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.
After Saito's death was attributed to natural causes, his stable master, Junichi Yamamoto, encouraged the boy's family to allow him to cremate the body, according to news accounts.
The father, though, insisted on seeing the teenager's body. After he saw bruises and other wounds, he asked doctors at Niigata University to perform an autopsy. They found that shock from a beating had caused the youth's heart to stop.
Police were then pressured by his family and the news media to open an investigation, which found that Saito had infuriated his master by trying to quit his stable.
In Japan, all sumo wrestlers belong to a stable, a gym/dormitory where most of them live and where all of them train under the supervision of a master, himself a former wrestler. These masters, who are the collective owners of the JSA, receive payments from the national association for each wrestler in their stable.
"There is pressure on the masters to keep the trainees because they are a source of income," said Tsujiguchi, the sports lawyer.
Inside the stable where he was the unquestioned boss, Yamamoto shouted at Saito for attempting to escape, according to police. "As he had this vague attitude about whether he would continue in sumo, I flew into a rage and beat him," Yamamoto told police, according to the Yomiuri newspaper.
Police have charged that Yamamoto hit the youth 10 times with a beer bottle and then ordered three wrestlers to beat him. Saito's body also showed signs of having been hit with a metal baseball bat.
Yamamoto was expelled from the JSA in October for "severely damaging public trust."
The three wrestlers have denied any intent to kill Saito. They have said, through a lawyer, that they were under the control of Yamamoto and that they dared not "talk back" to him.
After the beating became public, the JSA sent a survey to the 53 stables in Japan, asking about their training practices. More than 90 percent have used baseball bats or similar implements in training, the survey found. About a third of the stables said bullying and other forms of abuse occurred during training.
Sumo has become a troubled sport -- in ways that have nothing to do with violence in the training stables.
There have been news reports of match fixing. A concern of much longer standing is the number of foreign-born champions -- the best of whom are now from Mongolia. This has hurt the sport's popularity among some traditionalists.
Since Saito's death, disclosures about the workaday brutality inside sumo stables seem to have shocked many Japanese, especially those who do not follow the sport closely.
"I am sure parents will not want their sons to go into such a scary place," said Tsujiguchi, the sports lawyer. "This is going to decrease participation by the Japanese, make more room for foreign participants and hurt the sport's popularity even more."
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.