Cleaning Up Sumo

Racked by scandal and an influx of foreign competitors, can Japan's most traditional sport keep up with the times?

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James Whitlow Delano for TIME

After practice, a young wrestler sweeps the ring, one of many apprentice chores in a sport governed by rigorous tradition and spirituality

The 12-year-old already weighs 230 lb. (105 kg). He has breasts. His thighs chafe when he walks. All this is good news in Japan's sumo world, where excess flesh acts as indispensable armor in the sport's brief and brutish bouts. The older recruits at Saitama Sakae high school, which boasts the country's No. 1 sumo team, coddle the boy, passing him choice morsels during the intense, silent gorging that constitutes meals for these growing behemoths. After all, he is a child with an impressive lineage: his grandfather was a yokozuna, a member of the grand-champion echelon into which only 69 wrestlers have lumbered since 1789. For several hours each day, while other youths might be playing computer games or watching cartoons, the boy practices endless leg squats, sweeps the sand of the sumo ring into a divinely stipulated pattern and works on perfecting the glare he will need to intimidate his foes. But even the likes of this born-and-bred wrestling scion may not be enough to save the mighty sport of sumo.

More than any other athletic endeavor, sumo embodies the soul of Japan. The sport's museum in Tokyo explains the improbable importance of a rapid, nearly naked grapple in a sandpit: "According to Japanese legend the very origin of the Japanese race depended on the outcome of a sumo match." With a 1,500-year history that inextricably links sumo to the national religion, Shinto, it's no wonder tradition weighs heavily on the sport. Clad only in loincloths, their hair swept into topknots that were the peak of fashion 150 years ago, the wrestlers are supposed to serve as oversize poster boys for the ultimate Japanese virtues: dignity, honor, discipline and strength. "When we visit retirement homes, old people like to touch us and sometimes are brought to tears," says former wrestler Yoshinori Tashiro, who fought under the sumo name of Tououyama. "There's something spiritual about sumo."

But sumo, like Japan itself, is ailing. The sport has been racked with repeated scandals and troubled by an influx of foreigners. The hidebound Japan Sumo Association (JSA), which governs the sport with a secrecy and cohesion that rivals that of any national intelligence agency, is in desperate need of reform yet is seemingly unwilling to muster the courage for true change.

On their face, the recent crises shaking sumo to its fleshy core don't seem that earth-shattering. A couple of Russian wrestlers were busted for marijuana use in 2008. In January a Mongolian grand champion got caught up in a drunken scuffle outside a Tokyo nightclub. In the current indignity, wrestlers were caught participating in underworld betting rings, wagering on sports other than sumo. The scandal brought about the suspension of more than a dozen athletes from an annual tournament in the city of Nagoya — the summer's sumo highlight.

Objectively, only one recent incident deserves outrage: last year, a sumo coach was sentenced to six years in jail, following the death of his 17-year-old charge. The sumo apprentice died after his superiors beat him with a beer bottle, a wooden stick and a metal baseball bat in a form of hazing perversely called "cherishing" in Japanese. But the cumulative effect of sumo's scandals has disturbed many Japanese. Sensing the mood, some corporate sponsors pulled out of the Nagoya contest, while NHK — the country's largest broadcaster, which has for decades dedicated weeks of airtime to sumo's six yearly tournaments — halted live coverage of the competition. It was the first time since 1953 that a live sumo feed had been cut. "This is the kind of crisis you may only see once in 100 years," said NHK president Shigeo Fukuchi, explaining the network's sumo embargo. The subtext — for there always seems to be subtext in Japan — was even more alarming: Will sumo even survive the next 100?

Beyond the scandals exists a troubling reality. Sumo is suffering an existential crisis. What Japanese kid wants to become a sumo star today? Training is too rigorous, the bared bottoms too undignified, and all that fat is both unsightly and unhealthy. And wrapped in useless layers of blubber is the JSA, a tradition-obsessed bulge of bureaucracy that shows none of the surprising nimbleness of its charges. "Japan must change," says Takanobu Nakajima, a university economist and vice chair of an advisory committee formed last month to rejuvenate the sport. "Sumo must change."

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