When it comes to the ancient sumo heritage, Japan's traditionalists have never exactly welcomed the influx of foreigners into the ring. Now the newcomers are threatening to blow the lid on the inner workings of the centuries-old sport, with bone-crunching allegations that wrestlers are being paid to dump fights.
Russian fighter Wakanoho, recently sacked after being busted for possession of cannabis, stunned TV viewers yesterday when he branded the sport "dirty" in a press conference in Tokyo aired nationwide. "I was forced to accept money and put in unfair bouts," said the wrestler, whose real name is Gagloev Soslan Aleksandrovich. "I want to return to make the sumo world clean again."
The allegation is the latest in a series to hit the Japan Sumo Association (JSA), which is reeling from drugs and hazing scandals and is already fighting claims that its top rikishi (wrestler) Mongolian-born Asashoryu, rigged fights for $6,500 a pop. In sumo's worst controversy in recent memory, 17-year-old apprentice Takashi Saito was beaten to death by three wrestlers last year in an apparent hazing ordered by his stable master to "toughen him up." Saito's body was covered in bruises and cuts following training sessions administered with metal baseball bats and beer bottles. His family charged that the police were slow to investigate the cause of his death.
Since then three Russians - including Wakanoho - have been banned from competing. Earlier this month, siblings Roho and Hakurozan were also kicked out of the ring for life after JSA drug tests found they had smoked cannabis. The resulting furore forced the association's chairman Kitanoumi out of his job, and sparked calls for tougher control over foreign wrestlers, who have been criticised for failing to grasp the sport's austere traditions.
But there is a crisis in the sport at home. Young Japanese are no longer willing to endure years of eating rice porridge and grappling with sweaty, fat men in sumo stables, which have been struggling to attract new recruits on home turf. So foreigners are plugging the gap, to the extent that the Sumo Federation has limited non-Japanese recruits to one per stable.
Despite this limit, foreigners dominate the top divisions of the sport: his increasingly erratic career not withstanding Asashoryu is its top draw and fellow Mongolian-born grand champion Hakuho celebrated his eighth career title at the Autumn Grand Sumo this week. Some commentators have suggested the banning of three foreign wrestlers for drug-taking is not coincidental.
Wakanoho's outburst threatens to further deepen the rift between traditionalists who view the influx of foreigners with distrust and those who think the closed sport suffers from worse problems, including xenophobia. He said his fellow wrestlers and stable masters also smoked marijuana but went unpunished, a claim that inevitably be taken by some to mean he is being singled out because he is not Japanese. "I came to Japan aged 16 and worked very hard to become a strong wrestler and champion, but I was treated unfairly," he said yesterday.
And he is threatening to throw more salt on sumo's open wounds by airing march-rigging and discrimination claims in court, where the JSA is countersuing the country's biggest publisher, Kodansha, for $4m. "I also want to tell about all the other evil things that I know. My stable master and others knew (about bout-fixing) but nobody stepped in because they had been also playing unfair matches themselves," he said.
The 6ft 5in 20-year-old was rapidly climbing the ranks before his wallet, containing a marijuana joint, was found in a bar and handed into the police. He later said that he smoked pot in the toilet of a disco after spending 20,000 yen on two bags of marijuana and a pipe, an admission that scandalised a country with a low tolerance for drugs. The JSA has since refused his request to be allowed back into the sport.
He is not the only one whose courtroom appearance could prove explosive. On Friday, Asashoryu will begin a legal battle against match-fixing claims, fighting for not just the reputation of the sport but his own erratic career.
A cocky, sometimes ill-tempered wrestler who divides fans, the Mongolian ranks among sumo's greatest champions. And the most controversial. In his most famous transgression of the all-important Sumo hin (dignity), he pulled an opponent to the ground by tugging on his mage (top knot), a tactic that outraged conservative fans.
The fixing allegations started when a reporter for Shukan Gendai - a tabloid published by Kodansha -- grew suspicious of his seemingly effortless winning streak despite apparently partying harder and training less than other wrestlers. The article quoted an unnamed fighter who said the champion paid opponents $6,500 to throw fights.
But it was not this that sent Asashoryu's reign, which climaxed with a record six-tournament win in 2005, sprawling to the mat. The killer blow came last year when he was caught playing a charity soccer match in his home country, after he lied about an injury. The sport's ruling body suspended him from two tournaments and slashed his monthly salary by 30 per cent -- among the toughest punishments in the sport's history until the recent sacking of three Russian wrestlers.
Asashoryu nursed his wounds amid rumours of a breakdown, before bouncing back this year with his 22nd tournament win. But haunted by injury, the 28-year-old no longer looks invincible and has pulled out of the last two tournaments. Whatever happens in court, many believe he is a spent force in the ring.