Japan's Sumo Stumbles – Searching for Answers in Two-Thousand-Year-Old Lessons

The world of sumo is a violent one, but it has zero tolerance for the bullying abuse of its young trainees. That is the message the Japan Sumo Association has delivered to the Japanese government last week.

Toshimitsu Kitanoumi, a former sumo grand champion who is now the chairman of the association, said the group will try to eliminate physical assaults and abuse from Japan's ancient sport and tradition.

Public attention started with last year's death of 17-year-old sumo wrestler Takashi Saito. After spending a few months at a sumo stable, Saito, who was given a ring name of "Tokitaizan," complained about the severity of the training and repeatedly tried to run away.

In at least one case, Saito apparently fled the stable and returned home. But his parents convinced him to return. The parents had no clue about what their son was going through under the name of training.

"I thought my son was safe with that master and the stable," Masato Saito said in tears at a news conference after the death of his son. "I wish I told him to drop everything and come home."

One night in June last year, Saito was caught by a group of senior wrestlers outside a convenience store as he tried to flee again, according to a police report cited in Japanese media. The report said the older wrestlers dragged Saito back for a "special" session. Saito was repeatedly kicked, struck with an aluminum bat and beer bottles until he collapsed, the police report said. The cause of death was listed as physical trauma.

This fatal assault resulted in the arrest of the stable master, Junichi Yamamoto, and three sumo wrestlers. The Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported that Yamamoto told the police he never instructed the wrestlers to physically torture Saito. NHK also reported that the three wrestlers told the police they acted solely on Yamamoto's command when Yamamoto told them to "take care of" Saito.

Despite the outcry over Saito's death, additional incidents of abusive treatment of young wrestlers were occurred, heightening the public's concern about what's going on inside sumo stables. The sumo association set up a review board to prevent future incidents.

Kunihiro Sugiyama covered sumo as a journalist for more than 55 years. "Sumo practice tends to be physical," he said. "Just like any other sport, sumo practice can get very physical. That probably will not change. But the problem is that some masters and wrestlers took advantage of the physical discipline and used it to bully or physically abuse wrestlers. This is unacceptable."

The Japanese perception of sumo has changed over time. Getting tickets to tournaments was as difficult as getting top-selling Broadway show tickets. As popularity of sports such as soccer grew in the 1990's, what used to be one of the nation's most enjoyed pastimes started to suffer dwindling popularity.

Many sumo stables resorted to something unconventional to hold on to sumo fans, like a Web site or even a fan club.

The number of recruits also declined.

"If you were a tall and big boy, people used to tell him he would make a good sumo wrestler," Sugiyama said. "Now with all those sports available to them, sumo is not the only choice for today's kids. The nation also has been experiencing a low birthrate. In this climate, incidents like those certainly do not help attract healthy wrestlers with potential."

Japan's sumo world relies heavily on foreign wrestlers today. The current two grand champions are Mongolians. Roughly 30 percent of high-ranking sumo wrestlers are from foreign countries such as Bulgaria, Russia and Estonia.

"We probably are at a point where we cannot reverse this trend," Sugiyama said, "Japanese are at a juncture where we will have to accept this reality and still find the way to preserve our culture and tradition of sumo."

Respecting seniors and minding one's own manners are just a few examples of lessons sumo can teach. "My boys have learned a lot from Sumo," said Takahiro Yamamoto. His two sons have been practicing sumo at a local junior league in downtown Tokyo. "Incidents like those are very unfortunate because they take away what sumo really represents such as self-control, respect, perseverance – wonderful qualities we have admired all these years."

Sumo does hold its place within the minds of Japanese. More than 50,000 children practice sumo across the nation. Yamamoto's 15-year-old son, Yota, said he felt sumo helps him become strong both physically and mentally. "I do not mind the hard practice because I want to get better," Yota said. "My coaches always do their best to help me get stronger. They are never easy on me but I appreciate the discipline."

Kenji Yoshida, Yota's 70-year-old sumo coach, said sumo prepares children for the real world. "Older kids take care of younger ones, kids respect older ones and show their appreciation," Yoshida said. "We never hit or physically abuse the children but we never let them leave the ring just because they cry. This teaches kids discipline and perseverance."

Self control – another lesson learned through years of practice among sumo wrestlers – is the very quality often lacking among today's wrestlers, according to Sugiyama.

"Sumo professionals need to keep their emotions under control all the time," Sugiyama said. "Sumo is not merely a sport, it is our culture, tradition and heritage. Those who practice sumo need to understand the principle and history behind our ancient ritual and act accordingly. If they have a true appreciation for the art of sumo, there will never be incidents like these."