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Sumo gives governance in Japan another black eye

Champion retires after beating up younger wrestler who looked at him the wrong way

Harumafuji announces his retirement at a news conference in Fukuoka Prefecture on Nov. 29. (Photo by Tomoki Mera)

TOKYO -- Abuse, oppressive work conditions and a penchant for cover-ups. The rule-breaking that corporate Japan is trying to stop by embracing better governance has cropped up again in the national sport.

The drama began not in the boardroom, but closer to the barroom. It culminated in sumo grand champion Harumafuji announcing the close of his 17-year career Wednesday after admitting that he assaulted junior wrestler Takanoiwa during a night of partying in October.

The resignation comes amid a string of quality control lapses and data falsification at the likes of Nissan Motor, Kobe Steel, Mitsubishi Materials and Toray Industries, as well as a push against the culture of overwork that led to the death of a young staffer at advertising agency Dentsu. The sumo world, like corporate Japan, is faced with the difficult task of reforming a culture resistant to change.

Tough discipline

Much about the incident remains a mystery, and the 27-year-old victim, who reportedly suffered head injuries, has yet to appear in public. Harumafuji, 33, occupies the sport's highest rank of yokozuna. Both are Mongolian-born.

According to a report issued Thursday by a Japan Sumo Association committee investigating the incident, Harumafuji got angry when he saw Takanoiwa using his smartphone instead of listening to another yokozuna's lecture on behavior. Harumafuji slapped Takanoiwa, then hit him again more than a dozen times, including with a karaoke remote control, after the younger wrestler gave Harumafuji a dirty look, according to the report.

"I believe it is my duty as a yokozuna to instruct and correct younger wrestlers when they fail to demonstrate manners and etiquette," Harumafuji explained Wednesday. Although his intentions may have been good, he chose violence as his teaching method.

Takanohana attends a meeting of the board of directors of the Japan Sumo Association in Tokyo on Nov. 30. (Photo by Maho Obata)

The interest surrounding this case has been intensified by the seemingly inexplicable actions of Takanoiwa's stable master, Takanohana, himself a former grand champion. Despite his senior position in the sumo association, the sport's governing body, Takanohana did not report the incident to the group and has refused to cooperate with its investigation, though he did file a complaint with police in western Japan after the incident. In the business world, that is akin to an executive withholding from top management information that could rock the company.

The sumo association also dragged its feet in getting to the bottom of the case, feebly citing Takanohana's lack of cooperation as a barrier. The incident occurred at a party attended by Mongolian-born wrestlers during the autumn sumo roadshow, an event for which Takanohana has overall responsibility.

Koichiro Mochizuki, an attorney and former head of the Japan Sports Law Association, thinks that the sumo body is trying to move past the incident too soon, before all the facts are known.

"It isn't right to try to wrap this affair up with a resignation before any kind of punishment has been handed down," Mochizuki said.

Hard to handle

The beating is not the only or most serious example of abuse in sumo, an ancient competition with centuries-old traditions ingrained in the sport's spectacle.

In 2007, a novice wrestler died after a beating at the hands of senior members of his stable, ordered by the stable master. The incident rocked the sumo world. Three years later, Mongolian-born yokozuna Asashoryu was forced to retire after allegedly attacking a man outside a nightclub.

Japan has since made strides in getting corporal punishment out of sports. The sumo association holds seminars and other events to educate wrestlers, but the same problems will likely recur without correcting the root causes of the sport's abusive culture.

"From the perspective of the sporting world as a whole," Harumafuji's resignation "sends a message that violence cannot be tolerated," said Munehiko Harada, a professor of sports management at Waseda University.

"During their careers, today's stable masters experienced the kind of harsh training that could well be called violence," Harada said, adding that the sumo world needs to take this lesson to heart in order to change from within.

Even after the Harumafuji incident came to light, for instance, a senior wrestler was seen violently dressing down a low-ranking stablemate serving as his personal assistant during the Kyushu tournament, one of six held each year. He was angry that the room was not ready when he was done with his bath.

The sumo association set up an independent committee to advise on governance reform in 2010 after wrestlers were involved in a baseball gambling scandal that summer. But whether stable masters gained a sense of the importance of proper oversight is unclear. When it comes to match-fixing, a long-rumored problem that became a full-blown scandal in 2011, stable masters instituted preventive measures at first, such as banning the use of mobile phones in locker rooms. But these policies are falling by the wayside now that sumo's popularity has recovered.

The more things in Japan change, the more sumo seems to stay the same. But the sport may see audiences move on if it keeps forgetting its lessons so quickly.

(Nikkei)

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