Scandal in Sumo Land

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David Guttenfelder / AP

Russian sumo wrestler Hakurozan is pushed from the circle during a match in Tokyo on May 22

When the Russian-born sumo wrestler Wakanoho Toshinori (real name Soslan Aleksandrovich Gagloev) dropped his wallet on a street in Tokyo's Sumida Ward on June 24, he might have seemed to be in luck: The wallet was found by an honest woman, who delivered it, with its contents intact, to a police station. Unfortunately for the young rikishi, as sumo wrestlers are known, the contents of his wallet included not only money and his alien registration card, but also a joint containing 0.368 grams of marijuana. On August 18, Wakanoho was arrested, and a search of his residence turned up a marijuana pipe. The sumo fraternity was scandalized by the first-ever arrest of one of its high-ranking number, and the 20-year-old Russian was banned for life from the sport.

Sumo, which involves two wrestlers trying to force another either out of a circular ring or else to touch the ground with some body part other than the soles of their feet, is a uniquely Japanese tradition, steeped in shinto ritual and courtly decorum. The rikishi are required to live communally in "training stables," where all aspects of their lives, from nutrition to attire, are strictly regulated. Marijuana may not exactly be a performance-enhancing aid to the martial artist, but its recreational use certainly shatters the image of a cadre of professional fighters viewed as bearers of a centuries-old tradition deeply entwined with Japanese identity. Clearly, all is not well in the house of sumo.

Suspicions of fixed bouts arise occasionally, but lately the commitment and character of ranking sumo wrestlers has come under question. Mongolian yokozuna (grand champion) Asashoryu begged off from participating in a tour of Japan, citing an injury, but he was then filmed playing soccer at home in Mongolia, earning him a two-tournament ban. Last February, then-stable master Junichi Yamamoto was arrested on suspicion of ordering three wrestlers to beat a 17-year-old during a training session — the youth later died of his injuries. Yamamoto and the wrestlers were arrested and charged, and are awaiting trial.

Even though he was released without charge, the Wakanoho's arrest shook the sport to its core. The rikishi escaped charges only because the amount of marijuana in his wallet was smaller than the threshold for legal punishment in Japan. At a news conference, Wakanoho cried, repeatedly apologized and asked for a reinstatement. But a sport whose rituals and conventions are so intimately tied with a traditional sense of Japanese identity is not so easily able to forgive the Russian's transgressions. He was told by the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) that reinstating him was impossible. On September 11, Wakanoho filed a lawsuit with the Tokyo District Court against JSA, demanding his dismissal be reversed.

But if the JSA was seeking to make an example of Wakanoho, it may have backfired. Hoping to demonstrate that his was an isolated case of substance abuse, the association conducted surprise urine tests on the 69 wrestlers of the top two divisions. These turned up positive tests in two more Russian rikishi, the brothers Roho, 28 and Hakurozan, 26. Both denied using marijuana — Roho appeared on television, saying "I have never seen or even touched the stuff," while Hakurozan promised that a further test would clear their names. Bad idea. In the second test, this time administrated by the only Japanese facility recognized by the World Anti-Doping Agency, samples from both brothers tested positive. Professor Shohei Onishi of Keio University said last week that the tests had found five times the standard amount in Roho's sample, and double that in Hakurozan's, adding that that the only explanation would be directly smoking the substance. "Second-hand smoke or medicine are 100% out of the question," he said.

Later, the brothers admitted that they had smoked marijuana in Los Angeles during a June sumo tour there. They later denied the admission; Roho said stable masters forced him to lie. Not everyone believed it in the first place. Michihiro Fujiwara, pharmacology professor of Kyushu University told TIME, "Generally, marijuana stays in the body for 72 hours to at the most one week." Still, police were unable to find any evidence of marijuana use when they searched the sumo stables of both wrestlers. With no marijuana found in their possession, it will be difficult to bring any criminal charges against the brothers, but like Wakanoho, they were also thrown out of sumo.

The three wrestlers were not the only casualties in the marijuana scandal: On September 8, in order to take responsibility for the unprecedented upheaval, JSA chairman Kitanoumi, who had also been the stable master of Hakurozan, resigned his post and was replaced by Musashigawa, another former yokozuna.

The marijuana affair reflects the problems faced by a sport that has been assigned a deep cultural significance, yet which is struggling to sustain interest. The number of aspiring wrestlers is dwindling: Whereas each tournament used to attract over 100 new applicants up until about a decade ago to join the ranks of the rikishi, in the most recent event there were only three. "Because of a low birth rate there are fewer children to grow up to become sumo wrestlers," says sports journalist Seijun Ninomiya. "So, out of necessity, we began to turn to overseas athletes." Today, more than one fourth of the professional wrestlers in the top two divisions are foreigners who have no grounding in the traditional values associated with sumo. "They bring over athletes who don't understand Japanese and try to make them into sumo wrestlers but without explaining to them the working of the sumo world, its rules and the Japanese justice system," says journalist Kiyoshi Nakazawa.

Veteran sumo journalist Kunihiro Sugiyama suggests a remedy: "It is a matter of urgency that foreign as well as Japanese wrestlers are given detailed education and guidance. Also, the stable masters have to adapt to the present circumstances and be concerned with the well-being of sumo on the whole and learn a lot themselves." He adds, "In the increasingly global world, a very positive effort is necessary to preserve the tradition of one country, and ensure it is passed down."