Category Archives: sumo

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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The Most Brutal Schedules in Sumo

From Sumo: A Thinking Fan’s Guide to Japan’s National Sport, by David Benjamin (Tuttle, 2010), pp. 177-179:

THE TIGHTROPE: A sekiwake is neither here nor there. He’s better than almost all those maegashira down below. He’s one notch above komusubi — otherwise known as the Meatgrinder. His schedule includes everyone in the upper ranks, and he scores the occasional upset among the Elite [ozeki and yokozuna]. But he’s generally a kachikoshi [winning record (8-7 or better)] kinda guy, just trying to stay where he is. He’s negotiating a crowded tightrope; there are guys approaching from both ends, eager to push him off.

Rikishi reach the Tightrope and stay there for a while, usually because they have a very effective technique, or some physical feature, that makes them tough to beat. Kotogaume, perhaps sumo’s all-time most dangerous Butterball, for instance, was built low to the ground and incredibly dense. He lingered at sekiwake for six straight basho in 1989-90. Terao, a fanatic battler who was able to overwhelm almost anyone for a period of five seconds, established himself in 1990 as a Tightrope level rikishi and spent five basho there. In the 2000′s Baruto … depended on his height to frustrate opponents and cling to the Tightrope.

When a sekiwake like Baruto can’t expand his repertoire in response to the intense demands of the Tightrope, gravity will get him by and by — with a stop (possibly even a recovery) in the Meatgrinder on the way down. Kirishima was the rare tightroper who was still learning and growing when he reached sekiwake. For him, the Tightrope was a one-basho pause on his way to the Elite.

For most, the Tightrope is more likely a place from which to fall. And to fall means into the next lower designation, komusubi — not a pleasant fate. I refer to this detention cell for rising and falling rikishi instructively as…

THE MEATGRINDER. The Sumo Association uses the Meatgrinder for three distinct and practical purposes:

To punish maegashira wrestlers who have succeeded excessively in matches at the lower levels, perhaps by racking up a 10-5 or 11-4 record from some lowly rung like maegashira No. 8. The average number of wins per basho for komusubi is 6.5. The Meatgrinder is the schedule-master’s way of saying, “OK, smartass, you think you’re hot stuff? We have a few large gentlemen we’d like you to meet.”

As an entrance exam for rising stars, to see if they’re ready for prime time….

The Meatgrinder also serves as a safety net for sekiwake on their way down after makekoshi [a losing record (7-8 or worse)]. The schedule is little different, but after losing at sekiwake, komusubi is the falling rikishi‘s second chance before he gets kicked down among the riffraff.

How tough is the Meatgrinder? It means you have to wrestle every rikishi ranked above you before you get a break and fight a few of the guys underneath. This is the sumo version of Hell Week. By the time you get to the lower-ranked wrestlers, your form and self-esteem are so shattered that beating anyone — including your grandmother — is beyond your wildest dreams. The Meatgrinder is as high as most rikishi ever go. In almost every case, it’s a ticket down.

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Sumo: Another Basho, Another Scandal

I was hoping to watch some TV coverage of the upcoming sumo basho while on vacation in Japan later this month, but yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor explains why that may not be possible. Japanese sumo scandals threaten to topple Nagoya tournament.

Japanese sumo scandals involving gambling and mob ties could upend an upcoming Nagoya tournament. Friday, public broadcaster NHK made the unprecedented threat to pull coverage of the tournament.

The uncovering of an illegal mob-run gambling ring in sumo has further tarnished Japan’s centuries-old national sport after a string of recent scandals and may lead to the first cancellation of a tournament in the postwar era. Sponsors have pulled out of the Nagoya Basho (tournament) – due to start July 11 – after dozens of wrestlers, senior officials, and others involved in the sport admitted gambling on baseball through a syndicate run by yakuza, or mafia.

Japan’s public broadcasting network, NHK, added to the sport’s woes Friday by announcing it might drop coverage of the event. The network said it had received 8,200 public comments, only about 10 percent of which supported going ahead with airing the Nagoya Basho….

Legal gambling in Japan is restricted to on-site betting on horses, speedboats, and cycling – all government-controlled. In addition there is the huge gray area of pachinko, a kind of vertical pinball game….

Many previous scandals of recent years have been centered round foreign wrestlers, much to Japanese relief. In 2008, three Russian grapplers were expelled for drug use, though a Japanese national also later tested positive. This year, grand champion Asashoryu – the third-most successful wrestler in sumo history and a Mongolian – had to retire after allegedly beating someone while on a drunken night out during the Tokyo Basho (which he went on to win).

