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Sunday, Nov. 2, 2008

MEDIA MIX

God forbid if sumo goes the way of pro wrestling


In March 2007, Shukan Gendai published an article naming top-ranked sumo wrestlers who it said had been involved in match-fixing in the past. Three of the wrestlers and the Japan Sumo Association subsequently filed defamation lawsuits against the publisher, Kodansha Ltd., and several weeks ago one of the cases started in the Tokyo District Court.

Such allegations have been tossed around for decades, but this is the first time a media outlet has been taken to court for making match-fixing claims, so it's interesting to observe how the rest of the media is covering the trial, in particular TV pundits who specialize in sumo.

Sportswriter Masayuki Tamaki has been a frequent guest on TV talk shows since the trials started, and he says he believes yaocho — the term used to describe match-fixing — is the wrong one to use in this case since it implies a bout has been fixed beforehand for the purpose of guaranteeing that bets placed on a certain contender will pay off. None of the allegations made in the Shukan Gendai article say that the matches were fixed for gambling purposes, so according to Tamaki a more appropriate word would be dekiyama, which apparently is only used in sumo and refers to a match whose outcome is predetermined. The morpheme deki- means something is completed, which is why the recent contest for the president of the Liberal Democratic Party, which everyone knew would be won by Taro Aso, was called a deki-race by the media.

The average person will think that Tamaki is splitting hairs — a fixed bout is a fixed bout, regardless of whether or not somebody makes money from it. But what Tamaki was getting at is that you can't judge sumo by the criteria you use to judge other sports.

This distinction emerged in the controversy surrounding tapes of two "emergency meetings" held by the JSA in 1989 and 1991. Recorded by former wrestler Keisuke Itai, who has made it his mission to "clean up sumo" and who testified on Oct. 17 that he fought a fixed match in 1984 against legendary wrestler Kitanoumi, the tapes feature top JSA official Shinichi Morishima, who has since died, berating wrestlers and stablemasters for "lazy sumo," which he said was ruining the sport by turning off fans. At both meetings, Morishima, whose background was accounting and not wrestling, basically connected yaocho to mukiryoku (spiritless) sumo, in that fans equate one with the other, and ever since Itai first made the tapes public back in 2000, many people have accepted them as proof that match-fixing was common in sumo.

The JSA has said that the tapes prove no such thing, a claim that was undermined when Kitanoumi, during his own testimony, said that he didn't recall Morishima ever mentioning the matter, even though it's been proved that he was definitely at the meetings and the tapes show that mukiryoku sumo was the main order of business. Some will accuse Kitanoumi, who recently resigned as the chairman of the JSA, of conveniently forgetting the gist of the meetings or, worse, perjury, but maybe it's simply a matter of nomenclature.

Kitanoumi has said that mukiryoku sumo is not the same as yaocho, and he stated the difference by explaining that when he was injured and had to fight, he would purposely try to "protect" the injured part of his body, which means he was not fighting at 100 percent. Thus, his "lack of spirit" was "intentional (koi)."

It's difficult to believe that this is what Morishima was complaining about, but Kitanoumi's assertion brings up the question of how to judge intentions in a court of law when you're talking about a sport that has as much to do with protocol as it does with physical prowess.

Tamaki tried to illustrate this idea following the initial publication of the Gendai article with a fictional interview he wrote for his blog and which he reposted last week. In this bit of theater, Tamaki sets up a wide-show segment where an aggressive emcee interrogates an anonymous stablemaster sitting behind a screen. Tamaki wants to show that the media insists on a black-and-white explication of a sport steeped in traditions that the layperson isn't expected to understand.

As the emcee grills his guest about yaocho, the stablemaster responds with seemingly contradictory explanations of arcane customs that everyone in sumo implicitly understands. There are many reasons why a wrestler loses, and they don't always have to do with his opponent's superior strength or technique. Sometimes it has to do with the two fighters' relationship: No one found it strange when, in the 1990s, the much stronger Takanohana lost to his older brother Wakanohana in a championship bout. "But what about money?" the emcee asks. The stablemaster explains that maintaining one's position in the hierarchy is the most important thing, and higher-ranked rikishi are always giving kozukai (pocket money) to lower-ranked wrestlers, but only a "naive person" would consider such money "compensation."

He goes on to says that sumo is both "a sacred art" and "entertainment," which explains Morishima's rant: The general public can't be expected to comprehend the sport's ritualistic fine points, but it needs to believe that the wrestlers are fighting with all their might, otherwise the sport dies and with it a centuries-old tradition.

Does that prove yaocho exists in sumo? Some pundit-enthusiasts, like cartoonist Hiroki Kurogane and playwright Kohei Tsuka, don't seem to care. "Yaocho is love," Tsuka said on TV Asahi's "Sunday Scramble." Tamaki isn't that sentimental. He thinks sumo has more in common with professional wrestling than it does with other martial sports since the idea is to put on a show, and pro-wrestling matches are fixed by definition. The similarities are there, but let's face it: There's no way the JSA would ever acknowledge them.



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