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Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

Sumo Athlete Dismissed For Drug Use as Japan Wrestles With the Sport’s Evolution

February 06, 2009 11:56 AM
by Josh Katz
The newest arrest of a sumo wrestler for marijuana use highlights the sport and Japan’s growing problem with the drug, and changing nature of the ancient sport.

Sumo Wrestler Dismissed From League For Marijuana Use

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Sumo wrestling’s bout with marijuana has taken another turn with the arrest last week of the 25-year-old wrestler named Wakakirin for possessing the drug. Four sumo wrestlers have been booted from the sport in the past six months because of marijuana charges. The newest case is different, however, because the other three wrestlers were Russian but Wakakirin is Japanese, causing worry that the practice has infiltrated the sport more than previously believed, according to the Associated Press. The sport first began limited drug-testing in September when the Russian-born wrestler Wakanoho was arrested.

The controversy has generated so much attention in the country both because marijuana use is not widespread in Japan, and because sumo is beloved nationally and places great emphasis on age-old traditions. Japan now issues a harsh punishment of up to five-years in prison for drug use, though use of the drug is still “rising rapidly,” AP reports. 

“We are appalled by his utter folly,” The Asahi, a major Japanese newspaper, said in an editorial. “Some young people casually try pot. It is vital that we educate them on the risks of this drug from a fairly early age.”

Some think that Wakakirin should have received a harsher penalty, because having been dismissed instead of expelled from the sport allows him to collect severance pay, according to The Daily Yomiuri.

However, Wakkarin sent a letter to the Japan Sumo Association saying he would not accept the 5.29 million yen in severance. “I have caused the sumo association and the chairman great trouble with my betrayal,” Wakakirin wrote, according to the Daily Yomiuri. “I have no intention of accepting my retirement allowance.”

But not everyone is so concerned. “A lot of these guys are young and single so it could go further, but it’s not really fair to say it’s a breakdown in discipline in sumo,” said Mark Buckton, a sumo columnist and blogger, according to AP. “There are 700 men in sumo and the majority of them don’t smoke marijuana.”

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Background: Sumo wrestlers accused of drug use

In the 2,000-year history of sumo wrestling, no athlete had ever been expelled until this August, when Russian sumo wrestler Wakanoho became the first after marijuana was discovered in his wallet.

Then the Japan Sumo Association announced Sept. 3 that two other sumo wrestlers tested positive for marijuana—Russian brothers who go by the names Roho and Hakurozan—sparking calls for the head of the organization, Kitanoumi, to resign. 

Kitanoumi, who coached Hakurozan, resigned that month
, saying, “I bear the responsibility,” according to Agence France-Presse. The board chose former grand champion sumo wrestler Musashigawa to replace Kitanoumi as head of the association.

Mitsuru Yaku, a member of the Japan Sumo Association, said it was “natural” that Kitanoumi would lose his job as a result of the recent affair. “I don’t think for a moment that all of the puss has come out,” he said, indicating that this will not be the last disgrace for the sport.

It is not the first, either. Junichi Yamamoto, a master of a stable that trains wrestlers, was arrested in April 2008 on assault charges for reputedly beating a 17-year-old trainee. There have also been accusations that sumo matches have been fixed, and the rise of foreign athletes has rankled many fans.

Related Topics: Foreigners in sumo; Japan and marijuana

Foreigners Invade Sumo Wrestling

The sport of sumo wrestling has been suffering in Japan on many levels. Fewer Japanese people are entering the sport for a number of reasons. The training is strenuous and the lives of the wrestlers are tightly controlled. National interest in sumo wrestling is also being choked off by the rising popularity of sports such as soccer.

The arrest of stable master Junichi Yamamoto
only confirmed the fears some Japanese have regarding the life of a sumo wrestler. According to The Washington Post, “After the beating became public, the JSA sent a survey to the 53 stables in Japan, asking about their training practices. More than 90 percent have used baseball bats or similar implements in training, the survey found. About a third of the stables said bullying and other forms of abuse occurred during training.”

With fewer Japanese taking up the sport, foreigners have increasingly taken their places. In a May 22, 2008, op-ed from Australia’s The Age, Rod Curtis wrote that there were 60 foreign-born champions in the professional ranks, and both yokozunas—grand champions—were Mongolian. No yokozuna has been Japanese since 2003, he said.

But the rising number of foreigners has created tension in Japan’s revered national sport. Sports promoter Jack Sakazaki said, “Sumo is Japan’s national sport and it symbolises the samurai spirit,” the BBC reported.

Foreign wrestlers have been disciplined much more harshly than natives. Mongolian wrestler Asashoryu, one of the sport’s most successful individuals of all time, became the first yokozuna to be suspended when he received a two-tournament ban for claiming injury to avoid a charity tournament. On the flip side, “Toki, a Japanese wrestler who struck and killed a pedestrian while driving in Osaka in 2000, was banned for just one tournament,” according to The Guardian.

Jack Gallagher, sports editor of The Japan Times, commented on the Asashoryu affair in the BBC article: “It’s a very staid culture and they don’t take kindly to people who fail to conform,” he says. “He is up against the fact that he is not Japanese, but in the sumo world he is expected to behave like he is.”
Marijuana Use in Japan

The use of marijuana has become a concern in Japan as of late. Marijuana-related arrests were 9.1 percent higher between January and June of 2008 than they were in that time period in 2007, according to a National Police Agency report. Champions do reap the rewards, but those who do not rank as highly may not.

Marijuana possession carries a prison sentence of up to five years that involves forced labor. The country can also deport foreigners convicted of marijuana possession and permanently prohibit them from re-entering Japan. “However, a loophole in the law allows people to purchase and possess marijuana seeds. A packet of 10 marijuana seeds can be bought online for $80 to $400,” according to ABC News.

Reference: Sumo wrestling

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