But foreigners can’t always be blamed: In May, as the betting scandal unfolded, it emerged that stable-masters had given ringside seats to yakuza bosses at tournaments. The mobsters allegedly wanted to be seen by incarcerated gang members on the NHK broadcasts. The JSA took the unprecedented step of disbanding one of the sumo stables involved.

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Baruto the Giant Baltic Cowboy Ozeki

I imagine even regular readers don’t often see the giants of Japan’s sumo world profiled in the Wall Street Journal, and I’ve never, ever seen anyone compare any rikishi to Leonardo DiCaprio—until now. (Either the Titanic or the iceberg that sunk it is a more likely comparison, but I wouldn’t want to jinx anyone, especially not the genial giant featured in this WSJ vignette.)

As the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament gets underway in Tokyo, the spotlight shines on Baruto, the rising star aficionados hope can give a lift to the scandal-plagued national sport.

This is the first time for the Estonian-born wrestler to compete as an ozeki, sumo’s second-highest title. Having gotten off to a strong 4-0 start, his fans hope he could soon vault into the top ranks of yokozuna, making him the first European to reach that exalted status.

The 25-year-old’s relatively trim (for a sumo star) figure, and glamorous looks have drawn comparisons in the Japanese press to Leonardo DiCaprio. His inspiring story, including a rise from hard labor on a rural Estonian cattle farm, is well-known. “Baruto” means “Baltic” in Japanese.

The rapid climb of the clean-cut Baruto — nee [sic] Kaido Höövelson — comes at a moment of need for the struggling sport. Earlier this year, grand champion Asashoryu resigned suddenly after tabloid reports of a bar fight, just the latest in a string of embarrassing reports about the Mongolian in recent years.

Before that, other wrestlers were arrested for dope-smoking, and there was a hazing death. The fan base has been shrinking, and fewer young Japanese are taking up the sport, with its extreme discipline and hierarchy at odds with the comforts of modern Japan.

Here are a few more details from Japan’s Daily Yomiuri, which profiled the newly promoted ozeki before the May tournament got underway.

“When he first came here he had problems with the food,” the stablemaster said. “One of the wrestlers told him that as a foreigner he wouldn’t like natto. Baruto simply filled a huge bowl and ate the lot. It didn’t do him much good but I was impressed that he didn’t like to lose or give up.”

A former nightclub bouncer and judo champion, Baruto has more than repaid the faith shown in him since arriving from Estonia.

After making his debut in May 2004, he became the first wrestler in 43 years to win the juryo division with a perfect 15-0 record when he triumphed at the 2006 Spring Basho.

On March 31 of this year, he was promoted to the sport’s second-highest rank, having won 35 bouts in the previous three tournaments.

UPDATE: Baruto started strong but lost several bouts during the second week of the tournament. On Day 13, the sole yokozuna, Hakuho from Mongolia, clinched victory with a record of 13-0. Behind him, at 10-3, is the Russian Aran. Behind him, at 9-4, are the giant Estonian ozeki Baruto, the diminutive Mongolian ozeki Harumafuji, the lanky Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu, and the Mongolian Hakuba, who made his debut in the highest division in January. Not one Japanese among the leaders!

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Referee Ring Names: Only in Sumo?

From Grand Sumo: The Living Sport and Tradition, rev. ed., by Lora Sharnoff (Weatherhill, 1993), pp. 178-179:

As of May 1992, there were forty-one gyoji, all with the assumed professional name of either Kimura or Shikimori. The gyoji’s role is believed to date back to the late eighth century, but apparently did not take on its present form until the late sixteenth century when Oda Nobunaga reigned as the most powerful military lord in Japan. The houses of Kimura and Shikimori came into being in 1726 and 1768.

For nearly two centuries there were clear distinctions between the two lines of gyoji. Even now some fine differences exist in the way they hold the gunbai, or war paddles, when calling out the contestants’ names. A Kimura keeps his palm down; a Shikimori has it up. Yet nowadays a referee can start out as Kimura, switch over to Shikimori, and go back again to Kimura as he moves up the referee ranks.

Similar to the way several apprentice sumotori perform under their real names, some of the young referees also use their own given name as part of their professional name (such as Kimura Hideki) in the early part of their career. A more old-fashioned sounding name, like Zennosuke or Kandayu, will be assumed by the time they have climbed high enough to officiate matches at the juryo level.

The highest ranking referee is always named Kimura Shonosuke and the second highest is always known as Shikimori Inosuke. Given the moving between the gyoji families nowadays, this means that the man assuming the name of Kimura Shonosuke was previously known as Shikimori Inosuke, and that he undoubtedly performed under at least one or two different names before that. The referees must work their way up through the ranks just ike the sumotori. The youngest gyoji, like the youngest rikishi, is likely to be fresh out of junior high school. He must be affiliated with one of the sumo stables and, just like the sumotori, is likely to live there until he gets married.

