2007 Year in Review
I've been following sumo for nearly two decades now, but I'm gonna go out on a limb and say the sport has never had as disastrous of a year as we saw in 2007. The year began normal enough with an uncontested Asashoryu yusho at the Hatsu basho, but it took just one day after that for the first disturbance to occur. A weekly tabloid, called the Shukan Gendai, began posting a series of articles about bout-fixing in sumo. The crux of the initial article was that Asashoryu actually needed help in 75% of his victories, and while that argument was false, the tabloid managed to scare the hell out of the Association by purportedly possessing a tape that had the current Miyagino-oyakata recorded as saying the Asashoryu - Hakuho bout in Nagoya 2006 was fixed...a likely scenario. The Association filed a series of lawsuits in the Spring, and all seemed settled down at that point until June 26th when an ambulance was called to the Tokitsukaze-beya facilities to attend to a 17 year-old rikishi who had collapsed and lost consciousness. Tokitaizan was pronounced dead that afternoon around 2 PM, and after quickly getting the story quieted in the press, things seemed back to normal for sumo with a newly-crowned Yokozuna in Hakuho and the newest Ozeki in Kotomitsuki.
The glee was short-lived, however, when a few days after the Nagoya basho, video surfaced of Asashoryu participating in a charity soccer match in Mongolia after having withdrawn from the summer exhibitions citing two injuries. The Japanese press had a heyday blowing up the story, and the Sumo Association handed down a two-basho suspension that included a house arrest stipulation that sent the Yokozuna into a mental tailspin. Diagnosed as suffering from acute stress disorder, a debate ensued on whether Asashoryu should be allowed to return to Mongolia for treatment of his physical injuries and his mental condition. The story would not die, and the Sumo Association which was taking more and more heat as a result realized that they had to acquiesce if they wanted anyone to pay attention to the Aki basho. Asashoryu was sent home at the end of August, and all seemed well for a season until after the Aki basho when Tokitaizan's family hired a lawyer and announced a press conference, an incident that suddenly brought to light the heinous circumstances surrounding the boy's death. The former Tokitsukaze-oyakata ordered some of the rikishi in his stable to haze Tokitaizan over the course of two days, and the violence against the boy was so severe that he subsequently dropped dead from the abuse. The Sumo Association quickly separated itself from Tokitsukaze-oyakata and he was shortly kicked out of the sport altogether. After insincere apologies were made, sumo had the chance to end the year on a peaceful note with the Kyushu basho, but a withdrawal from Chiyotaikai on the final day handed the yusho to Hakuho by default.
Shortly after the Kyushu basho, Asashoryu returned to Japan with much fanfare and apologized for his actions. The Yokozuna was on his best behavior earning praise throughout the three day winter exhibitions, but just when we thought we had closure on a terrible year, God smote us once more by taking away Kevin DuBrow, lead singer of the mega-band Quiet Riot. The man who made wigs for aging hair-band stars popular again was found dead in his Vegas home after overdosing on cocaine. Oh cruel fate! Will it never end?!
So after all of that, I have managed to pick myself up off of the floor and scratch a final report for the year 2007.
Basho of the Year
2007 never really did produce that great basho. You had Asashoryu waltzing to the yusho in January with little-recognized Toyonoshima a couple losses back in his break-out basho; then there was henka-gate at the Haru basho; and Asashoryu went 0-4 down the stretch at the Natsu basho just handing Hakuho the yusho...and promotion to Yokozuna. The year's final two basho where Asashoryu was noticeably absent is still fresh on our minds, but the Aki basho was a sleeper, and the Kyushu basho fizzled out at the end leaving the yusho at 12-3. That leaves the Nagoya basho as the clear favorite for basho of the year.
