Who's behind yaocho and why

At the end of the whacky senshuraku that concluded with the playoff between Hakuho and Kakuryu, my mind was really racing because I didn't think that any of the key bouts during the day were fought straight up. As I was going over different scenarios in my head regarding the "why" (I can usually see the "what"...I just can't always explain the "why"), I was awaken from my trance by the image of Kitanoumi Rijicho handing the Emperor's Cup to Yokozuna Hakuho. Good ole Kitanoumi. I mentioned this in my pre-basho report, but the recent elections held at the end of January to seat the new members on the Sumo Association's board received little to no coverage from the media. In fact, I only saw one news outlet that even carried it, and that's where I actually learned that Kitanoumi along with Kokonoe and even Oguruma were reinstated to their former positions as directors with Kitanoumi being elected as the chief director, or commissioner as I like to call him.

Kitanoumi resigned after a long string of scandals that included a case of negligent homicide and drug usage among other improprieties, and when one of his own rikishi tested positive for reefer, the Ministry of Education had to do something since sumo is supplemented by tax-payer yen. Eventually, Kitanoumi and Kokonoe resigned from the board under pressure in order to take partial responsibility for the scandals, so the fact that they were quietly reinstated is a complete joke that only obedient sheep wouldn't notice.

Oguruma-oyakata is an interesting story as well. One of his guys, Wakakirin, was actually busted by police in the back of a seedy Tokyo CD shop with marijuana on his person, and so in order to take responsibility for the crime, Oguruma-oyakata was also released from his duties as on official in the organization and demoted a couple of levels...for a couple of years. Oguruma is actually my favorite elder next to Miyagino, so I'm happy to see him reinstated as a director on the board, but this quiet re-establishment of the old guard shows you that sumo is unrepentant and only went through the actions they did to appease the Ministry of Education for a season.

Well, I was reading about the new Juryo newcomers, and one of them (along with a returnee) will fight for the Kise-beya, which was suddenly re-established on April 1st. If you remember a couple of years ago, Kise-oyakata was guilty of providing prime seating around the dohyo to members of Japan's organized crime groups (yakuza), and once that story broke, Kise was stripped of his shisho status, demoted, and his rather successful stable was absorbed by the Kitanoumi-beya. One would think the re-establishment of the Kise-beya would garner some press, but the only way it was reported was as an insignificant line item at the end of an article that talked about the new Juryo guys. Hell, I read multiple articles devoted solely to the Oshima-beya merging with the Tomozuna-beya, but there was no direct mention of the Kise-beya coming back, a far more newsworthy occurrence.

There's a couple of points I want to make about all of this. First, it's not coincidence that all this has largely gone unreported. It's proof that the media is in bed with the Sumo Association, but you would have already known that if you had been reading Sumotalk the last half decade since we've always pointed out mutual, orchestrated cooperation between the two entities.

Second, if you think the sumo atop the dohyo is squeaky clean and that the sport in general is clean, how do you explain the casual reinstatement of these serious sinners? I have a difficult time believing that a product on display is completely clean when the people running it have shown they aren't. Homicide, gambling, association with organized crime, drug usage, and bout fixing are all serious sins, but the people in charge when all of this occurred are sitting once again around that table forming sumo's board of directors.

Well, only one guy has yet to be reinstated as far as I've read: Takasago-oyakata. Any idea why he would not be restored to his former glory? I don't know the answer for certain, but I suspect it has something to do with his being the stable master of Asashoryu. Asashoryu was constantly maligned by the media and even by members of the Sumo Association, and receiving nearly as much criticism was Takasago-oyakata for failing to keep his prodigy in check. I always defended Asashoryu because 1) he was vital to sumo's success and popularity, and 2) he was the second coming of Chiyonofuji so criticizing Asashoryu for things that Chiyonofuji was guilty of was an obvious double standard. I've already blogged at length on that second item, so I won't rehash it here, but Asashoryu was clearly a victim of racial prejudice.

While all of that was going on, there was always one thing that I couldn't really put a finger on, however. Why was Asashoryu getting dragged through the mud when Hakuho was treated extremely fair? Both were Mongolians, and both had the potential to surpass 32 career yusho, so why the unbalanced treatment? I reasoned that the difference in treatment was that Asashoryu came first, he had the abrasive personality, and he was guilty of multiple missteps away from the dohyo. Still, the obvious bias against Asashoryu and the treating of Hakuho as a choir boy couldn't be explained away so casually. I knew there had to be something else then, but I wasn't quite sure at the time.

