The End of Japan's National Sport?
February 5, 2011 12:17 AM   Subscribe

In March of 2009, the Japan Sumo Association won a lawsuit against Kodansha, a large Japanese publishing house. Kodansha had alleged that match fixing was rampant in Sumo, even at the highest levels. However, in the last week, police have discovered text messages between wrestlers showing proof of fixing, including negotiation over compensation.

Rumors of match fixing, or 八百長 (yaocho) have been around for years. In 2000, former wrestler Keisuke Itai came forward with allegations of yaocho, naming 20 active wrestlers, including then yokozuna (grand champion) Akebono.

Sumo was still trying to recover from its previous scandal last summer. Dozens of wrestlers were involved in a massive gambling scandal (during which, ozeki, or champion, Kotomitsuki was fired from sumo for his part in gambling on baseball games). Public sentiment against sumo plummeted to the point where, for the first time since 1957 (when live broadcast of sumo began) when NHK refused to show the summer tournament in Nagoya.

The new scandal comes at the worst possible time. Already, several charity events and appearances have been called off, and leading newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun is evidently reporting the spring tournament in Osaka will be cancelled as well. Furthermore, the sport may lose its status as a "public interest corporation" which would deprive the sport of subsidies and tax breaks, possibly leading the forfeiture of the Kokugikan, the main arena in Tokyo for sumo tournaments.

At the moment, the scandal is centered around wrestlers mainly in the lower divisions of sumo, but include several former upper division wrestlers including Chiyohakuho, who has offered to resign (his resignation was not accepted), Yamamotoyama, and sumo elder Takenawa. Many questions have come up, including whether or not Kodansha will get their money back.

A personal favorite of mine, Takamisakari, known for his spirited routine before bouts, is reported to have said "What idiot did it?"
posted by Ghidorah (22 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Also, Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics concluded through statistical analysis that sumo had to be rigged, back in 2005-ish.
posted by jet_manifesto at 12:24 AM on February 5, 2011

Yeah, I'd forgotten that. The first chapter (haven't read it yet) of Freakonomics discusses their statiscal analysis of sumo bouts on the final days of tournaments. Tournaments are 15 days long, and wrestlers posting a winning record (even 8-7) can expect to rise in the ranks, while wrestlers with losing records drop. In the book, the authors showed how wrestlers at 7-7 on the final day tended to win nearly 70% of their bouts, even against opponents that could be considered vastly superior.

I dearly love watching sumo, and while I didn't exactly have my head in the sand over this, it is pretty disappointing. Then again, I have lost a lot of interest since they booted Asashoryu.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:28 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is the only reason I ever watched Sumo.
posted by isopraxis at 12:38 AM on February 5, 2011

For me the first serious hint that Sumo was fixed was its use of the term "wrestling".
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:54 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tell you what, they may be throwing matches, but those big guys can POUND* some muhfuggin' mochi, I ain't lying.

*self link
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:04 AM on February 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm still reeling from the big sumo scandal of 2008. It's not that I mind the possibility of sumo wrestlers getting stoned, I just don't want to be the one who has to feed them when they get the munchies.
posted by twoleftfeet at 2:24 AM on February 5, 2011

twoleftfeet, *all* sumo scandals are big ...
posted by scruss at 3:24 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

posted by longtime_lurker at 3:45 AM on February 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

They should just embrace it and go all WWF on it... they need an Iron Cage. I'm pretty sure Vince McMahon has one they can borrow.
posted by spicynuts at 6:06 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Man… I just bought tickets for the Osaka one in March. I wonder if refunds will be issued if they do cancel it…?
posted by DoctorFedora at 6:19 AM on February 5, 2011

Other than the cheating scandals, sumo has definitely gotten more boring in the last year with the forced retirement of Asashoryu.* While Asashoryu deserved some severe punishment and possibly jail time for his behavior (assaulting a restaurant worker while drunk is completely unacceptable), his absence from the sport has made the yusho race virtually a sure thing for the remaining Yokozuna, Hakuho, every single time.

I have a lot of respect for Hakuho, he's smarter than everyone else, and watching him wrestle is like watching a chess master, but he has no real competition. Plus, he wrestles dispassionately like a robot. I miss Asashoryu's Goofus to Hakuko's Gallant, and I miss his more emotional style of wrestling. Sumo needs a bad guy again, one at the top.

I also love Takamisakari and his Mr. Magoo glasses.
posted by Alison at 6:50 AM on February 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

For me the first serious hint that Sumo was fixed was its use of the term "wrestling".
posted by oneswellfoop at 2:54 AM on February 5 [1 favorite +] [!]
Oh come on now.
posted by jtron at 7:35 AM on February 5, 2011

I would think that given Sumo's roots in Shinto, the very idea of cheating would be abhorrent but apparently not.

I saw a wrestler in Tokyo, the contrast between him and the average Japanese was startling. It was surprisinghow gracefully he moved, even in those wooden geta sandals. Nothing like you'd expect of such a large person. I would not want to face one of them in a ring.
posted by tommasz at 7:49 AM on February 5, 2011

The yaocho, evidently, from what I've seen in the last couple days, seems to come from yaoya, or grocery. Way back when, there was (I think it's linked above) a grocer who used to beat a stable master at mahjong quite regularly. For whatever reason (continued patronage, whathaveyou), said grocer would make sure to lose back whatever he had won to keep things copacetic. Cho (長) in Japanese would be equivalent to manager, hence, owner of the grocery. Supposedly, the green grocer's habit of intentionally losing his winnings back to the oyakata became known as yaocho, or making sure that everyone came out ahead.