The tournament became interesting on day 1 when Asashoryu suffered an uncharacteristic loss to Aminishiki opening the way for newly-crowned Yokozuna Hakuho and Sekiwake Kotomitsuki, who was facing promotion to Ozeki. Hakuho and Kotomitsuki did not disappoint jumping out to 9-0 starts before facing each other on day 10. Kotomitsuki shifted to his left at the tachi-ai grabbing an uwate that he would never relinquish handing Hakuho his first loss and grabbing sole possession of the lead in the process. His momentum was stopped the next day, however, as Asashoryu pounced first in the gappuri hidari-yotsu contest throwing Kotomitsuki down to his first loss in spectacular uwate-nage fashion. Asashoryu, Hakuho, and Kotomitsuki all won on day 12 leaving the three tied for the lead heading into the final Friday. Ozeki Kotooshu did his part for stablemate Kotomitsuki by henka'ing Hakuho to his second loss on day 13, and when Chiyotaikai pounced on the buttered bun with a henka of his own the next day, Hakuho was out of the yusho race altogether. Asashoryu and Kotomitsuki cruised into senshuraku at 13-1 apiece, but Kotomitsuki's nerves got the worst of him as Kisenosato bullied him to a costly second loss leaving Kotomitsuki's yusho hopes in the hands of Hakuho. The Yokozuna did not comply, however, allowing Asashoryu to easily force him back and out keeping the yusho in the house that Genghis built. Asashoryu picked up career yusho 21 with his 14-1 performance at a basho that would soon be forgotten by all.
Bout of the Year
Every basho of course produces a handful of exciting bouts. Wins over Yokozuna are always good, and then there are the two minute affairs of power sumo we see once or twice each tournament, but the bout of the year has to be a high-profile bout that involves a yusho rikishi. The yusho kettei-sen between Asashoryu and Hakuho at the Haru basho would have been the easy choice had Hakuho not ruined it with a henka. Toyonoshima's win over Kotomitsuki at the Hatsu basho was great, but since Toyonoshima was just sorta a yusho contender, it doesn't count. Same goes for the Baruto - Tochinonada marathon in Kyushu that occurred on senshuraku. Baruto was out of the running by then despite his spectacular win over the gentle giant. You could argue that the aforementioned Asashoryu - Kotomitsuki bout on day 11 of the Nagoya basho was the year's best, but when Asa extended his winning streak over Kotomitsuki to 27 with the win, it took a little bit of the luster away. With those memorable bouts out of the running, it really only leaves us with one choice...the Ama - Goeido matchup on day 12 of the Aki basho.
Fighting in his first ever Makuuchi tournament, M14 Goeido found himself alone at the top of the leaderboard at the end of day 11 thanks to a beautiful run of sumo where he had simply dismantled his veteran competition with precise force-outs, nifty leg trips, and an oshi-dashi win to boot. Heading into the final few days of the tournament, it was time for the Sumo Association to get serious and pair Goeido with the rikishi in the sanyaku. His first test was Komusubi Ama, who used his speed and recent nodowa tachi-ai to drive Goeido straight back to the straw where he gained the moro-zashi position, but Goeido dug in and grabbed a right outer grip that he used to neutralize Ama's attack and actually send the Mongolian retreating back across the ring. In the process, Goeido went for a right kote-nage throw, but Ama kept on the move barely surviving the attack and grabbing at Goeido's right leg in the process. Ama was able to shove Goeido around by that leg and latch onto the front of the youngster's belt with both hands from behind in true brokeback fashion. After setting himself in the center of the ring, Ama lifted Goeido two meters off the ground and bounced him off the dohyo with a wicked tsuri-otoshi throw.
Rikishi of the Year
When you talk about rikishi in the history of modern sumo who won four basho in a year, it becomes a very short list that includes dai-Yokozuna like Taiho, Chiyonofuji, Kitanoumi, Takanohana, and of course Asashoryu. So it goes without saying that Hakuho is the rikishi of the year as he joins that elite list. Hakuho began the year at 10-5 after sitting out the 2006 Kyushu basho with a hairline fracture in his big toe but established himself quickly after that winning the Haru basho with a 13-2 record before securing promotion to Yokozuna in May scoring his first ever 15-0 performance. Hakuho was stronger than his 11-4 record in Nagoya indicated, and he fulfilled his role as Yokozuna by winning the final two tournaments of the year. In the process, Hakuho captured the award for most wins in the year at 74. Asashoryu's absence the final two basho made life easier for Hakuho down the stretch, but the truly great rikishi are able to capitalize on their opportunities. Outside of the ring, Hakuho added to his successful year by marrying his girlfriend Sayoko and becoming the father of a baby daughter in May.