Now, however, I think I understand what has happened. During the New Year's holiday at the end of 2010, the former Miyagino-oyakata was stripped of his shisho status, he was demoted, and the reins of his stable were rightly turned over to the man who had built the stable up in the first place, recruited Hakuho, and raised him into a Yokozuna. That person was the former Kumagatani-oyakata and now current Miyagino-oyakata. Like the newsworthy stories I mentioned in the beginning, this transfer of power received very little coverage, and the Sumo Association purposefully made the change during the country's busiest holiday when the fewest number of people were paying attention to anything besides alcohol and unfunny television. This change in leadership wasn't scandalous at all, but making such a change in the Yokozuna's stable would normally warrant a bit of coverage. The problem was...how do they have this switch in leadership covered by the media and not have anybody note on the side that, "the former Miyagino-oyakata was demoted for allowing himself to be recorded by a mistress proclaiming he paid Asashoryu for throwing a bout in Hakuho's favor." Getting busted for yaocho itself was one thing, but yaocho between a Yokozuna and an Ozeki (Hakuho's rank at the time) was the last thing the Sumo Association wanted rehashed a month before the yaocho scandal would break, an occurrence they knew would happen when it did. This newsworthy story was kept very quiet, worded with as much brevity as possible, and timed to fit sumo's agenda so the focus of the yaocho scandal could be centered on Maegashira scrubs and Juryo rikishi, not the high-ranking members of the sport.

I stated this previously in a report, but I believe Miyagino-oyakata was reinstated when he was because he needed to guide Hakuho through a time when sumo was desperately trying to restore its popularity. Prior to that reinstatement, Hakuho had just concluded a 63 bout winning streak, and he was making a total mockery out of the zensho yusho record. From the last half of 2008 through the end of 2010, Hakuho lost a total of 11 times in those two and a half years meaning his average win total per basho was 14.3 wins. Since that reinstatement, however, Hakuho has lost 14 times in the course of 7 basho, and his longest winning streak since sumo resumed after the yaocho scandal is just 16.

Another interesting stat is this. During that 2 1/2 year stretch prior to the switch in oyakata, 45% of Hakuho's losses occurred in week 1. Since the change was made? Zero. Furthermore, the number of rikishi Hakuho has lost to after the switch that currently do not hold the rank of Ozeki? Zero. It is my belief that the majority of Hakuho's losses are strategic as we've been pointing out in the daily comments the past year. In my opinion, Hakuho has been beaten legitimately twice in the last seven basho, both times by Baruto in Kyushu and Nagoya last year. Okay, maybe that henka at the hands of Harumafuji was unplanned, but still, the number of legitimate losses is right in line with Hakuho's performance prior to the switch in oyakata.

Hakuho did not suddenly trend down in his sumo. He went from 14.3 wins per tourney down to 13.0 wins per tourney in the blink of an eye, and lest you think that 1.3 wins per tourney is not a significant drop, look at it this way: Hakuho lost four times in the seven tournaments preceding the change; he lost 14 times the 7 tournaments after the change. Hakuho did not peak several years ago, and he is not in the declining years of his career. He's fighting in his prime and has shown no visual signs of slowing down; his dominance the first week of the basho suggests this, and the fact that he never loses to rikishi outside the top 7 and never gives up kin-boshi further manifests this. So, all of this data suggests to me that Hakuho is dropping bouts on purpose, but that's not even the point I'm trying to make. The point is this: we've seen a noticeable change in Hakuho's numbers since Hakuho's true mentor resumed the title of shisho at the very end of 2010.

It's a subject that Clancy and I have been discussing offline for some time now, but we believe it's the oyakata who are making the calls regarding what happens in the ring late each day, not the rikishi themselves nor their tsuke-bito. In essence, you have two types of bout fixing going on: bout fixing that occurs among lesser rikishi as a means to keep a hefty paycheck coming in (this was the type exposed in the huge yaocho scandal) and bout fixing that occurs among the elite rikishi to keep things balanced and the general public interested. Regarding the latter, I believe it's being organized at the oyakata level. And this is not to say that every bout every day is rigged because that is absolutely not the case. What I am suggesting, however, is that the board of directors and other sumo elite convene regularly to discuss what's best for the sport in terms of remaining a viable entity able to sustain itself with as little outside help as possible. Sumo is being subsidized by the Japanese government, and while we're talking of news that is barely reported in the press, the announcement in February regarding sumo's financial standing the previous fiscal year revealed numbers that were disastrous and showed that sumo is hemorrhaging money.

