Bad Bets: Sumo’s World of Trouble

win a tournament.  He was 14th maegashira when he took down yokozuna Akebono and Musashimaru. This week he has been making the confessional rounds to the TV stations explaining how much he regretted becoming so deeply in debt betting on baseball games. As least he has been openly contrite. Ozeki Kotomitsuki, whose exposure as a chronic gambler precipitated the scandal, has yet to make a formal apology.  Apologies were left to his oyakatta, Sadogadake (the former Kotonowaka), who tearfully did so to reporters at the Kokugikan. Gambling is, apparently, a pastime for rikishi. A very big pastime: Twenty-six oyakatta and rikishi will be suspended for the Nagoya tournament, which begins Sunday.  At first, gambling might seem harmless enough, but becoming in debt to a mobster is the shortest route to yaocho – bout fixing.  I haven’t heard the word at all during the six weeks of this most recent, of many yakuza-related scandals, but surely it is on the minds of many. Yaocho in sumo has been on my mind since a lecture at Temple University on crisis communication in 2008.  Near the end, a student asked what it would take to precipitate a major crisis in sumo — one that would force a restructuring of the JSA.  The JSA was then reeling from its confused handling of the beating death of the teen-aged rikishi Tokitaizan, its suspension of Asashoryu for playing soccer, and a scandal involving marijuana, which resulted in four rikishi being kicked out.  Scandal after scandal had come along and yet nothing  changed except that Chairman Kitanoumi stepped down and Musashigawa took his place.  So, asked the student, what would it take to force the JSA to restructure? Money, I said, either gambling or drug, but it had to be enough to put the outcome of the bouts under of suspicion. It had to be enough money to pressure a rikishi into throwing matches — yaocho. At the heart of the current scandal is a former rikishi with yakuza ties who is suspected of trying to extort more than $1 million US from Kotomitsuki in exchange for keeping quiet about his gambling. Combine that with the common complaint that Kotomitsuki often failed to win big matches and it would be reasonable to wonder if yaocho was involved. The JSA is looking to kick Takatoriki and Kotomitsuki out of sumo – no pension, you’re fired, hit the road.  It may also close the Otake stable, which Takatoriki runs, and the Tokitsukaze stable. (JSA didn’t see the need to close the Tokitsukaze stable after the death of Tokitaizan, but it does now.) Even if the JSA does all these things, the investigation is far from over and NHK, which pays the JSA more than $30 million US a year to broadcast the tournaments live, is considering suspending broadcast of the Nagoya tournament.  NHK won’t decide about the broadcast until this weekend. In any serious crisis, there are other issues, which may exacerbate the situation.  In this case, the JSA is facing two: Loss of audience and internationalization. Issue 1: Decline in audience Even if NHK airs the Nagoya tournament, the JSA already has a problem with a lack of interest in the tournaments.  Two sumo tournaments have passed without Asashoryu or surprises.  Hakuho has crushed all opposition, winning both tournaments.  His win streak stands at 33, and he looks capable of going unbeaten for the rest of his life.  That’s not much of an exaggeration: In 2009, he set the record for wins in a year – with Asa in the game.  With Asa out, there is nobody is even close to him.  The JSA has seen declines before when a lone yokozuna (Taiho, Chiyonofuji, Asashoryu before Hakuho) dominated tournament after tournament. In addition, charismatic Asashoryu could resign from the JSA and go into free-fighting.  He would have a couple of huge pay days – even if he proves not to be any good. (The former yokozuna Akebono made good money initially despite being clearly inept in the ring.)  This scenario would be similar to Rikidozan, the ethnic Korean and former sumo rikishi, who led a pro wrestling boom in the 50s that undermined sumo’s audience then. Issue 2: Internationalization In 1964, Jesse James Wailani Kuhaulua left Hawaii to become Takamiyama in Japan. Takamiyama eventually rose to sumo’s third highest rank, sekiwake, and after an exceptionally long career, he became a Japanese citizen, taking the title of Oyakatta Azumazeki.  He recruited and trained Konishiki, the first foreign ozeki, and Akebono, the first foreign yokozuna.  The JSA didn’t mind too much — foreigners were good box office. It saw how popular Rikidozan had become dispatching legions of foreigners  and Takamiyama had opened up the US market. By the mid-90s, with Akebono a yokozuna, Konishiki still highly ranked, and Musashimaru moving up, it could be argued that the JSA was, in practice, international.  Certainly there can be no question about it now.  There are now 15 foreigners among the top 42 rikishi.  Of the five ozeki, only Kaiho and Kotomitsuki are Japanese, and Kotomitsuki will likely be gone soon.  The other ozeki are: Kotoshu, Bulgarian; Harumafuji, Mongolian; and Baruto, Estonian.  Since Musashimaru retired in 2002, there have been only two yokozuna, Hakuho and Asashoryu, both Mongolian.  Yet despite all this, the JSA recently moved to restrict the number of foreigners per beya and now requires that an oyakatta be a native Japanese citizen.  There will be no more naturalized oyakatta such as Takamiyama. The JSA wants foreign rikishi for the audiences they bring, but refuses to think of itself as international.  The JSA considers itself to be a culture organization and sumo is sumo, not sport.  If it were sport, then the JSA would have to be more transparent and it would, most likely, not be allowed the tax breaks and such that it gets as a cultural organization.  Shedding the quasi-religious veil could cost the JSA a lot of money.  Until it does begin to think of itself as an international sports organization, it will continue to have difficulty dealing with foreign rikishi.  Foreigners view sumo as a professional sport and they need contracts with clearly outlined requirements and fines for failing to adhere to those requirements.  They are not coming to sumo to participate in an ancient Japanese tradition.  They are coming because there is money to be made in sumo. Reorganize the JSA When this scandal began to fully erupt, an official of Ministry Education, Culture, and Sports, which oversees the JSA, remarked that it was time for the JSA to become more transparent and an independent corporation.  Hiroshi Murayama, a former Tokyo High Prosecutors Office chief, has been named acting chairman. Every crisis creates opportunity, let’s hope this is one.]]>