Newcomer of the Year
Seven rikishi made their Makuuchi debut in 2007 including Tochiohzan, Toyohibiki, Satoyama, Ryuo, Goeido, Wakakirin, and Wakanoho. Satoyama and Ryuo came and went like farts in the wind; Tochiohzan and Toyohibiki forgot how to kachi-koshi after their first basho; and Wakakirin and Wakanoho have yet to go through the rigors of sophomore life in the division. Which leaves us with my man...literally...Goeido. Of the aforementioned group, Goeido is the only one who scored a kachi-koshi twice; he is the only one to have fought a Yokozuna; and he will be the highest ranked when the Hatsu basho banzuke is released. It's been mentioned that guys like Kisenosato or Homasho or Kotoshogiku were the hopes of Japan, but with Goeido's emergence, he IS the hope of Japan. Now, hope of Japan does not translate into a surefire Yokozuna; that's quite a tall order when it's one against two and those two happen to share the surname Khan. "Hope" does mean, however, that this is the most promising rikishi Japan has on the banzuke period..er..full stop if you're British. Goeido enjoys the intensity of Avril Lavigne's mascara, he has no fear, and he can't spell the word h-e-n-k-a. I fully expect Goeido to establish himself as sanyaku mainstay in 2008, a legitimate Ozeki candidate in 2009, and the next in line when Asashoryu hangs it up. As I said previously, if Japan is able to produce a Yokozuna in the next 10 years, his name will be Goeido.
Ama went a paltry 4-11 from the Komusubi rank in his sanyaku debut back in May 2006. He would not make it back to the sanyaku for the rest of the year and found himself at M4 to start off 2007. Ama scored double-digit wins in January to propel him back into the sanyaku where he maintained his status with consecutive kachi-koshi moving him up to the Sekiwake rank. After a 7-8 slip-up in Nagoya, Ama stormed back into the picture the final two basho of the year with successive 10-5 records from the Komusubi rank going 7-3 against the Ozeki and Yokozuna with one of those losses (Chiyotaikai, Kyushu) a blatant stiff from the men in black. Heading into the new year, Ama is now the favorite for the next Ozeki. Ama's rise is due to his developing a stiff nodowa tachi-ai that is powerful enough now that it keeps his opponents honest to the point where he can gain the advantage over them from the start. While always a great tactician, Ama shined in 2007 as he learned to use his speed and increase his confidence to consistently beat the top rikishi in the sport.
Honorable mention goes to Toyonoshima who was saddled with an ankle injury mid-year after achieving the Komusubi rank, but who made a terrific surge the last few basho to establish himself as a jo'i mainstay.
At first glance, you might observe from the chart at right (taken from the Sumo Association's official page) that Roho is doing okay. But don't be fooled by that yori-kiri number. Over the past two basho, half of Roho's yori-kiri wins were set up by henka, and I'd venture to guess that number would be consistent for the whole year. Furthermore, Roho had three yori-kiri wins in his disastrous Hatsu basho leaving maybe 5 legitimate force-out wins the rest of the way. Just five! For a yotsu-zumo guy who has a great sumo body! Roho began the year where he should have been--the Komusubi rank--but his inability to regain the sanyaku the rest of the year was a travesty. A 39-41 record for the entire year where five basho were fought in the Maegashira ranks? That's great for Hokutoriki, but not for Roho, especially when you consider he held the ranks K, M7, M9, M3, M9, M12 this year. In 2006 Roho was a Komusubi twice and dropped no lower than M6 during the whole year where he went 47-43 with two of those losses due to kyujo. But it's just not the numbers; it's his style of late that has sumo fans turned completely off. A henka every three days or so...henka'ing guys on senshuraku who are 7-7...using the henka to pick up his 8th win seemingly every basho. The term "Roho's sumo" has now become an official oxymoron. Roho is wasting his talent and his size and is strictly in the sport these days for the paycheck.
This one is easy. The award for the biggest disappointment goes to Kitanoumi Rijicho and the Sumo Association itself for their deceit surrounding the Tokitaizan killing. We humans have a conscience for a reason, and when somebody is lynched, most people can't keep quiet. A rikishi from the Tokitsukaze-beya who was involved in the actual bullying was horrified when ordered by his oyakata to keep quiet and tell police that the boy's death was the result of normal keiko. A few days after the incident, the rikishi went to police and confessed his sins, an action that led to the real investigation of the crime by the Aichi Prefecture Police Department instead of the initial "investigation" conducted by the much smaller Inuyama City Police Department.