A separate stable once existed for the referees but it was closed in 1973. (However, they still have their own large dressing room inside the Kokugikan.) Now almost all the sumo stables except for some of the newest or smallest, have one or more gyoji attached to them.

Again similar to the sumotori, the gyoji’s promotion through the ranks is based primarily on ability, though seniority can play a small part in the referee’s case. Nevertheless, just as an exceptional sumotori like Kitanoumi and Taiho can become yokozuna at age twenty-one, the previous Kimura Shonosuke XXVII—the “grand champion” among referees—was promoted to the position at the extraordinarily early age of fifty-two. For some years, Shonosuke XXVII had a second-hand man, Shikimori Inosuke XXIV, who was about six years his senior. Inosuke XXIV reached the mandatory retirement age of sixty-five at the end of 1983; Inosuke XXV was a bit younger and became Shonosuke XXVIII in 1991.

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Tokyo’s Kokugikan: Where East is West and West is East

From Grand Sumo: The Living Sport and Tradition, rev. ed., by Lora Sharnoff (Weatherhill, 1993), pp. 67, 69:

The present Kokugikan in Ryogoku, where three of the tournaments are held annually, serves as the headquarters of the Sumo Association. The stadium is a 35,342-square-meter building with a seating capacity of 11,908; it stands 39.6 meters at its highest point. It has three floors aboveground and two underground. The stadium was constructed to withstand earthquake tremors up to ten on the Richter scale and is equipped with computerized temperature control, fire prevention equipment, and sensors to detect gas leaks. It also has a 1,250-ton tank designed to store rainwater and divert it to the toilets and air-conditioning system inside….

On the second floor the seats are Western-style chairs. However, except for some tables with lounge chairs in the very back, the first floor is given over to traditional Japanese seating arrangements on tatami…. The first five rows around the ring are individual seats called tamari-seki or suna-kaburi. The latter, meaning “sand-covered,” comes from the fact that spectators sitting in this area occasionally take in some of the sand kicked up on the dohyo or flying off the body of a falling rikishi. Despite the unglamorous appellation, the suna-kaburi are the most sought-after seats….

The seats as well as the tickets are labeled shomen (main side), muko-jomen (opposite main side), higashi-gawa (east side), and nishi-gawa (west side). The present labeling in the Kokugikan is actually the opposite of the actual compass points and traces its origins to the tradition of the emperor always sitting facing south. The area in which he sat was designated the main or northern side, and everything to his left was deemed the “east side,” and to his right the “west side”—a pattern which can be seen in the old capital of Kyoto. Thus, what is supposed to be west from his perspective is actually east on the compass, and vice versa. In the Kokugikan the emperor’s box is actually located on the second floor in the middle of the building’s southern side, which in respect to tradition is called the main or northern side.

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Two Milestones in Japanese Sumo

Banners for the top rikishi, Nagoya Sumo BashoIn an era when foreign wrestlers dominate the top ranks of sumo, two veteran ozeki have given Japanese fans local heroes to root for. This week one of them broke a record for most career wins and the other announced his retirement.

Fukuoka-born fan favorite Kaio clinched his 808th career win in the top makuuchi division, breaking Chiyonofuji‘s record of 807 makuuchi wins. (Chiyonofuji still holds the all-time, all-division record, at 1,045.) At 37, Kaio is the oldest rikishi in the makuuchi, making his debut there in 1988, alongside future yokozuna Akebono and Takanohana, both of whom have long retired.

The loser in that record-setting bout was Hokkaido-born, 33-year-old Chiyotaikai, who had earlier lost his ozeki status and this week announced his retirement after getting off to a poor start in the current tournament.

Both Kaio and Chiyotaikai hung onto to their ozeki rank for years by eking out winning records barely sufficient to avoid demotion, often 8-7, or even dropping to probationary (kadoban) ozeki status after a losing record. There is talk of revising the kadoban ranking system to force ozeki to maintain better win-loss records to avoid demotion. Ozeki (‘champion’) was once the highest rank. When someone at the current top rank of yokozuna (‘grand champion’) is no longer at the peak of his game, he is expected to retire rather than bounce down through the ranks.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Kawaigaru = Itaburu

In most contexts, Japanese 可愛がる kawaigaru means ‘to dote on, to fondle, to caress’, but for novices in a sumo stable, kawaigaru is a synonym of いたぶる itaburu ‘to torment, to harass, to tease’, as Mongolian ozeki Harumafuji explains in an interview that appeared in the Taipei Times.

Harumafuji, who last month won Japan’s major tournament, recalled the pain and tears that toughened him up in the nine years since he arrived from his native Mongolia with no money and not a word of Japanese….

