Japan’s ancient sport of sumo faces an uncertain future as it grapples with a match-fixing scandal that some have called the “darkest chapter” in a 1,500-year history steeped in ritual and ceremony.
The sport — a battle of brawn and skill pitting bulky, glowering wrestlers clad only in a loincloth and weighing an average of 150kg against each other — is likely to survive.
However, needed changes will come slowly given the grip of tradition on the country’s national sport.
“Sumo is now paying its dues for not having grasped the mood in society and sticking with old ways of thinking,” said Kunihiro Sugiyama, a sumo commentator. “It won’t be easy for the sport to continue on like before unless it comes up with a way that fits the current era.”
The scandal has given rise to hand wringing and calls for action throughout the country — from top politicians to rank-and-file fans.
“If match-fixing did take place, this is a very serious problem,” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said last week. “As a fan, I feel very betrayed. I want them to be able to create a situation in which they can respond to the public and fans’ expectations soon.”
The affair came to light when police confiscated cellphones of wrestlers as part of an investigation into a separate scandal over illegal betting on baseball — in a country where wagering is strictly regulated and limited to certain sports including horse racing.
Two wrestlers and a sumo elder, a retired competitor, last week admitted to having fixed matches, a practice long rumored to have plagued the sport, but so far unproven.
The Japan Sumo Association (JSA), the sport’s governing body, canceled next month’s grand tournament, the first such decision since 1946, when a stadium needed repairs from wartime damage.
“As a representative of wrestlers, I would like to apologize from my heart to everyone in Japan and to those who love sumo,” said yokozuna grand champion Hakuho on Wednesday.
“I think wrestlers need to pull ourselves together and do our best,” the kimono-clad Mongolian wrestler told a news conference.
The latest revelations are a blow to a sport already struggling with declining popularity after other scandals, including the hazing death of a trainee, as well as competition from other popular sports such as baseball and soccer.
However, curiously — perhaps at least to outsiders — the match-fixing does not appear to have been linked to gambling. There is no evidence of any wagering on the outcome of matches so far.
Experts say one motive for the rigging was wrestlers’ fear of falling to a lower rank after a poor performance in tournaments, a drop in status that would deprive them of salaries and other perks given only to those in the sport’s top ranks.
Only wrestlers in the top five of nine broadly classed ranks receive monthly salaries and are allowed to marry or live away from the “stables,” or gyms, to which they belong. Others have no regular income and must live in communal space at the “stables.”
“The differences in treatment are clear,” said Yuki Ozaki, a former wrestler who fought under the ring name Takanowaka until 2007 and rose to the third-highest rank.
Ozaki said he had heard rumors about match-fixing, but had never come across proof.
“The problem cannot be -handled in an obscure way for the sport to survive,” he said. “I think it will take time.”