Since the facts surrounding the incident came to light, I have poured through articles covering the event and documented interviews with those close to the incident. Let's review the timeline of this tragedy going event by event with me of course adding my comments along the way.
|June 25th -- The bullying of Tokitaizan begins at dinner time when Tokitsukaze-oyakata strikes Tokitaizan five times with the beer bottle breaking his nose in the process. The blow to his forehead is the only one that is ever reported in the mainstream press. With Tokitaizan lying on the floor, the oyakata kicks him in the face and then tells the other rikishi there to take him out back. The rikishi obey the order and beat Tokitaizan into unconsciousness kicking him and hitting him with an aluminum bat.||I have read statements from various non-sekitori rikishi and affiliates with the Tokitsukaze-beya, and the bullying the kid received is much worse than reported in the mainstream press. Tokitsukaze-oyakata knew the instant they had to call the ambulance that he must turn to damage control mode and protect himself from being accused of the crime he had just committed.|
|June 26th -- Tokitaizan does not get up for morning practice while Tokitsukaze-oyakata begins drinking from the morning. After sending all of the spectators away after morning keiko, he orders the other rikishi in the stable to "take care of him and mess up his face." Tokitaizan is forced into butsukari-geiko for more than one hour where he eventually collapses and dies after repeated punches, kicks, and strikes with the aluminum bat. Tokitaizan's body is left in the keiko area while the oyakata hops in the bath and eats his morning meal. About an hour later, rikishi from the stable go to check on Tokitaizan and find him unresponsive. They call for an ambulance and the rest is history. Tokitsukaze-oyakata calls Tokitaizan's family to report the death and informs them that he will have the body cremated immediately and then have the remains sent to them. The boy's family insist that the body be sent home to Niigata instead of being cremated in Nagoya. The Sumo Association's stance is to let the police do their investigation||The ambulance was called for about 1 PM. If Tokitaizan had collapsed as originally claimed after about 30 minutes of butsukari-geiko, that would have put the time at 11:30 AM at the latest. The story obviously doesn't jive from the beginning, but I'm convinced immense pressure was put on the Inuyama Police Department by the Sumo Association to overlook some of the details. Furthermore, Tokitsukaze-oyakata's reason for wanting to have the remains cremated himself is obvious. The attempted cover-up began at this point. It is also documented that the oyakata gathered his rikishi together and instructed them to tell police that Tokitaizan's death was the simple result of a prolonged keiko session. This action led to one of the rikishi going to the police himself and informing them of what really happened.|
|June 28th -- Tokitsukaze-oyakata holds a press conference and says, "There was absolutely no bullying going on. The police have also informed me that there is no evidence of a crime." The oyakata expresses his belief that the death was the result of a pre-existing health condition. He attempts to support this argument by creating the image of a troubled youth saying, "I've also heard that he has smoked marijuana, and he couldn't stop smoking cigarettes after he joined the sport. He even stole items from the other rikishi in the stable."||The oyakata is spinning his argument early to hint that Tokitaizan's bad habits could have contributed to his collapse in the practice ring. Interviews with the principal at Tokitaizan's junior high school reveal that the boy was never involved in any incidents and was never suspected of smoking marijuana. Neighbors in the area also can't recall any allegations of the youngster involved with weed. Tokitsukaze-oyakata is starting the spin game from the beginning knowing full well that he is responsible for the kid's lynching.|
|July 8th -- The Nagoya basho starts and the Tokitaizan incident is swept under the rug||Kitanoumi Rijicho knows at this point that Tokitaizan's death was not the result of a prolonged keiko session. An official in the Sumo Association speaking anonymously stated, "He has an extremely small heart, and he's always checking the comments made on television. He personally sent banzuke to all of the TV commentators and got in touch with each of them requesting that they talk of this incident as if it was a result of a prolonged keiko session and not a result of hazing." During the Nagoya basho broadcasts, the NHK announcers comply with the commissioner's request although later on when the truth comes out, an NHK announcer reveals, "We have been given the OK to criticize Kitanoumi Rijicho on our broadcasts now. If we didn't get it, we would also be criticized by everyone else for 'standing up for the guy'."|