One of the most interesting things about this, and last year's scandals is that I used to live a five minute bike ride from the stable most involved in all of these accusations. I'd always intended to go and see if they'd let me watch their practices, but never got around to it, and I've since moved away. Even the most minor of these wrestlers is unbelievably large, and the sound, in person, of them slamming into each other at the tachiai, or initial charge, is something that absolutely mus be experienced in person to really feel how awesome it is.

As for Asashoryu/Hakuho, I guess Goofus and Gallant is apt, but I would argue it's closer to BADASS UNSTOPABLE Goofus and Gallant. Granted, with the match fixing allegations, we might never know, but it seemed like Asashoryu was a demon in the ring. Watching him (sheer will, fury, and wild determination) face off against Hakuho (clinical execution, detachment, almost routine overwhelming force and technique) was easily the highlight of each basho.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:36 AM on February 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

In the book, the authors showed how wrestlers at 7-7 on the final day tended to win nearly 70% of their bouts, even against opponents that could be considered vastly superior.

I guess it also depends on the culture. We're used to sports in which Team A with an abysmal record is still supposed to try to beat Team B with an excellent record, even if it'd be in Team A's best interest to lose (better odds on the 1st draft pick next year). On the other hand, in some tournament structures in which it's not strictly a spectator sport, concessions are par for the course.

In Magic tournaments (similar structure to Swiss pairings in Chess), if 2 players are paired, and one has an X-0 record in the last round, and the other is X-1, it's considered common courtesy for the player with the better record to "scoop" the other player into the top-8. This appears to be what's happening here in Sumo. The superior athlete has little to gain from a win, and knows his opponent has much to gain from the win, so he "concedes" in a manner that doesn't deprive the audience of a show.

The solution would be to implement tie-breakers or a "top-X" cut-off rather than a strict "winning record" cut-off. When you have to care about your tie-breakers, you cannot simply afford to give away matches.
posted by explosion at 8:46 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's a paragraph (in Japanese) from an etymology site that backs up Ghidorah's explanation of yaocho; the piece substitutes go for mahjongg but the gist is the same. The grocer's name is cited as Chobe-e, and he lived in the Meiji era.

I'm sure there are several versions of this tale.
posted by Gordion Knott at 9:27 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Nothing like you'd expect of such a large person. I would not want to face one of them in a ring.

Having watched more technical sumo bouts and a 190 kilo Judoka (a martial art where I have a bit of first-hand knowledge) I can only concur. For that matter I've seen a 150 kilo ex-Olympic medallist up close. I can't even imagine what you'd do facing such a person.
posted by rodgerd at 2:15 PM on February 5, 2011

BADASS UNSTOPABLE Goofus and Gallant

Yes. Amen. I've been a fan of Asashoryu ever since 2002. When he was just a maegashira he was so much smaller than everyone else, but you could just see that he was different; he wrestled in a way that was so clever and fluent that it was obvious he was going somewhere. He was scrappy.

Within a few years he gained more of a sumo body and moved up. But he didn't get mad until after losing to a few wrestlers (Tochiazuma and Hakuho, I guess?) in 2006. Some wrestlers get sloppy when they get angry, but Asashoryu just turned into a force of nature. I loved the match where he carried Baruto (a giant wrestler) out of the ring after the Estonian bragged in the press that that was his strategy for fighting the Yokozuna. It's just that kind of personality play that makes sumo a compelling sport to watch.

I keep waiting for another wrestler to come along with the same about of fury, smarts, and strength. Baruto is too nice and Homasho puts up a good fight, but never seems able to close the deal.

Anyway, as far as the rigged matches are concerned, I'd like to see someone look into some of Kaio's matches from the last few years. He's had a few good tournaments this year, but I feel like he's also kept out of forced retirement while in Kadoban purely through the grace of lower-level wrestlers. It was always disappointing to see an opponent take a knee or lamely get pushed out of the ring as if just going through to motions. It really bugs me that he's still so popular after so many obviously rigged matches.
posted by Alison at 2:22 PM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Alison, you're right on with Kaio. He's pretty much the poster child of yaocho to me. This year, at least, the announcers are talking about his record number of wins, his endurance, and so on. Last year? He broke the record for number of tournaments at kadoban (at risk of losing Ozeki) status. He seemed to go from 5-10 tournament (or pulling out due to injury) to miraculous 9-6 or 8-7 for what seems like years. Of course, it can be pretty easy to pick out the bouts where he's repaying a thrown bout, too.

What saddens me is Harumafuji. I loved him as Ama, and it seemed like he had some of the same fire as Asashoryu, but that seems to be all gone, and he's just barely getting by at Ozeki. This last tournament, he was kadoban due to pulling out in the November basho, and he wasn't really piling up the wins. When he got his eighth win, it just seemed really, really suspect. Harumafuji barely did anything, and his opponent went down.

I just don't see this ending well. If they say "It was only those 14 guys." no one will believe them. There were stablemasters involved, which tells me it had to have been more widespread. If they keep digging, though, they're going to come up with so many names that people might serious turn their backs on the sport which would be a goddamn shame.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:23 PM on February 5, 2011

Word is that the Osaka tournament is officially off. Grar.
posted by DoctorFedora at 1:47 AM on February 6, 2011

Yeah, the front page of the Japan Times this morning said the basho was cancelled. Crap. Things don't look well.
posted by Ghidorah at 1:52 AM on February 6, 2011

So, pro wrestling's been on the decline in Japan for some years now, and MMA is fading as well - if Sumo fades to any degree, will some other sport come to the forefront to fill the Japanese public's appetite for combat? Will boxing blow up? X-treme Kendo, maybe? Oh god I hope not
posted by jtron at 6:45 AM on February 8, 2011

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