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2016 Hatsu Pre-basho Report

As we look towards a new year in sumo, I don't anticipate any change from what we saw in 2015, and why would there be any? The Sumo Association was able to sell out the venue something like 86 days out of 90 during the calendar year, so even with the passing of Kitanoumi and the anointing of Hokutoumi as the new commissioner, there is no reason to change a thing. And not only have the hon-basho become big events again in terms of ticket sales, but the exhibitions have been off the charts as well. In scanning the pre-basho headlines, I came across the following graphic produced by the Yomiuri Shimbun. The numbers at left represent the number of days last year in which exhibition events were held, and then the number across the bottom are of course a year by year analysis going back a decade.

The article accompanying this graphic pointed out that 2015 saw 64 days' worth of exhibitions, and the expectations are even higher for twenty sixteen. If fact, officials with the association have commented that they've had to turn some areas/sponsors down simply because there wasn't enough time or the logistics wouldn't work out. The Association estimates that the number of exhibition days could exceed 70 days this calendar year, a mark that hasn't been surpassed since 1994, the year in which Takanohana was crowned Yokozuna (and coincidentally the same year I was introduced to Kenji).

For you trivia geeks, back in 1990 when Chiyonofuji and Hokutoumi were active Yokozuna (Asahifuji was promoted in 1990 as well), the Sumo Association did 90 days' worth of exhibitions. There are far too many distractions these days and other options for entertainment to ever reach 90 days again, but the turnaround the last few years has been incredible. And what's incredible to me is the fact that the Sumo Association has been able to orchestrate this without improving the quality of the sumo itself. Even if you believe that all bouts are fought straight up, I don't think you can argue that the quality of sumo is also on the rise in relation to the jungyo success. And if the quality is there, I'm certainly missing it.

Since I talk about the poor sumo nearly every day in my reports, I won't rehash those details. Rather, I'll start off this year's pre-basho report with a review of how I think yaocho occurs. Initially when one hears the term "fixed bout," he immediately thinks that money has changed hands somewhere. I don't have any insight as to how often money does change hands, but I suspect in many cases it doesn't. Back when sumo went through the yaocho scandal, evidence of the practice came to light when police were investigating certain wrestlers due to allegations of gambling. Searches of their cell phones actually showed payments made in exchange for bout fixing as well.

Now, if the gambling scandal and the yaocho scandal would have broken at the same time, it would have been the end of sumo wrestling as we know it, but agreements were made and the police held off on revealing the evidence of yaocho for nearly a year allowing the dust from the gambling scandal to sufficiently settle. As we all know, the elite rikishi were protected during the yaocho scandal, but they booted out 17 sekitori I think it was. One of those rikishi, Sokokurai, was reinstated several years later after he successfully appealed the charge, but the Sumo Association simply let the other scrubs take the fall. And you know what? Without looking up the details, I can't tell you the name of a single rikishi right now that was kicked out.

I do remember that several bouts had been cited as evidence, and they showed them dutifully on NHK news, and you could tell that mukiryoku sumo was involved, but it's comical to me how the focus was only placed on the lower-ranked sekitori and not the guys closer to the top because even today you can clearly see mukiryoku sumo among the elite ranks that was just as bad if not worse than the matches that led to the excommunication of those 17 rikishi. I mean, the first tournament back after the yaocho scandal (May 2011), Kaio was clearly (and literally) on his last leg, and guys were letting up for him left and right. He was the last Japanese rikishi in the Yokozuna or Ozeki ranks with no one else close, and so they had to keep him around with eight wins until someone else could be ushered in. I thought it was quite brazen coming off of the cancellation of an actual hon-basho, but it was clear then as it is now that the Sumo Association knows that it has a complicit media when it comes to yaocho among the elite ranks.

So...how is yaocho arranged? I of course have no evidence of how it's actually arranged, and I currently have no connections within the Sumo Association, and even if I did, they wouldn't answer my questions, so I'll speculate here how I think it happens.

In order to fix a bout, there has to be a motive. The most common motive, which has prevailed from the beginning of modern sumo, is the assisting of a rikishi in winning eight bouts to secure kachi-koshi. But in recent years, another motive has emerged that has actually overtaken the need for a simple kachi-koshi, and this new motive is to strengthen the position of Japanese rikishi, particularly in the elite ranks to create a sense of parity on the banzuke. As I mentioned previously, Kaio received serious help in his last few basho before retirement since he was the lone Japanese rikishi at the Ozeki rank. They kept him around long enough until they could get Kotoshogiku and Kisenosato to 33 wins and 32 wins respectively over three basho, and the result was Kaio's retirement in July, Kotoshogiku's promotion to Ozeki after September, and then Kisenosato's promotion after November in 2011. Goeido was added to the Ozeki ranks for better or worse in 2014, and at that point, you had three elite Mongolian rikishi and three elite Japanese rikishi...at least on paper. With the motive of propelling Japanese rikishi to the Ozeki rank now satisfied, yaocho was required to keep them at that rank and make them appear viable in the process.