|July 23rd -- Asashoryu submits kyujo papers for the summer exhibitions and the Association accepts them with no stipulations||It is a Yokozuna's right to withdraw from a basho if he suffers two losses in week one. He may also withdraw at anytime with three or more losses. Yokozuna also have the right to stay away from the exhibitions if they have legitimate injuries that need healing. Asashoryu's actions on this day were certainly not unprecedented; not a single person from the NSK flinched when Asashoryu submitted his withdrawal papers.|
|July 26th thru 28th --the Japanese press creates a furor regarding Asashoryu's actions||As I've frequently stated on this site, there are certain factions of the press that take any opportunity to defame Asashoryu. The video of Asashoryu participating in the soccer match does not contradict his claims of injury as I explain later on in this report.|
|August 1st -- The Sumo Association hands down the punishment of Asashoryu||The more I reflect on the events several months ago, and the more I analyze Asashoryu's actions, the harder it is for me to find any wrongdoing on the Yokozuna's part. The suspension is unwarranted as I also explain later on.|
|August -- Musashigawa-oyakata meets with Aichi Prefecture Police and is shown photos of Tokitaizan's body after his death. Meanwhile, the press has created the notion that Takasago-oyakata is inept and is largely to blame for Asashoryu's actions.||At this point, the board of directors is completely aware of the circumstances surrounding Tokitaizan's death; yet, they open no investigation of their own and do not reprimand Tokitsukaze-oyakata, which tells me they are trying to cover up the cause of death as well. The smearing of Takasago-oyakata is just another attempt to shift the blame for problems--legitimate or perceived--onto someone other than Kitanoumi Rijicho or his two right-hand men, Musashigawa-oyakata and Isenoumi-oyakata..|
|September 26th -- Tokitaizan's family announces that they will hold a press conference with their lawyer the following day. Information regarding Tokitaizan's death begins flooding in.||At this point, the Sumo Association knows that the facts will come to light, so they begin to distance themselves from Tokitsukaze-oyakata after standing behind him the previous three months.|
|September 27th -- Kitanoumi Rijicho states, "we have to take the loss of one of our rikishi very seriously."||Oh really? What was everyone doing for the last three months? I'll tell you what they were doing. They were trying to cover up the crime. The truth is Kitanoumi Rijicho did not take Tokitaizan's death seriously until he fully realized that the Sumo Association could no longer keep the facts from coming out. The hypocrisy here is galling.|
|September 30th -- Ministry of Education official meets with Kitanoumi Rijicho and orders him to conduct an internal investigation.||The ineptness of the Sumo Association's leadership is so obvious at this point that the Ministry of Education has no other option but to publicly step in and order an investigation if for no other reason than it was the moral thing to do.|
|October 1st -- Tokitsukaze-oyakata meets with Kitanoumi Rijicho.||It is reported that Tokitsukaze-oyakata is still sticking to his "I only hit him once" story and is denying any use of an aluminum bat, but at this point, the oyakata is just trying to keep himself out of jail. His brazen lying and complete lack of remorse is insulting.|
|October 5th -- Tokitsukaze-oyakata is ousted. Directors cut their pay for four months.||I'll quote sports journalist, Seijun Nimiya, here:, "After Tokitaizan's death in June, it actually took more than three months for Kitanoumi Rijicho to officially apologize. What was he doing during that time? There was so much he needed to be doing like assisting in the investigation into the cause of death, exploring ways to retrain the oyakata, but he did absolutely nothing until ordered to do so by the Ministry of Education. He was so irresponsible and unsincere. He is now in his sixth year as the commissioner, but these have been six lost years." The pay cut is too little too late. Not even sumo's staunchest proponents can justify any of the Association's actions surrounding the Tokitaizan death.|
|October 12th -- Kitanoumi Rijicho visits Tokitaizan's family to apologize, but a family spokesman said afterwards, "The commissioner never answered our questions. He talked to us for over an hour and tried to explain things, but we still don't know why he came to see us."||Kitanoumi Rijicho's insincerity is not surprising. Had the commissioner cared about Tokitaizan or his family, he would have done something...anything until being ordered to do so by his bosses. Kitanoumi's smugness, stubbornness, and arrogance is so disappointing. He has put sumo back at least ten years.|
I honestly don't know how Kitanoumi Rijicho or the former Tokitsukaze-oyakata sleep at night. It is so disappointing to see how far sumo's popularity has fallen under Kitanoumi's leadership, and I don't want to hear anything about a so-called problematic Yokozuna. It's quite obvious that sumo's problems lie elsewhere.
