Foreign wrestlers spurn ancient sumo code of dignity in favour of call girls and tantrums

Across Japan, grown men shed tears as the baby-faced giant of sumo wrestling, Takanohana, had his hair topknot snipped off, bringing his professional career to an end.

At the ceremonial event last weekend, the once-fearsome yokuzuna (grand champion) was transformed back into plain old Koji Haneda. The tears were partly for the unmistakable symbolism of removing the crowning glory of a wrestler's barnet, signalling the onset of age and decay. But they also reflected wider fears that Japan's national sport is in crisis.

Ticket sales are down, audiences are opting for sexier fare and, with fewer young Japanese men willing to put themselves through the years of gruelling training it takes to be a sumo champion, the sport is now, for the first time, dominated by foreigners. The number of non-Japanese sumo professionals, such as the Hawaiian-born Musashimaru and the fiery Mongolian Asashoryu, the present champion, has more than trebled in the past three years.

But while the foreigners are providing a new supply of wrestlers, they are also blamed by many Japanese for bringing the sport into disgrace. Asashoryu has enraged the sport's hardcore followers with his loutish antics inside and outside the ring. Some sumo officials are privately suggesting he should be barred from the sport.

The empty auditorium seats at the recent summer grand sumo tournament, where Asashoryu took his first emperor's cup as champion, hinted at what the Japanese public thinks of this foreign invasion. With little home-grown talent, many are staying away.

"The biggest draws of past sumo contests were bouts between home favourites such as Takanohana and foreign-born wrestlers such as the Hawaiian Akebono," says Mark Schilling, who comperes sumo for the Japanese state broadcaster NHK. "Akebono played the role of the bad guy, and the place fell silent if he won. But now there is no one to root for. It's getting to the point where people are asking, 'Can we let non-Japanese dominate the sport?'"

The main problem, observers say, is not that few native Japanese are willing to grind through years of brutal training. Other more gradual changes have also taken their toll on the sport. Weighing in at an average of 350lb (160kg), wrestlers are bigger than ever, although the ring has stayed only 15ft across, meaning many land more heavily and suffer serious injuries. Faced with this shrinking pool of local talent, sumo bosses are reluctantly opening the sport to men from Korea and Mongolia, where wrestlers are hungrier for the status sumo brings. This, too, brings problems.

The beefy legs of the 700-odd professional wrestlers support a sport marinated in centuries of tradition and culture. Those who grunt their way to the top are showered with money, fame and the sort of adulation lavished on pop stars.

In return, they must strive to live up to the sport's exalted standards of decorum and dignity, collectively know as hinkaku. Foreign wrestlers often struggle to grasp these deep-rooted concepts, and some never do. Japan's racy weeklies hum with stories of the 22-year-old Asashoryu's cursing, womanising and cruelty to junior wrestlers. One said he delights in firing air-gun pellets at the buttocks of young trainees, another that he tried to buy the services of a young hostess. More seriously, Asashoryu was seen in the summer tournament on nationwide TV angrily disputing a decision by a head judge, a transgression of sumo rules. Mr Schilling says: "In Mongolia, having a fiery temper is considered manly. You're not expected to hide your feelings as you are in Japan"

Most fans hope he will learn to play by the rules. But some suggest the sport should hitch its wagon to his bad-boy antics to enhance its ratings. The veteran sumo commentator Mark Schreiber says: "At least Asashoryu is a star."