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How the pandemic lifted the lid on the ‘Darwinian world’ of Japan’s sumo

Sumo wrestlers participate in a ceremony on the first day of the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan arena in Tokyo on Jan. 10. (Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images)

TOKYO — Japanese sumo wrestler Kotokantetsu was uneasy. The coronavirus was raging through Tokyo and ripping through the sumo wrestling fraternity, whose lives are controlled by trainers and handlers.

One wrestler died in May after struggling to get prompt medical attention. At least 23 more have tested positive in recent weeks, including the country's top wrestler, Hakuho, who was released from the hospital earlier this month, according to media reports.

Kotokantetsu, 22, who underwent a heart operation a few years ago, knew he was in the high-risk category and asked his “stablemaster” if he could sit out this month’s tournament in Tokyo on health grounds.

The reply: Compete, or leave the sport forever.

“I was absolutely devastated,” he said in a tearful YouTube video after announcing his decision to quit.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed so many weaknesses around the world, from poor governance to the pervasiveness of conspiracy theories; from inequality to inadequate care for the elderly.

It also has forced scrutiny into some long-shielded corners of society. In Japan, one place the curtain has been pulled back is the centuries-old and deeply conservative domain of sumo wrestling — and it has revealed some harsh truths about the hardships faced by all but some of the top competitors.

Japan’s New Year Grand Sumo Tournament wraps up Sunday. Despite a state of emergency imposed to curb an explosion in coronavirus cases in Tokyo, around 5,000 spectators are still being allowed to attend each day, reflecting Japan’s determination to keep spectator sports alive ahead of the Olympics this summer.

But at least 65 wrestlers have been forced to pull out after either catching the virus or coming into close contact with someone who had tested positive, the sumo association said.

'Basically have no rights'

Wrestlers join a stable for their entire career and cannot transfer to another outfit. Even if another stable wanted to employ Kotokantetsu, it wouldn’t be allowed to under sumo association rules.

Like many wrestlers, Kotokantetsu had entered the sport after middle school and never completed his studies. Competing in sumo’s lower divisions, he was given board, lodging and pocket money but, he said, no assistance with medical bills. He had to ask his divorced mother for money to help pay for his heart surgery.

Now, he has been forced to cut off his traditional wrestler’s topknot, the distinctive hair bun, and effectively thrown out on the street after eight years in the sport, with no qualifications, no savings and no job, in the middle of a pandemic.

“Wrestlers in the four lower divisions basically have no rights,” said Ross Mihara, an American-born sumo commentator for state broadcaster NHK. “The oyakata [stablemasters] and the sumo association treat them like slave labor. Because like all the traditions in sumo, that’s the way it has always been.”

That system gives young wrestlers no rights, and no recourse when things go wrong.

Kotokantetsu, like many wrestlers, said he was wooed to his stable as a young boy with a promise that the master and his wife would look after him like his father and mother.

“But there were many times I needed their help, but they weren’t willing to help me,” he said.

'Darwinian world'

Inside the stables, boys enter an incredibly tough life, largely cut off from the outside world. Bullying is pervasive, experts say, and while some stablemasters do look after their wrestlers, many exploit them ruthlessly.

Wrestlers slam into each other every day in competitive practice bouts; injuries are very common. Banned from social media, the wrestlers are effectively silenced from speaking out about their situation.

“The problem for me is there’s a lack of oversight,” said John Gunning, an Irish sumo commentator and former amateur competitor. “Shutting down all avenues of communication is not the way an organization with nothing to hide goes about things.”

Gunning says some stables do a better job of looking after young wrestlers, but some are exploitative. He has seen many young men quit because they can’t cope with the harsh world they encounter.

“It’s a very Darwinian world,” he said. “It’s designed to force people to succeed or to quit.”

Only the top wrestlers reap financial rewards. Kotokantetsu said he had entered the sport hoping he could help support his mother, but ended up having to ask her for money, which she struggled to raise.

“If I get covid and have to be hospitalized, I’d have to ask my mom again,” he said. “Having to think about burdening her again, I thought about quitting, and I felt that was the only choice left.”

Despite their large size, sumo wrestlers often have unexpectedly low levels of cholesterol and visceral fat because of the intense exercise they undertake, but Kotokantestu’s heart condition made his concerns very real.

Japan Sumo Association spokesman Shibatayama said the sport’s governing body has taken appropriate safety measures to protect wrestlers from the virus.

“It doesn’t stand to reason that you want to drop out of the tournament because you are afraid of the coronavirus,” he said in a statement.

“There are people who will say they don’t want to go to work because of covid. He’s one of them. But if everyone says that, work will not happen,” he added. “And if he can’t deal with that, he needs to think about whether to stay or not.”

But former wrestler Takatoriki, who hosted Kotokantestu on his YouTube channel, expressed outrage at the young wrestler’s treatment.

“You almost died from a heart disease?” he said to the young man, arguing that the association should have covered his medical bills. “What is wrong with the association?”

Mihara says he admires Kotokantetsu for “sticking up for what he believes in,” something few young wrestlers would do. But he is not surprised the sport has run smack bang into the pandemic.

“Given the structure of sumo — with these extremely large men slamming into each other every morning, living under one roof and sharing common areas, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom — it was not a matter of if, but when, a cluster infection broke out at the sumo stables,” he said.

Julia Mio Inuma contributed to this report.

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