The biggest surprise this year had to be the punishment handed down to Yokozuna Asashoryu where he was forced to sit out two basho for participating in a charity soccer game in Mongolia after having withdrawn from the summer exhibitions citing injuries to his left elbow and lower back. The Japanese media made a mountain out of a molehill, and the Sumo Association unfortunately bought into the frenzy handing down an uncalled for penalty.
At the time, I couldn't comprehend why two basho, but I reasoned that the following items had to have been factors:
1) in order to give some of the other rikishi a chance, namely Kotomitsuki who was just promoted to Ozeki
2) in order to prolong Asashoryu's winning his career 23rd and 25th yusho, which would put him past Takanohana and Kitanoumi respectively on the all-time yusho list.
Those two reasons were plausible to me, but something was still gnawing at me at the time because why would the Sumo Association make such an unprecedented move just to satisfy those in the media, the YDC, and their own organization who promote the anti-Asashoryu agenda?
However, once the facts of the Tokitaizan killing came to light--especially facts surrounding what the Sumo Association knew and when--then it all made perfect sense. The Sumo Association needed a diversion to cover their asses and try to sweep Tokitaizan's death under the rug. The aforementioned reasons were just icing on the cake.
I know there are a lot of readers who don't agree with my take here, but let's review previous punishments handed down to Yokozuna and compare them to Asashoryu's situation, and then you'll really see how surprising it was that the Sumo Association took such extreme action against a Yokozuna who had held the sport together for 4 1/2 years.
|Maedayama||1949||The Yokozuna withdrew from a tournament citing illness, but was then photographed at a baseball game between Japan all-stars and an American team. The Yokozuna was seen hanging out with American star Lefty O'Doul.||Forced to retire||Consider what Japan was like in 1949...the post-war period where the ugly Americans not only fired-bombed the country to ashes and dropped a couple a-bombs to boot, but they forced your emperor to denounce his ties to deity basically shredding the fabric of Japan's soul apart every way possible. So not only did the Yokozuna fake an illness to get out of a tournament, but he was seen carousing with the enemy.|
|Kitanofuji||1972||The Yokozuna withdrew from the May 1972 basho complaining of insomnia. He then indicated he would sit out the July basho as well, but was caught surfing in Hawaii on vacation.||Reprimanded by the Sumo Association||Kitanofuji sat out a hon-basho--not an exhibition--and went on vacation to Hawaii.|
|Futahaguro||1987||The Yokozuna punched the chairman of the stable's fan club and then assaulted the stable's kamisan (stable master's wife) as he stormed out of the stable facilities.||Expelled from the sport||Don't really need to comment on this one. Futahaguro was a literal terror and threat to anyone who came in contact with him. Dude loved to collect weapons and would often threaten the younger rikishi in the stable to the point where they began refusing to serve him out of fear for their lives.|
So there's your precedent when punishing Yokozuna. Let's see how
Asashoryu's case stacks up starting with the "sin" category.
I'll review Asashoryu's actions to see if we can determine what sins he
committed if any.
First, the Yokozuna had himself examined at a hospital the day after the Nagoya basho. The hospital gave the Yokozuna a diagnosis citing a damaged left elbow and recommended surgery, and they also found a problem with one of the vertebrae in Asashoryu's lower back. Asashoryu submitted the diagnosis along with his kyujo papers saying he wanted out of the summer exhibitions. No missteps so far. Asashoryu hasn't lied about anything and even obtained a doctor's note justifying his absence from the exhibitions.
Second, the Sumo Association accepted Asashoryu's kyujo papers with no problem nor stipulation. Asashoryu returned home to Mongolia to heal from his injuries...something he always does. The last time Asashoryu went kyujo, which was the 2006 Natsu basho where Asashoryu withdrew on day 3 after banging up that left elbow, he headed for the mud baths in Mongolia. Everyone knew where Asashoryu was headed including the Sumo Association, but nobody cared. Once again, no deception on the Yokozuna's part and no missteps.
Third, celebrities and politicians sponsoring a charity soccer match for kids in Mongolia learn that the Yokozuna has returned home, and they persuade him to attend and participate in the game. Asashoryu turns them down several times but finally acquiesces and joins the game. Video of Asashoryu's participating in the game is leaked to media in Japan, and a firestorm erupts.
