Japan’s national sport has been plunged into crisis following the death of a teenage wrestler who collapsed during practice a day after he was hit on the head with a beer bottle by his stable master.
The incident has turned the spotlight on harsh acts committed against sumo apprentices in the name of training or punishment.
Coming on the heels of allegations of match-fixing and suspicions that a grand champion faked injuries, it’s little wonder, perhaps, that the sport is struggling to attract new novices.
“I heard new recruits are cancelling,” said Muneyoshi Fujisawa, a 55-year-old retired wrestler who reached the upper echelons of the ancient sport in his youth and maintains close contact with the closed world of sumo.
Even before the latest scandal the number of apprentices was on the decline.
The sumo authority approved 87 new novices in 2006, down 60 percent from the peak of 223 in 1992 when the nation was in the midst of sumo boom thanks to the popularity of two Japanese wrestling brothers.
Even in Fujisawa’s day, when he went by the name of Kotonofuji in the ring, training was very hard.
Sumo wrestlers scatter salt over the ring to purify the mound under Japanese Shinto religious beliefs.
But sometimes they use it for other purposes.
“It was really killing me. Sand or salt was often shoved into the mouth, and a bamboo sword was used to hit wrestlers. I was beaten, and beaten,” said Fujisawa, who spent 20 years in the ring and five coaching.
“Petting,” as such acts are known in sumo jargon, “is done by senior disciples in the mound to make novices strong,” he said.
“What’s in question now is the use of a beer bottle and baseball bat. It’s not petting but lynching although there is only a very fine line between them,” he told AFP.
Tokitsukaze, who heads a prestigious stable set up in 1941 by a legendary sumo champion, has admitted he hit novice Takashi Saito, 17, on the knee and head with a beer bottle the day before his sudden death in June.
The stable elder has also admitted senior wrestlers assaulted the teenager, including striking him on the buttocks with a metal bat during “practice”.
Tokitsukaze has insisted that the death was an accident, but police are investigating the case and the stable master looks almost certain to be expelled from the sumo world.
Saito, who had run away repeatedly but was dragged back by senior disciples, collapsed during practice on June 26. He was taken to hospital where he was pronounced dead from heart failure.
An autopsy could not determine the exact cause of death but police have said it may have been shock due to numerous wounds.
His family said the boy’s body had bruises, a deep cut in the forehead, half-torn ears and burns on the legs.
His father now sorely regrets ever talking him out of quitting the stable.
“Can you say it was normal training when a 17-year-old kid came home (in a box) with that battered body? He was saying he wanted to quit… I’m the worst parent,” a tearful Masato Saito said recently.
Some wrestlers, like Fujisawa, say that although they initially bore a grudge against senior disciples for hazing, in later years they felt grateful.
“You would eventually realise that the huge resentment, pain and anguish drove you to move up,” he said. “Any good players in any sport must have gone through beating or bullying.”
Fujisawa vividly remembers the day after he came to Tokyo from the northernmost province of Japan aged 15 to join the stable and woke up to find his feet on fire.
“Tired after a long trip, I was taking a nap. I had a dream of my feet on fire and they actually were,” he said.
“I couldn’t believe newspapers were burning on my feet. It’s been 40 years since then but I still remember who did it just like it happened yesterday.”
These days such a harsh regime appeals to few young Japanese men. No women are allowed to enter the ring under its tradition.
The two top champions are Mongolians. One of them, Asashoryu, flew home in late August citing mental illness.
Sumo is “in an unprecedented crisis” due to the falling number of children and changing lifestyles, says a veteran journalist who has followed the sport for two decades.
“Gifted children take up golf, soccer and other sports as their parents don’t bother to send them to the scary world,” he said, asking not to be named.
Some stables have changed their rigid ways, becoming more friendly to stop recruits from leaving, but junior wrestlers must still live together.
Although Princess Aiko is said to be an avid supporter, not many youths want to enter life in the stables.
“Many children have their own rooms, television sets and computers at home,” said the journalist.
“How can they stand sharing a room with a lot of others, being hazed, cooking and doing other chores at the stable?”