Bringing Change to Sumo Amid Scandal
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Bringing Change to Sumo Amid Scandal

    The chairman of the Japan Sumo Association pledged on December 21st to eradicate violence among sumo wrestlers in the wake of an assault scandal that ended the career of Yokozuna grand champion, Harumafuji.

    On the same day, Yokozuna Hakuho and Kakuryu were at a workshop held by the Japan Sumo Association.

    Before the workshop, the association reduced their salaries as punishment for failing to stop former Yokozuna Harumafuji from injuring a younger wrestler.

    Also present was Takanohana, the master of the stable to which Takanoiwa, the victim of Harumafuji's assault, belongs.

    About 1,000 people came to the Kokugikan arena for the workshop, including all sumo wrestlers and stable masters.

    The event focused on ways to prevent violence. Takanoiwa was absent because he is in the hospital.

    Yasuko Ikenobo, the chair of the association's council, said the violent incident was very regrettable. She expressed hope that everyone in the association will place their trust in Chairman Hakkaku and unite under his leadership.

    Hakkaku said he will speak about preventing violence, and has already talked to wrestlers about it. He called the issue extremely important, and said he wants every attendee to listen to him carefully.

    Hakkaku also stressed the need to root out violence in the sumo world.

    After the workshop, one of the attendees, Kotoshogiku, told reporters every wrestler will work hard to prevent it. Sekiwake Terunofuji was present during the assault by Harumafuji, and did not comment. Another Yokozuna, Kisenosato, said he thinks it is crucial for every wrestler to understand that violence is unacceptable. He said he will do his best to prevent a recurrence.

    Meanwhile, Hakuho responded to reporters' questions for the first time since his punishment. He said he got the message that violence is unacceptable, as did younger wrestlers.

    Daichi Suzuki, head of the Japan Sports Agency, also commented on the scandal. Suzuki said the incident must not be handled as a one-off, and that wrestlers and stable masters should continue to be reminded of it.

    He says it will be important to hold more workshops and take other measures going forward.

    What is proper conduct for a Yokozuna?

    The day before the workshop, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council had some harsh comments about Hakuho's style of sumo.

    Council chief Masatoh Kitamura said techniques like the "hari-te" face-slapping and "kachi-age" forearm-charge are unattractive, and shouldn't be used by a grand champion.

    Sumo fans have mixed views. One said that a Yokozuna should be mindful that winning isn't everything in sumo. Another said that a great Yokozuna like Hakuho should win squarely using his own strength. Another noted that the criticized techniques are in the rule books, so it's okay to use them.

    This isn't the first time a grand champion's winning techniques have stirred controversy.

    11 years ago, Former Yokozuna Asashoryu swept an opponent's leg from the inside in the initial charge. The head of the Yokozuna Deliberation Council at the time, Yoshio Ishibashi, said that such techniques shouldn't be used because a grand champion must preserve his dignity.

    These comments have left many wondering how Yokozuna should perform during matches.

    NHK's sumo commentator Fujio Kariya says simply winning a bout is not enough. He says a grand champion should display dignity and overwhelming power.

    For example, he says great pre-war Yokozuna Futabayama never called a false start. If the opponent charged too quickly, he would accept it, even if it put him at a disadvantage.

    Kariya says Yokozuna Taiho, who had won 32 championships, was the same. He says a true Yokozuna lets his opponent charge ahead with full force, but still wins the bout by showing a different level of strength.

    Taiho always allowed the opponent to go on the offensive first. Futabayama, also adopted this style. His sumo is exemplified in his initial charge.

    In matches, Futabayama would seem to make a slow start, but he would soon control his opponent with a posture that gave him a clear advantage.

    Hakuho once studied Futabayama by repeatedly watching his bouts. By replicating this style, Hakuho managed to extend his winning streak to 63, and amass 1,000 career wins.

    Speaking 5 years ago, Hakuho said he admired and respected Futabayama and Taiho, because they're the ideal Yokozuna grand champions. He said he will continue pursuing his dreams by always reminding himself of the "way of sumo."

    Hakuho is now 32. Kariya says there's been a change in the way he fights in recent years.

    Kariya notes it's commonly said that 10 years is the limit for any wrestler to remain a Yokozuna -- regardless of how old he was when he won promotion to the highest rank.

    Kariya says Hakuho has already done his 10 years, and there's no doubt he's exhausted. He says a desire to win using as little energy as possible might have crossed the grand champion's mind.

    One fan says they want Hakuho to be a leader in sumo that every wrestler can look up to.

    Another says Hakuho did well as the only Yokozuna a while ago, and hopes Hakuho will be as mighty as Takanohana and fight spirited bouts.

    What comes next amid the current scandal?

    All eyes are on what the sumo association's board will do about Takanohana. The stable-master had refused to let a crisis management panel interview Takanoiwa until December 19th.

    Panel chief Toshio Takano says Takanohana explained that he changed his mind. He said this was because prosecutors assured him they had finished questioning Takanoiwa, and that there was no problem with the wrestler talking to the sumo panel.

    At a board meeting the day before, Takanohana himself apparently agreed to be interviewed by the crisis management panel.

    Based on the panel's report, the sumo association plans to consider a possible punishment for Takanohana at the next board meeting, scheduled for December 28th.