Brutal Beating Death Brings Sumo's Dark Side to Light

An autopsy on Takashi Saito, 17, found that shock from a beating caused his heart to stop. His death resonated with Japanese who have experienced bullying and hazing.
An autopsy on Takashi Saito, 17, found that shock from a beating caused his heart to stop. His death resonated with Japanese who have experienced bullying and hazing. (Family Photo)
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By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 10, 2008

TOKYO -- Baseball bats have become standard equipment in sumo training. Young wrestlers, though, don't swing the bats. They are beaten with them.

This sadistic bit of sumo lore became common knowledge across Japan last year after a beating with a metal baseball bat, together with repeated blows from a beer bottle and multiple cigarette burns, caused the death of a 17-year-old junior wrestler named Takashi Saito.

His death, which police initially ruled to be the result of "heart disease," led to the arrest last month of his former sumo stable master, who has since told police he beat Saito because the boy had a "vague attitude" about his career in sumo.

Three wrestlers have also been arrested in connection with the beating. But it took until Thursday -- more than eight months after Saito's death and a month after the wrestlers were indicted -- for the powerful Japan Sumo Association to take action against them. The JSA decided that it would ban the three from competing in sumo tournaments and said that, if they were found guilty, it would expel them from the profession.

The death, the arrests and the measured response of the JSA have cast a cold light on the closed world of sumo, laying bare the bullying, brutality and hierarchical torment that are routine in the self-governed sport, which is 2,000 years old and has been a profitable professional endeavor for nearly four centuries.

"That this happened in sumo, the national sport and symbol of Japan, is a serious matter," Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said last month.

Bullying and top-down hazing, however, are hardly unique to the sumo stables where wrestlers live and train. That may be why the death of the young wrestler has resonated with the Japanese.

"This happens all across the country, in schools and workplaces, and it is probably one of the cultural characteristics we have in Japan," said Naoki Ogi, a professor of education at Hosei University in Tokyo and longtime critic of the culture of discipline in Japanese schools.

The abuse that occurs in sumo stables, Ogi said, is a contemporary echo of the beatings that were routine inside the Japanese military in the years before World War II, when the armed forces had pervasive influence on Japanese society. This abusive pattern, he said, persists in business and education, albeit in ways that are far more psychological than physical.

"As a society, Japan has yet to go through a full democratic review of this kind of behavior," he said.

Police initially appeared reluctant to conduct a full review in the case of Saito, who died in Aichi prefecture last June, his body covered with bruises, cuts and burns. Without conducting an autopsy, they ruled that heart disease was the cause of death -- a judgment quickly accepted by the JSA.

"There was negligence on the part of the police," said Nobuyoshi Tsujiguchi, a lawyer who represents Japanese professional athletes. He said the police seemed to lean over backwards to protect the reputation of sumo.

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