In sumo, kawaigari means “crying, then being forced to stand, then being beaten again. It’s not simple to express with words because it’s a physical experience,” he said.

But it’s not just the beatings that steel the wrestlers in the quasi-monastic life of the sumo stable, where the fighters forfeit much of their personal liberty and embark on a grueling daily routine.

The younger wrestlers start the day at 3am cleaning the stable, washing their seniors’ loincloths and preparing meals. They are banned from watching television and using cellphones, and receive only modest pocket money.

Harumafuji said he found it toughest to get used to a diet heavy on fish — which has sent some of his mutton-eating compatriots running to the Mongolian embassy to escape Japan — served in huge quantities of 10,000 calories a day.

“Everyone says going on a diet is hard, but I think gaining weight is so many times more difficult,” he said. “Eating was the scariest, and my most painful experience.”

“I’m thin by nature, so I really had a hard time to eat in the beginning. I ate and I vomited. Ate and vomited. Your stomach expands when you do that, so I was forced to eat until I vomited,” Harumafuji said. “When I vomited, there would be someone already waiting with food, and I was forced to eat again.”

The force-feeding helped boost the 1.85m athlete’s weight to 126kg from 86kg — still about 30kg lighter than the average top division wrestler….

As fewer young Japanese sign up for the harsh life of the sumo stable, the sport’s 700-strong elite now include men from China, South Korea, Eastern Europe and as far away as Brazil and the Pacific island state of Tonga.

Geez. That seems to shed new light on the after-sumo career of another diminutive rikishi, Mainoumi, which included a stint as a traveling gourmet as well as general TV personality.

(I hope the Brazilian and the Tongan make it to the upper ranks soon! Surely the Tongan won’t have to get used to eating fish.)

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Harumafuji Wins Emperor’s Cup!

The Summer Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo was shaping up to be just another predictable romp by the two Mongolian yokozuna, Hakuho and Asashoryu, until the 14th day, when the Bulgarian ozeki, Kotooshu, toppled Hakuho, knocking him out of the lead and into a tie with the recently promoted Mongolian ozeki, Harumafuji (formerly Ama), at 13-1 going into the last day.

On the final day, the diminutive Harumafuji returned the favor by defeating Kotooshu, while Hakuho defeated his fellow yokozuna Asashoryu, leaving both leaders tied with records of 14-1. Harumafuji then defeated Hakuho in the final playoff bout to win his first Emperor’s Cup.

Mongolians now dominate Japan’s ancient sport, and Harumafuji is the latest to win a tournament. Hakuho has won 10 and Asashoryu has won 23. No Japanese rikishi has won the Emperor’s Cup since veteran ozeki Tochiazuma took it in January 2006. There are now nine Mongolian rikishi in the top Makuuchi division and four more in the Juryo division, plus six more foreign rikishi in the top division: one each from Bulgaria, Estonia, Russia, and South Korea; and two from Georgia.

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Hatsu Basho, 2009

They’re off and shoving! Five days into the Starting Tournament of 2009 in Tokyo, four rikishi remain undefeated: the two Mongolian yokozuna, Asashoryu and Hakuho; the newly promoted sekiwake, Baruto from Estonia; and the rising maegashira Tochiozan from Kochi, Japan, home of the famous Tosa wrestling dogs (which are featured on his ceremonial apron).

Two ozeki, the Japanese veteran Chiyotaikai and the Bulgarian heartthrob Kotooshu, are only one loss behind. But the other two ozeki only have one win each so far: Japanese veteran Kotomitsuki and the lithe Mongolian crowd favorite Harumafuji, who changed his ring name (from Ama) after nearly winning the November tournament and earning promotion to the second highest rank. The latter two risk demotion if they don’t finish with more wins than losses.

UPDATE, Day 8: Tochiozan is still keeping pace with the two yokozuna at 8-0, with Baruto and Kotooshu right behind them at 7-1. Harumafuji has improved to 3-5, but still has to win 5 of his 7 remaining bouts to finish with a winning record.

UPDATE, Day 14: Harumafuji, now 8-6, has somehow managed to get the 8 wins he needs to keep his new rank of ozeki, but Kotomitsuki dropped out after falling to 2-10. Everyone except the two yokozuna have fallen off the pace. Unless Asashoryu (14-0) loses on the last day, he will coast to victory, with Hakuho (13-1) just one loss behind. Nice recovery by Asa, who hadn’t been wrestling very well before the tournament.

UPDATE, Day 15: Hakuho handed Asashoryu his first loss when they faced each other on the final day, leaving both tied at 14-1 and forcing a playoff, which Asashoryu then won, for his 23rd tournament title at the highest level.

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