Match-fixing as rite of passage in sumo

From Sumo: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Japan’s National Sport, by David Benjamin (Tuttle, 2010), pp. 208-210:

As I’ve pondered yaocho [match-fixing]… I’ve developed a grudging admiration for the Sumo Association’s almost mystical power to oversee it without seeing it. Sumo’s elders keep their little cheating problem in check first by the skillful use of the schedule, giving rikishi every chance to avoid the last-day crisis [finding themselves at 7-7, with the final match deciding whether they will rise in rank with a winning record or fall with a losing one]. Extending this sense of control beyond one basho, I’ve notice that yaochozumo follows a kind of ebb and flow, proliferating for a while, until some silent signal from the Sumo Association curtails it abruptly.

It appears — Kitao/Futahaguro’s disavowal supports the supposition — that many young rikishi are weaned gradually (perhaps reluctantly) into the ways of yaocho. The secret is kept away from those (like, perhaps, Futahaguro) who don’t need help, from those who wouldn’t benefit enough from it, and especially from those who might be indiscreet. By allowing it but holding the secret tightly within a chosen brotherhood, sumo’s elders control yaocho more effectively than if they tried to ban it.

Yaocho‘s profoundest hold on rikishi — and the reason, I think, that the secret is so well guarded — lies in its use as a rite of passage into sumo’s inner circle.

As he reflected on his ten years in sumo, one of Kitao/Futahaguro’s most heartfelt remarks was this: “The rikishi bow to each other before the match and after. Sumo people say that sumo begins with politeness and ends with politeness. That’s a beautiful tradition, one of the things I miss most of all.”

In saying this, Kitao/Futahaguro used the word “rei,” for “politeness.”

Eventually, in that spirit of “beginning with politeness,” each rikishi, at some point, is initiated into sumo’s secret brotherhood by accepting sport’s politest offer. What higher act of rei than to concede the victory to an opponent who needs it? And what better sign of rei in the initiate than the gracious acceptance of the offer? And what better test of a rikishi‘s commitment to the brotherhood than his willingness to subordinate his competitive passion to the greater good of all, the collective need? Especially when he knows that he won’t get in trouble for it! And even better that he knows it will help break down those icy walls that stand between sumobeya, and will make him feel — once and for all — like one of the guys!

Yaocho prevents great upheavals in the ranks, and makes change a gentle process. All the new blood is filtered and diluted by the humbling process of yaocho. One of the sumo nuances that the observant fan eventually perceives is that a young rikishi proves his readiness to compete at the highest level not by showing that he can win in makuuchi, but by developing a talent for judicious defeat.

Conversely, yaocho also identifies dissenters, those whose pride inhibits them from losing even a meaningless match, even to help a colleague. Those rikishi aren’t cast out indiscreetly (perhaps for fear that they might speak up), but their path becomes harder, their progress slower, their status always a little shaky. Among the most prominent of these uneasy princes in past years were Onokuni and Asahifuji. If they submitted to yaocho, they didn’t do it often enough or with the proper alacrity. Some rikishi, I think — especially former collegiate wrestlers — are never initiated into the yaocho club at all, because they might not be trustworthy. Sumo gets them too late in life, too fully formed, and too ethically fastidious.

And some sumobeya are more inclined to play the game than others. The boys from Sadogatake-beya, for example, are always ready to make a deal. But the Kasugano rikishi, not so much.

As they govern all other aspects of their sport, sumo’s elders govern yaocho with a politeness that borders on intimidation. No one, even a yaocho resister, ever steps very far out of line. To betray the group is tantamount to betraying one’s family. When a rikishi resorts to yaocho, he’s expected to use it sparingly, silently, with dignity (rei), and with a consciousness that yaocho serves not to further his private glory, but to keep the family in balance.

Yaocho is an invisible, but palpable presence in sumo. Look for it, and you’ll never spot it. Even resisters — and I’m certain that there are some — will deny its existence. By comparison, the Cheshire cat’s smile is a bite on the ass. But yaocho is there, and will stay there because it ameliorates one of sumo’s greatest problems, the loneliness and persistent mediocrity of most rikishi. When someone takes a dive on your behalf, it keeps you afloat. When you tank a match for another guy, you feel a little more deeply the sympathy of your group, your sense of belonging. If you’re really talented, you can win day in and day out all by your lonesome. But cheating needs company.

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1 Comment

Filed under family, Japan, sumo

One response to “Match-fixing as rite of passage in sumo

  1. That is absolutely fascinating, and I have no particular interest in sumo.

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