumo matches were rigged. Some wrestlers had left incriminating texts that discussed how to throw the next day's match on their cell phones. A police investigation into the baseball betting incident had brought these other messages to light, and fans reacted with horror and indignation. What's funny about this is that any sumo fan (or reader of Freakonomics) knows that certain matches were fixed. Wrestlers fight 15 matches in a tournament and need to win 8 or more to move up the rankings. Seven or less wins, and a demotion results with a possible cut in pay. So what happens when, on the last day, a 7-7 wrestlers meets one who has already secured his majority of wins? About 80% of the time the guy needing the win gets it, far above what would be expected if things were on the level.

The reason behind match-fixing is easily explained by incentives. Sumo wrestlers are divided into two groups: the top 70 wrestlers are paid at least $10,000 a month, while number 71 and below get maybe $1,000 a month (dollar amounts are approximate due to exchange rate variations). There are other assorted benefits with being in that top group, so there is a strong incentive to stay there. Paying your already-successful opponent $500 to take a dive is the logical action when compared to the possibility of having your monthly salary cut by 90%.

Still, this scandal has shaken Japan, and is being reported on breathlessly by every media outlet. In a shocking move, the sumo board reacted by cancelling the March tournament that was to be held in Osaka. This is the first time in 65 years a tournament has been cancelled and in my mind, signals an end to the tradition-bound world of sumo.

The sport has been around for centuries and has remained essentially the same as it was back then. Arguments for change were always met by the standard defense of "tradition", which left sumo looking awkward and out-of-date as the rest of the world moved forward. Few young people became fans and sumo lagged in popularity behind baseball and soccer. Now that a shake-up is finally happening, sumo should benefit in the long run with more transparency, new forward-thinking leadership, and a chance to re-invent its image.

It's interesting in that the sumo world is really a representative microcosm of Japanese society. Led by powerful oldtimers who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, the society slowly crumbles under their watch while the public stands by in ignorance. Scandals come and go but no serious changes are made as things get worse and worse. Only a huge event that serves as a catalyst can leave the public informed sweeping change initiated. This is the same model that Japanese military followed during WWII, and the government is following it now as the population ages with not nearly enough children or immigrants to take their place in the workforce. I'm not sure what event will finally get people to wake up and realize the country will be bankrupt in 50 years (or less), but Japan has always found a way to survive, so I'm guessing they will do so here as well.

That of course, will be long after I'm gone, so all I can look forward to is seeing if sumo has really changed. The next tournament takes place in Tokyo in May; by then we should have an idea of how this will play out, so I'll post something around that time to keep everyone updated.

Best,

Sean

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