Tough times for sumo: Japan’s ‘national sport’ and its recent scandals

Sumo is more than just a sport in Japan. It’s deeply connected to cultural traditions in the minds of the Japanese. Unfortunately, in recent years, sumo has been hit hard by a number of scandals, that many believe are posing a threat to its status as Japan’s ‘national sport.’

Photo by Pedro Szekely

Sumo as Japan’s national sport

It may surprise you to know that sumo isn’t Japan’s national sport at all. The media in Japan often refers to sumo as kokugi (国技), which is usually translated as ‘national sport,’ and the kokugikan (国技館) is the name of its main arena. But Japan has no official national sport, even though it’s a no-brainer to most Japanese that sumo is theirs.

In fact, sumo is not a sport at all. A closer look at the kanji for gi (技) reveals that it actually means something like ‘art’ or ‘technique.’ It is a do (道, way) like kendo (剣道, Japanese swordsmanship), aikido (合気道) and judo (柔道). In other words, sumo means more to the Japanese people than, for example, hockey means to Canadians or football means to Brazilians, Mexicans, Spanish, English… okay, about half of the earth.

In addition to the matches, sumo includes a strict lifestyle discipline, rigorous training and quasi-religious ceremonial aspects. In other words, it is a way of life. This makes it even more upsetting to the Japanese that it has been rocked in recent years by scandals of all kinds.

Scandals in the world of sumo

This ancient tradition is suffering its hardest times since the beginning of the Edo Period 400 years ago. A series of scandals have rocked the sumo world.

The first mention of price-fixing was in sumo stable master Onaruto’s book published in the late 1990’s called Yaocho. In the book, Onaruto says that there’s widespread corruption in the sumo world, including price fixing and connections with the yakuza (ヤクザ, Japanese organized crime), who he claims provide women and drugs to wrestlers, among other services.

Photo by Jason Hill

The allegations were denied by the Japan Sumo Association and the author and co-author of the book both died before its publication of the same respiratory illness in the same hospital in Nagoya. So, there’s obviously no yakuza connection there.

In early 2011, the JSA was finally no longer able to deny the charges. Sumo wrestlers were caught fixing matches red-handed. Their mobile text messages, which were obtained by the police, told everyone exactly what was happening. This came on the heels of years of bad press for sumo wrestlers—everything from drunken rampages, pot charges, and hazing scandals that left young rikishi (力士, sumo wrestlers) dead.

This led the Japan Sumo Association to cancel the spring 2011 season for the first time since the Edo period. Sumo is a sport and tradition that the Japanese people cherish, but many worry about its future.

Have you ever experienced a live sumo game? If not, would you like to watch Japan’s honorary national sport on your trip to Japan?