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Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2007

THE ZEIT GIST

The scapegoating of Asa

Champion's antics are least of sumo's worries


By JAMES ERIKSSON and DEBITO ARUDOU
Special to The Japan Times

The Japan Sumo Association has recently tag-teamed with the Japanese media to lay into Asashoryu, the Mongolian sumo champ who has all but dominated the sport for the past few years.

Asashoryu faces the cameras at Narita International Aiport last Wednesday before his flight back to Mongolia
Sumo "bad boy" Asashoryu faces the cameras at Narita International Aiport last Wednesday before his flight back to Mongolia. AP PHOTO

As the sole yokozuna (grand champion) for a nearly four-year period, Asashoryu's stellar record — 21 tournament wins by the age of 26 — has been the stuff of legends. A hero to the Mongolian people, Asa brought attention back to the sport in Japan and abroad.

But the wrestler's behavior has also earned him notoriety. The media has chronicled fits of temper, flights of fancy, and his throwing his weight around both figuratively and literally in ways deemed unbecoming of the dignity of the sport and his rank.

Yet here's the conundrum: Having essentially created the Asa we know and love (or love to hate), it looks like the JSA is now hanging him out to dry.

Asa joined sumo at a young age for a foreign wrestler, rose fast to the top, and became an international ambassador for the sport. His job was to be both a hero and an attraction, and Asa has proven to be interesting and charismatic enough to attract viewers and sell tickets.

But it is possible to become too interesting, especially when a plethora of pitfalls await a young hero in an arena where you are supposed to do as you are told.

So when Asa took a summer break for "injuries" in Mongolia, and authorities as high as the Mongolian government (plus soccer star Hidetoshi Nakata) invited him more than once to join a soccer game for charity, it would have been churlish for him to refuse.

Then, as anyone with a TV knows, Asa went out on the pitch, showed some moves, and people concluded that Asa faked injury to duck his responsibilities.

Possibly. But for the sake of argument, let's play the devil's advocate here and ask some pertinent questions. Sure, in the seconds-long clips (not the whole game) replayed ad nauseam, he clowned around with some vim. But isn't that what he's been trained to do as a cultural ambassador — to show his best as a sportsman in public?

Moreover, anyone else think the Japanese cameramen were conveniently placed to get some good shots? It feels like a setup.

So Asa returned on July 31 and the press bayed for punishment — not a hearing, just punishment. He appeared before his masters for an apology, and then went out that night on the town (again, something he might not have been able to refuse).

The next day, the JSA sees of a lack of contrition and orders a 30-percent pay cut, a ban from two tournaments and virtual house arrest. Where can Asa tell his side of the story? Wrestlers, after all, do not discuss fight club with the press, especially as the JSA withholds a sizable portion of wrestlers' total earnings for safekeeping until retirement.

Some might say Asa has long had it coming. He's known as the bad boy of sumo, reputedly showing violent tendencies toward junior wrestlers and, according to the weeklies and wide shows, even his wife.

Therefore his record, in a sport where winning is everything, was the only thing keeping the hounds at bay.

But it's not as if he stopped winning. What's changed is that as of May we finally have another yokozuna, Hakuho. It seems Asashoryu is now expendable.

The point is, the whole soccer-sumo scandal is a smoke-screen. Sumo is in a panic and needs a scapegoat.

Not only did sumo face a further slew of allegations of bout-fixing last March, but another embarrassing statistic popped up in July: No Japanese signed up at the entry level to become junior wrestlers for the first time in history. True, they signed up at earlier sessions this year, but this unprecedented dip to zero was bound to attract unwelcome headlines.

So despite another yokozuna's appearance on the scene, Asa was apparently needed this summer to help recruitment. Even though people realized that after he got back from Mongolia.

Some might say that Asa is being given too much benefit of the doubt here. But the fact remains that it's not a fair fight: One guy versus the JSA and the Japanese media. Especially since sumo as a sport has barely been called to account for its own excesses.

For example, sumo is notorious for hazing — so much so that some junior wrestlers have been known to try to escape their stables. No wonder youths are so disinclined to join up these days: It's gotten to the point where they are getting killed.

Consider the death of Tokitaizan on June 26. His body was found at his stable training camp complete with a torn ear, broken teeth, broken bones and cigarette burns. Yet the cause of death was recorded as heart failure.

Where was the media circus then? A blurb here and there, but coverage was definitely incommensurate to the degree of controversy a death should provoke. Instead they went after Asashoryu.

Asa, meanwhile, is watching his world collapse around him. The JSA doctor says he needs psychological treatment. His wife has reportedly left him and left Japan. Then up popped charges of tax evasion (doesn't the JSA have an accountant for their top wrestler?).

Speculation is rife that Asa will either leave sumo for K-1 pseudo-boxing (the elephant's graveyard for many an athlete; remember Akebono?), or, now that he's returned to Mongolia, abscond with his riches never to return. This would be a major black mark for the sport, not to mention possibly for the reputation of non-Japanese wrestlers.

But again, this is all a diversion from the real story: That sumo's house of cards is being shaken by its own long-tolerated excesses.

There's nothing new here. In 1963, a "young Turk" writer named Shintaro Ishihara — now Tokyo's governor — made public accusations of bout-fixing. A less hyperbolic author, the late Edward Seidensticker, had no compunctions about leveling the same charges, calling sumo "feudal" and "at best second to baseball" in his book "Tokyo Rising." According to his 70-year survey of events, each periodic "golden age" of sumo was a pale imitation of the last.

Sumo eventually must clean up its act. It could have happened in 1996, after veteran wrestler and trainer Onaruto and commentator Seiichiro Hashimoto also spilled the beans to journalists regarding rampant bout-fixing.

Instead, both whistle-blowers became sick and died. On the same day. In the same hospital. Of unknown causes. Yet police found nothing untoward. The system continues apace as it eats its own.

A lot smells fishy in the world of sumo, and it isn't the "chanko nabe." Add into the mix rumblings on the Net about possible steroid use in a sport where there is no open regime of drug testing and it's not difficult to see why the JSA might welcome Asa's antics as a distraction.

In the real world, if a bad movie gets made, it's the director's fault, not the actor's. Asashoryu is sumo's creation, yet the JSA pins the blame on him not only for the media attention gone awry, but also for its own plight as an institution. They even provide the mob with torches and pitchforks to pursue their Frankenstein.

Long-overdue comeuppances or not, who could blame Asa now if he takes the money and runs?

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