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Just 'pigs colliding': Sumo faces its darkest hour
Japan's national sport tries to rebuild from the rubble of its own catastrophes
In the months before March 11, when Japan was struck by its most crippling natural disaster on record, an altogether man-made calamity had brought one of the pillars of traditional Japan to its knees.
The sport of sumo faced allegations of match-fixing and institutionalized corruption that threatened to bring an end to almost 400 years of history.
For the sumo world, the consequences of its dark underbelly being exposed have been disastrous, including the cancellation of two major tournaments and the loss of an estimated ¥1 billion in revenues -- to say nothing of the Japanese national sport’s lost face.
For both the government and the Japan Sumo Association (JSA), which recently admitted to the long-suspected malfeasance that has caused the sport's meltdown, substantial rebuilding is necessary.
It seems like sumo wrestling has always been shrouded in scandal, but in the last year or so, many old suspicions have been brought to light.
If anyone in my stable was under suspicion I'd tell him to commit hara-kiri and die.
There were accounts of drug use, bar brawls and extortion, then evidence that wrestlers were connected with a Yakuza-run betting racket; after which NHK blacked out coverage of last summer’s Nagoya tournament -- a first since broadcasting began in 1953.
Then, the JSA canceled altogether this spring’s basho in Osaka -- the first tournament cancelled since 1946.
The katana fell in April, when 21 wrestlers and two elders were found guilty of walking in sumo's longest shadow: match fixing.
Roughly the same number of young men train at Takadagawa stable, two metro stops from the hallowed ground of the Ryogoku Kokugikan sumo stadium in eastern Tokyo.
Before dawn, even before breakfast, they begin their merciless tutelage under former wrestler Akinoshima Katsumi, known in his day as "The Giant Killer."
"If they eat before practice," says the gruff stable master, "they’ll puke."
The Giant Killer was so dubbed for a record he still holds: in his career he felled more grand champion Yokozuna than any wrestler in the sport's 1,500-year history.
He was never the biggest or the fastest, and he's always been the underdog. This has given him a deep desire to see his wrestlers achieve what he couldn't: to become Yokozuna.
Akinoshima wields a bamboo cane, not so much to help him walk as to deliver cracking blows to wrestlers' body parts not in perfect form during training. And his words are just as hard when it comes to those who he feels have made a disaster zone of his sport.
"If anyone in my stable was under suspicion," he says, "I'd tell him to commit hara-kiri and die."
The 23 men expelled by the JSA were either banned from competition for life or, if appropriate, asked to retire, but at least they weren’t obliged to commit ritual suicide by disembowelment.
It is a lack of what Akinoshima calls "the sumo spirit" that is responsible for the transgressions, and he cites everything from changes in diet to television as responsible for the moral drift.
But it was television that was used to give the sport's cred a boost after the scandal broke, when some of the biggest names in sumo, like Hakuho and Kotooshu, were filmed serving chanko-nabe, their celebrated weight-gain stew, to refugees from tsunami-hit areas.
More than repairing sumo's damaged image, filling the gaps left by those ousted, many of whom were high-level, is the next step.
A series of test matches to allocate wrestlers new rungs on the ranking ladder was held last month in Tokyo. It was not televised, tickets to the event were free and there were no sponsored envelopes of cash for the winners.
By the end of what the JSA called the Technical Examination Tournament, sole Yokozuna Hakuho had come out on top, matching the record number of tournament victories by Asashoryu -- the grand champion asked to retire last year after allegedly breaking a man's nose outside a Nishi-Azabu nightclub.
For Hakuho, his last two victories were more humbling than celebratory. He was not handed the coveted champion's cup, but a token victory flag.
Despite the letdown, the Yokozuna was quoted as saying, "That which was lost in the ring can only be restored in the ring."
And so Japan, in more ways than one, continues with its recovery. One can only hope the same spirit of resilience, so celebrated after the tragedies in the northeast, can also revive the country’s national sport.
For without the sumo spirit, Akinoshima says, sitting on the edge of his practice dohyo watching his athletes ram into each other, "all this is nothing more than pigs colliding."
Barring further revelations, the next scheduled tournament is the July Basho in Nagoya, due to run from July 10 to July 24. Full details are on the official JSA website.