Last Sunday, when Hakuho raised the Emperor’s Cup for the 20th time it seemed that sumo had finally reached a turning point. It has been 18 months since Asashoryu’s comet crashed to earth and two years this week since I nearly pulled Asa into my party in Daikanyama. Since that time things have gone from bad to worse, to disastrous, as the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) struggled to deal with one scandal after another. Things are a little better now – Wednesday Kotoshogiku became the first new Japanese Ozeki in four years — and that will generate some local interest, attracting some fans back to the fold.
But it is a long road to redemption and it is not clear that the JSA can get anywhere close to it. While Hakuho has been cleaning up since Asa left ( 8 wins out of 9 tournaments), there are still doubts that the JSA has cleaned house.
Questions surrounding the scandals of the last two years continue to haunt sumo. Two weeks ago came news of the arrest of the fellow, a former bosozoku gang leader and bar owner, who had been involved in the incident that resulted in Asashoryu’s departure from sumo. (Former gang members were also involved in incident with Ebizo, the kabuki actor, last November.) One can’t help but wonder how Asa came to spend a long night drinking with this fellow during the first week of a sumo tournament. Yet, this is but one of many questions.
Kotoshogiku, the new ozeki, is of the same beya as Kotomitsuki, the ozeki who was kicked out of the JSA in the baseball gambling scandal last spring. Prosecutors have dropped the charges against Kotomitsuki for a lack of evidence. Kotomitsuki has since filed suit against the JSA for wrongful dismissal.
And then there is the lingering stench of the yaocho scandal, which was uncovered in cell phone text messages during the baseball gambling investigation. Some lower-ranked rikishi seemed to be throwing matches in return for cash from higher-ranked wrestlers. For example, if you were in juryo, you were making 1 million yen a month, roughly $120,000 US a year, and if you lost that ranking, you would receive less than a tenth of that – a mighty fall. One way to avoid this would be to a pay lower-ranked wrestler to throw a fight and let you stay in juryo rank a little longer.
This sounds like a tradition that had somehow become twisted; an extreme form of the sempai-kohai (senior-junior) relationship. In this case, the “take care of me, and I’ll take care of you” became collusion. The competitors may have rationalized it as a way to spread the wealth around – lower rikishi got a nice pay day and the higher rikishi stayed in the money. But this is speculation.
We still have to wonder what these investigations achieved. The yaocho investigation, which at first seemed broad and far-reaching, has churned into confusion. Several rikishi resigned and some were forced out. Some of them are suing the JSA. Three executive board members, Kitanoumi, Chiyonofuji and Kirishima said they would resign from the board after some of their rikishi were implicated. The spring Tokyo tournament was cancelled and NHK, an institution nearly as archaic and insular as the JSA, suspended live broadcast of the Nagoya tournament. This had a double impact – loss of media revenue for the JSA and loss of audience, as many viewers undoubtedly moved to something else.
The tournaments also lacked competition. At times one wondered if the other rikishi were simply waiting for Hakuho to get old, or injured, so that someone else might win a tournament. With Asa out, Hakuho knows that he really has to excel to quiet the question of “What if Asa were still around?” His 2010 streak of 63 consecutive wins spoke very loudly. But the competition has been made even weaker with expulsions of so many rikishi.
Still, it was inspiring during the dismal days of the 2011 Setsuden Summer to watch Hakuho’s solitary insistence upon excellence. Another source of inspiration was Kaio’s push toward Chiyonofuji’s all-time wins record of 1,045. A battle-scarred warhorse, Kaio had won six tournaments, more than some yokozuna, but he had never managed to win consecutively and so never rose to the rank of yokozuna. After 23 years, he arrived at the Nagoya tournament on the brink of lasting glory and yet it appeared he might not succeed, as all his injuries all seemed to rise against him. But win 1,046 finally came and soon after he retired. The record is small solace for having never made yokozuna, but it is solace all the same. And even small solace is more than we’ve come to expect from sumo.