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

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Enough with the Toilet Scrubbing
Some of the changes required of sumo are easy enough. The choicest matches, for instance, take place at just the hour when most Japanese are beginning their train commute home. Shifting bouts to evening prime time would boost ratings. The sport also needs to face up to its historic underworld ties and launch a purge that goes beyond the current betting scandal, just as Japanese baseball got rid of its yakuza links.

It will be tougher to reform the sumo stables, which need to loosen their grip on wrestlers, some of whom begin their apprenticeship aged just 15. Stable masters may argue that it's only through the severity of sumo life — the hazing, the curfews and the constant toilet scrubbing — that discipline is instilled. But if the monastic rigor of sumo stables is what scares off so many potential wrestlers, surely the rules could be relaxed. Does it really make sense for the JSA to demand, for example, that its athletes abstain from driving cars during tournament weeks?

In the end, what may save sumo is its spiritual heart. After World War II, Japan's Emperor, who used Shinto, in part, to justify his nation's bloody campaign, was stripped by the Americans of his divinity. For years, Japan maintained a sort of embarrassed silence over its national faith, which combines nature worship and a pantheon of deities. Nevertheless, sumo is still deeply connected to the Japanese religion. After the Nagoya tournament, Japan's Imperial Household Agency released a message from Emperor Akihito saying, "Despite the gambling scandal, the Emperor's feeling for the national sport stays the same." Suspended over the sumo ring is a Shinto shrine roof. Before matches, wrestlers sip holy water and purify the ring by sprinkling salt. Once in the sacred space, they clap their hands together to summon the gods. The referees wear peaked black hats similar to those worn by Shinto priests.

All the religious paraphernalia makes for a curiously spiritual — and theatrical — sporting experience. An average sumo match lasts a few seconds, but the surrounding pageantry is what separates sumo from the slapstick of the WWE. "Sometimes I just cancel practice and talk about sumo's traditions and culture instead," says high-school coach Yamada. "There is an elegance to the whole tradition. That's what gives it a Japanese essence."

Granted, Yamada's top wrestlers shrug when asked about the hallowed nature of sumo. What they like is a good grapple. Plus, they get to chow down a kilo of rice a day, along with hotpot, fried chicken, potato salad, grilled fish, barbecued pork, stir-fried vegetables, simmered squash, noodles and salad. But they feel some Japanese spirit all the same. One of the Saitama Sakae boys' heroes is school alumnus Yamamotoyama, a 584-lb. (265 kg) behemoth who during the Nagoya tournament had to be removed from the ring in a double-wide wheelchair. "He's one of us, so of course we like him," says Daiki Nakamura, an 18-year-old top prospect who was named a high school yokozuna this month. "Seeing so many foreigners in sumo makes me burn with desire to succeed as a Japanese."

At Saitama Sakae's morning practice, that urge is on full display. Athletes build strength by hefting a 705-lb. (320 kg) tire or bashing their open palms onto an enormous wooden pillar. After a few practice bouts, one teen has split his lip, while another is bleeding from his elbow. "Every day of sumo practice is like a traffic accident," says coach Yamada. Fluorescent lights shine down on the scuffed ring, and the place smells like a locker room left to fester. But then 18 students, sticky with sand and slick with perspiration, form a circle around the ring, bring their hands together and bow their heads to the gods. For a moment, the future of sumo is united in worship. It is a most inspiring sight. —With reporting by Toko Sekiguchi / Tokyo

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