Inside the scandal-hit world of Japan’s sumo wrestlers

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Media captionSumo wrestler Harumafuji sorry for “causing trouble”

Standing resolute amid a frenzy of flashbulbs, the damp-eyed warrior announced his immediate retirement.

“I apologise from my heart,” he declared, bowing deeply for almost 30 seconds.

Harumafuji – his fighting name – was a sumo grand champion, known in Japanese as “yokozuna”, until last Wednesday. On 25 October, he allegedly attacked a younger wrestler in a bar and fractured the man’s skull, provoking weeks of headlines and a police investigation.

The case has cast a cloud over Japan’s ancient national sport, and it’s far from the first time. A decade ago, its reputation plunged when a 17-year-old trainee died after his elders beat him with a beer bottle and a baseball bat.

In 2010, an illegal betting ring with alleged links to Japan’s yakuza gangsters struck another blow. Harumafuji’s mentor, the great Mongolian champion Asashoryu, resigned the same year after a drunken brawl outside a Tokyo nightclub.

Then evidence of match-fixing emerged in sumo’s second division.

Are these signs that sumo is dying in its homeland, the discipline that once defined it in tatters? Or is it just that after 15 centuries, the dark side finally makes the papers?

‘The Mongolians are coming!’

To answer those questions, it helps to look at where sumos come from – and the savage training regime that shapes them.

Though sumo originated in Japanese temple rites performed some 1,500 to 2,000 years ago, the nation no longer dominates in the ring. Until this week’s departure, there were four sumo grand champions. Three of them, Harumafuji included, are Mongolian.

Eastern Europe, Russia, Hawaii and Samoa all send promising wrestlers to the Japanese sumo “stables” – effectively a men’s boarding house where “stable masters” drill surly teenagers in the arts that once thrilled the imperial courts.

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Reuters

Image caption

Harumafuji performs the ring-entering rite during New Year celebrations in Tokyo

In the land of the rising sun, sumo isn’t just a sport – it’s a ceremonial window on the past, steeped in tradition and what it means to be Japanese. Strict rituals set out the code of behaviour, and…

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