Asashoryu's sin at this point is an error in judgment and nothing more. The media immediately states that Asashoryu is faking his injuries, but the video of Asashoryu shows the Yokozuna cherry-picking by the opponent's goal holding a water bottle in his left hand. Someone makes a pass to Asashoryu, and he shoots at the net scoring a goal. The Yokozuna raises his right hand in celebration while keeping his left arm at his side holding that water bottle. Days before, the Yokozuna had taken the Nagoya basho yusho going 14-1; yet, the Sumo Association was fine with his going kyujo. How is playing a game of soccer with kids that is so informal that participants are carrying around water bottles on the field harder on one's body than participating in a hon-basho? It's not...not even close. Asa's left arm dangled at his side and never moved. He wasn't faking anything. His only sin in my book was that he was offsides on the play when he scored the goal.
So to review the "sin" category, Asashoryu didn't fake anything; he didn't lie; he didn't disobey orders; he didn't deceive; and his only intent was charitable. Sure, he wanted out of the summer exhibitions, but what's worse...using your Yokozuna privileges to sit out an exhibition or abusing them to get out of hon-basho as Maedayama and Kitanofuji did?
As for Asashoryu's "punishment", it fits somewhere in between Kitanofuji's punishment and that of the two Yokozuna forced to retire, but I can't see for the life of me how Asashoryu's actions even equaled Kitanofuji's. First, Kitanofuji lied to get out of a hon-basho; Asashoryu withdrew from the exhibitions with the Sumo Association's blessing. Second, Kitanofuji was surfing in Hawaii; Asashoryu was attending a charity event at home. Third, no one backed Kitanofuji's actions; embassies and government officials tried to plead Asashoryu's case. It was suggested to me after I blogged several times on the matter that Asashoryu's punishment wouldn't have been as bad if he had rushed home and apologized. Apologized for what? For being Mongolian?
Then you had people who actually called for Asashoryu's retirement like Jedi Master Uchidate. On what grounds? Because you hate him? Asashoryu was so surprised at the punishment that he suffered a mental breakdown, and people without a specific agenda who took the time to analyze all of the facts surrounding the event were shocked as well at the mistreatment and audacity of the Association. In hindsight, Asashoryu's punishment was a huge surprise initially, but it made perfect sense two months later when Tokitaizan's family hired a lawyer and demanded answers.
Honorable mention for biggest surprise goes to the fact that the former Tokitsukaze-oyakata isn't behind bars yet, but I guess the negotiations..er..uh..investigation is ongoing.
non-sumo headline that threatened to interrupt the Makuuchi broadcast
I usually reserve this last category for some lame gag that I think is funny, but in all seriousness, the biggest threat to sumo this year was the sport itself, especially the oyakata in charge. For a sport that is fought atop a dohyo, sumo garnered far too many headlines this year for incidents that happened outside of the ring. The biggest, of course, was the death of Tokitaizan. 10 or so active rikishi have died in the last few decades, but all of those cases were due to pre-existing health conditions that worsened due to the rigors of sumo life. Let's face it, sumo is a violent sport and what goes on in the keiko ring prior to a hon-basho is not for the light of heart. The Tokitaizan death was a lynching for sure, and anyone who has visited morning keiko has probably thought to themselves more than once "I can't believe it hasn't happened more." The kid's death was the result of an irresponsible stable master, who backed into his inheritance of the prominent stable and proved just how incompetent he was with his instrumental role in Tokitaizan's death. But those things happen. There are bad guys out there who are going to do idiotic things, so when a tragedy does occur due to someone whose middle name should be Lucifer, you take the responsible course. What you don't do is exactly what the directors of the Sumo Association did in trying to cover up the incident. Allow the bullying of a Mongolian Yokozuna to continue and even contributing to it here and there is one thing, but refusing to take any responsibility whatsoever when one of your own is tortured and killed in house is quite another, especially when you knew early on what happened and not only tried to cover it up but allowed the offending stable master to keep his job. No one can argue that sumo's declining popularity in Japan was largely due to the Mongolian invasion the last five years or so, but you just can't afford to cripple your sport when it's down with the kind of bad publicity that the Sumo Association brought upon itself in 2007. Let's hope that sumo can make things right in 2008. It has a lot going for it right now in the ring. You have two strong Yokozuna who have yet to reach their peaks, and there is some great young talent from Japan to keep things interesting and give the locals something to hope for. Let's hope that the Sumo Association can recognize this and do all it can to keep the focus in the ring where it belongs.
Have a great holiday
season everybody, and we'll see you all in 2008. It's all up from here.
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