Japan Sumo Association chairman Kitanoumi resigns as a consequence of sumo scandals


By Stine Alvad
The chairman of the Japan Sumo Association (JSA), Kitanoumi Toshimitsu, has resigned after a series of scandals in the sport. Initially, Kitanoumi had been able to escape responsibility, relying on ideological preconceptions with regard to hierarchy within the ancient Japanese sport. However, when a Russian wrestler from his own stable was found guilty of smoking marijuana, he was forced to step down, reawakening debate in Japan on the future of the semi-religious sport in a commercial environment.
Sumo in Fukuoka - Photo copyright by Flickr user culturalelite and uploaded under a Creative Commons 2.0 licen

Kitanoumi is a former grand champion who was a huge star in the 1970s and enjoys great respect as a sportsman among fans of sumo wrestling. But his high rank in sumo wrestling might have held him on the chairman post for longer than he should have, Japanese newspaper, The Mainichi Daily News, suggests.

During his tenure, a number of incidents have damaged the image of sumo. Last year Mongolian grand champion, Asashori went to his homeland to participate in a charity soccer game whilst missing a sumo tournament because of injuries. This caused public outrage and resulted in a suspension of the grand champion. Much more disturbingly, earlier this year four sumo wrestlers were arrested for having trained a 17-year old wrestler with such physical force that it caused his death. The training practices used were described as commonplace within the sport.

However, the lack of reaction to the recent scandals within the JSA is based on the respect for the ex-grand champion, The Mainichi Daily News argues. Inside the world of sumo it is seen as disrespectful to question or critique the ruling of a higher ranking master.

Nonetheless, several media state that it was a resignation long awaited inside the sumo sport, with many criticising the closed nature of the JSA, accusing Kitanoumi of failing in his responsibility in the incidents leading up to his resignation. According to British newspaper The Times, a JSA committee member said “For a long time now, he has neglected and mismanaged all the troubles that have come sumo’s way and allowed the sport to descend into turmoil.”

Russian wrestler takes down Kitanoumi
The trigger for Kitanoumi’s resignation was a drug scandal involving three Russian wrestlers. One wrestler was caught in possession of marijuana, strictly illegal in Japan, while another two wrestlers tested positive for smoking the drug. The Russians deny the offence, but have nonetheless been expelled from the JSA for life. Crucially for Kitanoumi, one of the Russians was a wrestler from his stable.

This prompted Kitanoumi’s resignation as chairman of the JSA, who took responsibility for incident.

“I am full of remorse because I needed to take care of the wrestlers all the time,” Kitanoumi told reporters following his resignation, “they denied smoking marijuana and I believed them.”

The stable master’s responsibility
The sumo wrestling world is dominated by a strong relation between master and apprentice. The sumo wrestling society comprises of a number of stables, each with its own stable master.

The stable master is responsible for his wrestlers’ career, development and behaviour inside and outside the world of sumo sport. According to Daily Yomiuri Sportswriter, James Hardy, this explains why the recent scandals have not had any consequences for Kitanoumi until now.

“Kitanoumi relied on an ideological crutch he used to justify avoiding action in many of the other crisis: the sanctity of the relationship between a stablemaster and his wrestler”, James Hardy writes for Daily Yomiuri Online. Such a policy isolates responsibility with stable masters, meaning that the JSA and Kitanoumi escaped responsibility for the sins of individual wrestlers and stable masters.

Hardy argues that had the association been more responsible for the sumo sport as a whole, there would have been consequences before. “If the JSA is going to rely on this master-wrestler relationship as the basis for its sport, then some serious house cleaning is in order,” he concludes.

Modern world makes way
Sumo wrestling, the national sport of Japan, is embedded in tradition, morals and venerability and when a wrestler joins a stable, he is expected to follow these long-held codes of conduct.

However, sumo has come under pressure from commercialisation and modernisation. While the sport is based on one part of what Japan is today, traditional Japanese culture with ancient rituals, it also has to find its place in the modern globalized world and it has done so for example by taking in foreigners to the stables.

The first foreigners joined the association in the1960s, and today almost 30 % of wrestlers in the top two divisions in sumo are foreigners, who some argue have a hard time stepping into 2000 years of tradition.

“The latest incident again taught us that it is difficult for those who do not hold the spirit of the Japanese people to be bearers of Japanese culture”, former wrestler and vice education and sports minister Kenshiro Matsunami said in the Yomiuri Shimbun on the marijuana scandal.

This poses a dilemma on the JSA since the foreign wrestlers hold top positions in the sport. There are conservative purists who believe sumo should be as it always has been and renewers who want sumo to open up to the world.

The future of sumo
However, foreign wrestlers cannot bear sole responsibility as it was Japanese stable masters that caused the death of the 17-year-old apprentice earlier this year, and the JSA will need to renew itself to maintain a place for the sport in Japanese culture.

"Sumo, like Japan itself, is becoming globalized," said Yushitaka Matsumura, vice-president of the International Sumo Federation, to The Washington Post in 2005. "Not everyone is happy about it, but I would say it is inevitable. I think in the end it will make us more competitive and raise the bar for greatness."

Kitanoumi is replaced by Musashigawa. He has already made suggestions as to how the JSA can move on, suggesting an official one-year programme for foreigners entering sumo be established, where new wrestlers can learn the etiquette of the sport, as well as the Japanese language and traditions. The education would be conducted by the JSA, instead of by the stable masters, who have traditionally been taking care of the education so far.

“We have to let out all the ills of sumo. I will be very strict about this,” Musashigawa told the Agence France Presse news agency.

He will have his work cut out to re-establish the reputation of the association, as sumo is already experiencing a fall in young people wanting to wrestle and a decreasing number of fans, reports the Times.

Mark Buckton, editor-in-chief of the Sumo Fan Magazine has faith in Musashigawa. “He will probably not be able to relieve the pressure on the JSA over night, but he is well respected by the fans and they will give him time to rebuild the reputation of the JSA. This is a good change for sumo, it will help the sport open up to modern society,” he says to Play the Game.

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