Japan's Big Fat Sumo Scandal

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Edoardo Delille/Anzenberger/Redu

In Japan, sumo wrestlers are supposed to be the (ample) embodiment of classical virtues such as discipline and honor. But these days the sport is governed by a dysfunctional, hidebound organization and constantly mired in disgrace. The latest blow to hit the fighters is a fixing scandal, uncovered earlier this month when police found text messages from more than a dozen wrestlers colluding with their oversize opponents to throw bouts for money. (One typical text, from a rikishi named Kiyoseumi: “Could you give me a win in the next tournament? If not, I want my 200,000 [yen] back.” Rival wrestler: “Sure thing! Could you wait a little? I need to make a payment of 700,000 [yen] after this tournament, so let me get back to you after that.”)

The wrestlers’ unscrupulous behavior couldn’t come at a worse time for sumo, which has been sullied by a string of controversies in the past few years. Since 2007, participants have been busted for smoking pot, engaging in illegal gambling, and, in one particularly sorry case, beating an apprentice to death. And while suspicions of match fixing in sumo are nothing new, the emergence of actual evidence has so shamed the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) that it reluctantly canceled its spring tournament for the first time in 65 years and put off all provincial tours for the rest of the year. The association is also freezing regular tournaments until an investigative panel gets to the bottom of the mess. That’ll be a long slog—the wrestlers are refusing to submit their cell phones to investigators, claiming they lost them or “submerged [them] in water by accident.”

The stonewalling—and the JSA’s refusal to admit that match fixing went on in the past—has led some critics to suggest that sumo is now closer in spirit to America’s clownish pro-wrestling tournaments (where bouts are often staged) than to its ties to Shinto rituals. Until the sport cleans up its act, sumo may continue to be entertaining—but only as shoddy theater and not a fair fight.