Kyodo News/AP
Russian sumo wrestler Hakurozan, left, receives water from his brother Roho.

Sumo Wrestling Struggling Under Weight of Recent Scandals

September 05, 2008 05:59 AM
by Josh Katz
Two more sumo wrestlers are in trouble for marijuana use, bringing attention to the proud Japanese sport’s struggles with scandal and friction over foreign-born athletes.

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 coaches Hakurozan.

The positive tests came when the association tested “all 69 wrestlers in sumo’s top two divisions” without prior notice, according to The Guardian. Roho and Hakurozan both deny that they used marijuana, however.

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.

Background: 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, comments 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.”

Related Topic: 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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