Thursday, July 15, 2010

Sumo Wrestlers Would Bow in Shame (If They Could)

Due to their size, there are presumably many things a full-grown sumo wrestler can’t do effectively: drive a Mini Cooper, partake in a roller coaster ride, and clean certain body parts. Add a humble bow—the traditional Japanese act of contrition—to the list. Such repentant genuflections are in high demand these days as the sport of sumo has been rocked by one scandal after another.

And our friends in the yakuza are right in the middle of it! Would you expect anything less? There have always been whispers of a cushy relationship between sumo and the underworld, but verification emerged as many top fighters were alleged to have bet on other sports with yakuza as go betweens. News reports also indicate that the yakuza sponsor wrestlers who aren’t quite good enough to attract major corporate benefactors.

My favorite anecdote, however, is that 55 members of the Yamaguchi-gumi clan—
the mob family in Japan—sat front row at a tournament last year. They did so as an act of solidarity with their imprisoned brethren. The gangsters knew they would be on T.V., and they knew the jail birds would be eagerly watching one of the few T.V. broadcasts they are allowed to see.

yakuza chronicler Jake Adelstein told the A.P.: “Sumo is involved in organized crime because they've had a symbiotic relationship for years. The wrestlers and the yakuza have a macho admiration for each other. The yakuza by being seen with the sumo wrestlers, acquire `status' and the sumo wrestlers get money, booze, food, and women.” In the wake of the myriad scandals—which you can read about here—NHK has dropped coverage, arenas are half full, prizes are being withheld, and competitions are adorned with signs reading “Gangsters Keep Out.”

Based on the research I conducted for my book,
Tokyo Lives, it’s no surprise to me that the yakuza are waist-deep in sumo. It’s only a surprise that it took so long to be exposed.

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