Bad Break: Yokozuna Retires Over Nose Job

This has been updated to correct details regarding victim and Japan Sumo Association’s decision.

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Asashoryu announced his retirement Thursday after two weeks of controversy over his involvement in an early morning altercation that resulted in a man’s broken nose. At the press conference, his oyakatta, Takasago, was asked what kind of rikishi Asa had been. Takasago replied, “sonno mama” – “see for yourself.” Indeed, everyone present could see for themselves that Asa was one of the greatest rikishi ever – fast, flexible, strong, and fierce.

Despite his great performances, Asa and the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) never got along.  Some of the problem was Asa’s unruly ways, and some of it was the JSA’s immovable ways.  Now that they’ve split, Asa will likely prosper.  The JSA may not fare so well because it cannot recognize that it is an international organization.  The most important rikishi in sumo are largely foreigners.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. This is roughly what happened, point-by-point in “Asa vs. the Club Owner” as gathered from news reports and hearsay:

  • After the sixth day of the New Year’s tournament at 4 a.m. on Jan. 16, Asashoryu was brought to the attention of the cops. He had been drinking at a nightclub (cabaret club) near Nishi-Azabu.

Asa thinks so little of his first week’s opponents that he makes it more challenging by drinking all night?

  • Prior to meeting the cops, Asa and the owner of the club had argued on the street.  The owner claimed later that Asa had whacked him and broke his nose.

One rumor had it that the owner was Chinese and somehow had laid claimed to Asa’s victories for China, which would have seemed imprudent at best; intentionally provoking at worst.  However, at least one magazine has referred to the owner as  “Yamada”.

  • After the confrontation, Asa and the owner go for a ride.  The car slows near some cops who are investigating a fender-bender and the owner shouts that he’s being kidnapped and that Asa is threatening to kill him. Cops intervene and some days after the incident  Asa makes good with the owner by giving him $100,000 in apology.

Now, where I come from a $100,000 for a broken nose is easy money and if Asa were still offering, I’d be the first in line.  But he’s not – he is, as of this writing, rich, single, 29, and in Hawaii.

  • The story is kept quiet as Asa goes on to win his 25th Emperor’s Cup and move into third place all-time behind Taiho (32) and Chiyonofuji (31). When the story does come out, Asa’s manager claims to have been the perp.

Note to all managers: Do not attempt your own crisis and issue management. You will fail. To all students of media relations:  The cover up is often worse than what you would hide.

  • News commentators scream for the yokozuna’s retirement. Finally, a showdown comes February 4, when Asa and Takasago meet with the JSA board.  One report had it that he was offered a choice: one year suspension (five tournaments) or retirement.  A more recent explanation , and  likely more accurate, was that board was split seven for forcing Asa out and three for a year  suspension. Chiyonofuji called Takasago and informed him of the vote. Asa decided to retire.

I earlier said that Asa chose what is known in business school as BATNA — best alternative to a negotiated agreement – he said to hell with it.  However,  it may have been that the board had take a lesson from the Don Corleone School of Diplomacy and made Asa an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Even if Asa had been able to get the one year suspension, it wouldn’t have been a happy outcome for him. The only thing to gain by staying in sumo was a shot at breaking the record for tournament wins.  But that would be hard even without the suspension.  The JSA last year began enforcing the rule for getting set at the start of a match.  It was a thinly veiled effort to slow Asa and his winning down.  A one year suspension would have all but stopped him.

The JSA wanted to show that nobody is bigger than the JSA.  It did.  It also showed that nobody is smaller than the JSA.

Strange TV

This was a disaster for sumo and Hakuho’s response drove the point home. The Friday morning wide new shows ran footage of Hakuho crying as he tried to make a statement.  He seemed to understand what the JSA didn’t.  Sumo needs Asa and so does he.  Hakuho is a great yokozuna in his own right, but this is Gehrig without Ruth; Frazier without Ali.

Since the scandal broke, TBS seemed to be in favor of a forced retirement, plus flogging and burning at the stake.  The TBS morning show repeatedly listed all of Asa’s infractions, some serious — the confrontations with Kyokushuzan — and others trivial — Asa in baggy shorts in Hawaii.  By Friday morning, however, TBS was nostalgic for Asa.

Fuji TV’s Tokudane Times reported that details of the incident – that were not public – indicated that the JSA had the option of allowing Asa to stay active.  Mainoumi said that the JSA members were tired of issuing warnings.  They just didn’t felt like keeping Asa around, though they could have.

Fuji TV’s Reiko Yokono had managed to get to Asa as he was leaving the JSA meeting.  She said that Asa kindly touched her face and thanked her for all of her work.  She then went into a segment on what it was like to cover Asa – showing video of him laughing and playing a guitar, interpreting for his parents, and several incidents of him telling her and the rest of the press to get lost.

On Saturday, Fuji TV continued its coverage, sending a reporter to ask foreigners what they thought.  He found a lot of foreigners who hadn’t really thought about it.  To save the story, the reporter went out of his way to find some foreigners who, he said, understood Japanese culture:  Foreigners studying at a bonsai school.  Their answer:  The teacher, Takasago, should have taken better care of the student, Asa.

Come on, reporter, are you serious? Asking a bonsai expert about Asashoryu is akin to asking an Elvis expert about the U.S.-Iraqi War.  Regardless of the answer, it’s not going to carry much weight – and that’s not the expert’s fault.  It’s the reporter’s.

Monday arrived with the wide shows covering the “Asashoryu Shock.”  Apparently some producers were unable to come to grips with the fact that Asa would rather golf in Hawaii than be vilified in Tokyo.

JSA has shot itself in the head.  It might recover, but will it be any smarter?  It needs to recognize that foreigner rikishi view sumo as a professional sport.  It needs to admit that it needs foreigner rikishi to keep fans showing up.  It may try to encourage the promotion of Kotooshu or Baruto to yokozuna to expand the interest in Europe, but every champion from now on will have a question over his head:  What if Asa had been here?

The JSA wanted the crowds and the excitement, and Asa brought both. But he also behaved badly and threatened to own all sumo records – an unacceptable combination.  As the reporter Yokono said after the press conference — all the reporters were asking themselves what they would report on now that Asa was gone.  He will be missed.

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