The third and final motive for yaocho that we commonly see in sumo these days is the elite Mongolians looking after their own. It is my belief that the Mongolian rikishi are a tight-knit fraternity, and they're so close that they just can't battle each other at full strength. I often liken the Mongolians to the Williams sisters from women's tennis facing each other in a grand slam. We never get a straight up dog fight.

In review, we have three main motives in sumo wrestling that motivate guys to throw bouts:

1. Assist a rikishi win eight wins at a hon-basho
2. Create parity on the banzuke between Japanese rikishi and foreign rikishi
3. Look after your fellow Mongolian

So how is it all arranged? Motive #3 is obvious and not worthy of discussion here. Motive #1 has been part of modern sumo from the onset and revisiting the politics behind this is senseless. So that leaves us with Motive #2.

The Sumo Association is made up of oyakata that number just over a hundred. That number could fluctuate a bit because they give dai-Yokozuna their own name after retirement (Kitanoumi and Takanohana are two good examples) if they so choose, and those names are not inherited once the dai-Yokozuna retires or dies. So, you have an army of about a 100 or so oyakata, and they're all divided up into groups of directors, officials, committee chairman, and committee members. Some of the more common committees are the Judging Committee, the Public Relations Committee, the Banzuke Reorganization Committee (which also determines the daily match-ups), the Security Committee, committees that oversee hon-basho logistics, exhibitions, etc. Prior to and during a hon-basho, the committees hold meetings daily to discuss their various affairs, and I believe that the seeds that result in yaocho due to motive #2 are planted here.

There is absolutely no reason for any oyakata to be informed of the following facts:

* The Japanese rikishi suck
* The Japanese rikishi occupying elite ranks are frauds
* There are no surefire Japanese rikishi on the banzuke
* A Japanese rikishi has not taken the yusho in 10 years
* The Japanese fans hate it that their national sport is dominated by foreigners
* As an Association, the Sumo elders must save face with their Japanese fans

Everyone knows these facts, and there's no reason to discuss them formally at any meeting. Like me, all of the oyakata can clearly read the situation at hand, and no one within the Association needs to be informed on how to keep the fans interested. I do believe that discussions take place at meetings among the board of directors and then subsequently among the PR Committee highlighting storylines that appeal to the domestic fans and that can be hyped ed in the media, and once those are understood, the oyakata--especially stable masters--understand their obligations in promoting and maintaining a robust sport. It's a brilliant system really that provides for no paper trails or any discussions on the record regarding what needs to happen at any given basho.

Once all of the oyakata understand the situation, I believe it is then up to the stable master and his prodigy to decide whether or not they will throw a strategic bout. I do think in the back hallways that some agreements are made between oyakata where one simply needs to say, "Kyo, yoroshiku o-negai shimasu," but for the most part, the stable masters are not pressured into doing anything. They simply act for the good of the sport.

Let's take the case of Goeido. As an Ozeki, he will always fight a Maegashira rikishi on day 1. Suppose you're the stable master of Goeido's opponent. If you feel that a fast start will benefit the Ozeki, you would go to your prodigy and simply say, "Kyo, yuzutte yatte," or just give it to him today. If Goeido flounders out of the gate and starts 0-2, you can bet the stable master of his day 3 opponent will call for yaocho because he feels obligated to do so. Beyond that, you can also factor in friendships and alliances between stables (called Ichimon) within the Association. Let's suppose that Clancy, Kane, and myself were all active wrestlers back in the day, and now we run our own stables. If my guy needs a favor and he's up against a dude from my good friend's stable, do you think I even need to ask for help? The same also applies to two stables within the same Ichimon. If a guy desperately needs a favor and he's fighting someone from his Ichimon who can afford to play nice, chances are good he will.

In the case of Goeido, I believe that his camp has no idea what the Ozeki's opponent will do on any given day, but they obviously know when someone has done them a favor. In Japan, they have this system called "o-kaeshi," and it means that if someone does something for you, you're obligated to do something for them in return. I learned this system when I visited a co-worker in the hospital who was having stomach issues. Once she was released from the hospital, I received from her in the mail a box of nice chocolates. Most of my coworkers received the same gift, and when I asked what is was for, it was explained to me that it was "o-kaeshi" for visiting Noriko-san in the hospital.

In sumo, "o-kaeshi" can come in a myriad of ways. You can slip your benefactor's tsuke-bito a wad of cash; you can ship a crate of sake to the stable; or you can ask for them to return the favor the next basho. I think up until the yaocho scandal was exposed that there was a set price monetarily for yaocho. Now, however, there can be absolutely no traces of bout fixing digitally or on paper, and so the person receiving the favor is obligated to pay it back through some form of "o-kaeshi." Kensho, or the cash generated by those advertisement banners marched around the ring, is obviously used as a means of payback because it's untraceable. The ref hands the winner an envelope full of bills; the winner hands the envelope to his tsuke-bito; and who knows what happens to it from there, but I'm quite sure that Endoh does not keep 100% of his kensho money.

I want to reiterate that this is all pure speculation, but having lived and worked in the system, I think I'm pretty close. We know that sumo bouts are not scripted or else it wouldn't have been 10 years since the last Japanese yusho, but we do know that bouts are compromised on such a regular basis that it's quite alarming.

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