Sumo is in trouble and they know it, and the only way to start raising it's popularity and appeal is to have Japanese rikishi perform well on the dohyo. Back in the early nineties after Chiyonofuji, Hokutoumi, and Asahifuji's retirement, there was actually a time when there were no Ozeki nor Yokozuna on the banzuke. Akebono was the first to breakthrough and seize the Yokozuna rank, and then you had Konishiki and Musashimaru (two more Americans) who were threatening a virtual stranglehold on the sport. But putting a stop to that were two brothers, Takanohana and Wakanohana, who were the sons of a popular Ozeki in the 70's. The two brothers took the sport by storm and singlehandedly transformed sumo from a traditional sport enjoyed by older people into a national frenzy craved by everyone. It wasn't so much that the Hanada brothers were the sons of a popular Ozeki; rather, they were Japanese and they were taking the sport back from the threatening foreigners. They were literal saviors, and the Sumo Association reaped the benefits for a decade.

Nearly 20 years after Takahanada first beat Chiyonofuji at the 1992 Natsu basho signaling a change in the guard, sumo has experienced the high of all highs but now finds itself in the lowest of lows, and the only way they can reverse this trend is to place elite Japanese rikishi back on the dohyo who aren't only exciting but who can win. And by win, I mean overtake the pesky foreigners on the banzuke once and for all. With such a dominant Yokozuna in place, such a scenario is impossible without strict cooperation from the Yokozuna himself. I don't think anyone really questions that Kotoshogiku and Kisenosato's Ozeki runs were achieved without some assistance from Hakuho, and Hakuho showed us in Osaka that he can take the yusho any time he damn well pleases. But having a foreign-born Yokozuna make these decisions by himself is not an acceptable scenario for a Japanese institution. A foreigner just can't be trusted, and so it was imperative that Miyagino-oyakata be put back in place as Hakuho's stable master so Miyagino could sit in council with the sumo elders and then recommend to his prodigy the best course of action to take that would benefit the Association as a whole.

Which brings me to a point I talked about early on in this report...why was Takasago-oyakata never reinstated to his former position as a director on the board? My theory is that Takasago received the same instruction that Miyagino is receiving now, but he failed to get his prodigy (Asashoryu) to cooperate in full with the agenda established by the Association. As a result, Asashoryu was reviled to no end by members of the media and by sumo officials who wanted him out for the good of sumo...not because he was hurting the sport's popularity or ratings (look what's happened since he left), but because he was an obstacle in allowing Japanese rikishi to yusho and to achieve the Yokozuna rank. And not only was Asashoryu's character assassinated relentlessly in the media, but Takasago-oyakata was blamed as well for not keeping his guy in line. Why else would Takasago not be reinstated to the board the same as his other peers?

I do believe that Asashoryu purposefully threw bouts to assist the three Japanese Ozeki at the time (Tochiazuma, Chiyotaikai, and especially Kaio) in order to help them maintain their ranks--standard protocol for any Ozeki and Yokozuna, but my opinion is that he refused to take it a step further and cooperate fully with the Sumo Association's agenda and make himself appear weaker and vulnerable than he really was in order to let a Japanese rikishi reach the rank of Yokozuna or yusho with any regularity. I don't think he had a problem if any of the Japanese rikishi took the yusho or achieved the sport's top rank, but he wanted them to earn it just as he did. I believe that like Chiyonofuji, he had that mindset that he was going to kick your ass no questions asked, and ultimately, this mindset coupled with pride in his abilities and his race led to his eventual downfall. I could be wrong in all of this, but then why take it out on Takasago as well?

It's questions such as these that make sumo such a fascinating sport to me, and I suppose it's the reason why I comment on sumo the way that I do. I cannot watch Kakuryu display brilliant sumo for 14 straight days and then watch him exhibit such a senseless tachi-ai on senshuraku against a very predictable Goeido with the yusho on the line and not question why that happened. It is my opinion that the majority of foreign fans treat sumo as a completely objective sport and never question the outcome of bouts and tournaments. It's a completely acceptable stance to take, and it rewards you at face value since you have exciting bouts, upsets, promotions, disappointments, and yusho races that sometimes come down to an exciting playoff. But I believe that Sumotalk works because it makes English-speaking fans at least think about issues that they would normally not have considered.

For the first time ever in March, Sumotalk topped 14,000 unique readers for the first time. It's a number that we were flirting with back when Asashoryu was still around, but after his retirement and the string of continuous scandals ending with the cancellation of last year's Haru basho, our monthly unique readership dropped down to the 10.5k - 11K range per month as more and more fans became disenchanted with sumo. That this number began to steadily climb starting last May culminating in our best month ever for the 2012 Osaka basho tells me that more and more sumo fans are questioning some of the things occurring in the dohyo, and even if they don't want to believe it in their hearts, they at least want confirmation in their minds that they might have seen something.





hit counters