Keisuke Itai, a 43-year-old former sumo wrestler, recently stepped back into the sumo spotlight to say most of the sport's matches were fixed. He said he had audio tapes, recorded secretly at sumo meetings while he was competing in 1989 and 1991, to back up his claims that the sport's organizers knew all about the match-fixing (yaocho in Japanese). In an interview with TIME Tokyo bureau chief Tim Larimer at Itai's restaurant in Chiba prefecture, outside Tokyo, Itai denied media reports that he went into hiding in fear for his life, joking that it would be rather difficult to hide his 104-kg frame.
TIME: It's been nearly 10 years since you competed. Why are you speaking out now?
Itai: These days it's quite difficult for sumo fans to tell real tournaments from fixed matches. Someone asked me about [a recent match]: was it faked? I was in the public baths, and people were watching sumo and someone said, 'It must be fixed!' I was surprised. Maybe that's why I'm talking about it now.TIME: But people have talked about match-fixing for a long time already. Why did you wait?
Itai: Customers ask me about it now at the restaurant. I think maybe half the people watching know some bouts are fixed. Maybe the Sumo Association [the sport's governing body] can take what I've said and use it to make reforms so sumo can be more popular again.
TIME: What reforms are needed?
Itai: The first thing is [to change] the system. Now, if you are injured and can't fight again, you keep your ranking for one tournament, but the next tournament, that's it. If you don't fight, you lose your ranking. Wrestlers need more time to recover from their injuries. They need to have the option to be absent from three or four tournaments. There are six tournaments a year, and 15 bouts each tournament. It's difficult for every single bout to be fought for real.
TIME: How many matches are fixed?
Itai: In the five years that I fought, 80%. If on one day there were 18 [top-level] bouts, only three or four were for real.
TIME: What about your matches? How many were fixed?
Itai: The same rate. Out of 10, I fought two, three or four for real. The rest were fixed.
TIME: As a professional athlete who trained hard, were you uncomfortable about fixing matches?
Itai: Among sumo wrestlers, there was no sense of guilt at all. It was kind of matter of fact. You fought for real in about three to five matches, in order to win more matches than you lost. And without staying in condition, you couldn't win those matches and keep your ranking. You still have to be strong even if the matches are fixed.
TIME: Do you remember the first match-fixing bout you were involved in?
Itai: It was only a year after I entered the sumo world. I had been promoted quite quickly in the ranks. My first experience was when I was told by my stable master, Oh, today you will win. You win one day, you lose the next day, and after 14 days, you end up with seven wins and seven losses. If you didn't have enough wins, you would borrow a win from another wrestler at that tournament, and then you have to pay them back at the next tournament.
TIME: Were you surprised when you found out about the match-fixing?
Itai: I remember very clearly I had an uneasy feeling. I was 23. I was owed one point, and then I had to pay it back at the next tournament. That's how it started.
TIME: How did the match-fixing work?
Itai: Usually, it was arranged through the attendants. Sometimes, just before bouts, in the dressing room. Sometimes, the day before. Or attendants would arrange it while top ranking wrestlers were getting dressed in their isho-mawashi [elaborately decorated silk aprons used in a ceremony before high-ranking wrestlers' first bouts]. It was kind of an ordinary thing, in the dressing room with all the wrestlers there.
TIME: Was money exchanged?
Itai: No, not usually. But if someone owed a point and they needed a win, then they had to pay. So if someone already owed me [a win] but needed me to lose, he had to pay 200,000 yen. The ultimate aim is to win eight out of 15 matches. If you win five without fixing, you have spare bouts. You can sell those losses. If you aren't strong enough to win five serious bouts, your ranking will be lowered. So you need money to fix bouts to keep your position.
TIME: How could competitive athletes live with this system?
Itai: It was more of a safe bet. Rather than fight hard for a higher ranking, it was easier and safer to maintain your current ranking. There are various kinds of sumo. Some are ambitious, and want to be yokozuna [the top ranking]. They wouldn't do this. Those like myself... weren't so ambitious. It was easier to keep your ranking with fixed matches. Then you can fight for a longer period of time. When I was wrestling, there was a distinction between those who did yaocho and those who did not.
TIME: Can fans tell by watching which matches are faked?
Itai: Amateur fans, no. I can tell 100% of the time. For ex-sumo wrestlers, it's easy to tell.
TIME: Don't you feel like you cheated the fans?
Itai: Fixed matches were a matter of course. While I was in that world, I didn't even think about cheating the fans. But deep in my heart, perhaps, I felt uneasy.
TIME: Four years ago when you were interviewed by TIME you sounded bitter about the way you had been treated by the sumo world. Are you doing this out of revenge?
Itai: I know people are saying that I am doing this for revenge. That's not true at all. I only hope the sumo world will be made aware of the problems and be able to improve the sport's popularity. For the past decade, magazines have exposed the yaocho scandal, and nothing has changed. That has made sumo fans leave sumo. Maybe the fans can't tell if matches are fixed or real. This is the time. Someone has to stand up and tell the real story.
TIME: Where did these audio tapes come from?
Itai: My house was burgled four years ago. All the valuable things were stolen. When I was going through my jazz tapes, I found them. It was a coincidence. I didn't record them with evil intent. I'm not doing this for money or anything. I even let my customers listen to the tapes! They laughed.
TIME: Why did you make the tapes?
Itai: Another sumo wrestler, who had strange habits, told us he recorded the sex acts of another wrestler. He suggested we record whatever we might think is important. At a meeting, I accidentally had my Walkman on. Without really thinking, I put it on the table and started recording. Then I let the attendants listen to the tape and they laughed. I did it half as a joke.
TIME: How do we know the voices on the tapes are who you say they are and not just a bunch of friends playacting?
Itai: Each of the wrestlers recorded on the tapes has a distinct voice. Other people who know them have listened to the tapes and agree.
TIME: There were reports that you were worried someone was trying to kill you. Is this true?
Itai: I'm not hiding at all. There have been some prank phone calls at home, that's all, recorded on my answering machine. I don't mind. I was away at the time--I went to see a friend and listened to [jazz pianist] Bill Evans in a teahouse--but I didn't feel in danger.
TIME: In 1996, two former wrestlers who made match-fixing allegations did die, mysteriously, on the same day. One of them was your stable master. Are you worried you might meet the same fate?
Itai: I don't care if I get killed.
TIME: What should the sumo world do in light of your allegations?
Itai: It's quite simple. They should say, We're sorry for what we've done, and for the next tournament on, we'll do only real bouts. There must be a reason they can't apologize like that.
TIME: If, as you say, so many matches are fixed, isn't sumo more theater than sport? It sounds more like pro wrestling in the U.S., which everyone knows is show.
Itai: Pro wrestling is for show. In sumo, if you weren't strong enough, you couldn't win matches. Not all the bouts are fixed.
TIME: But 80% is a lot.
Itai: I'm quite confident what I've said is true. When the fighting is serious, it's the best in the world. Two men going instantly at each other. Sumo is a pretty complicated sport. It's mysterious. It's religious. It's philosophical. Without knowing what technique you're going to use when you fight, you start the bout. It just comes out naturally. You don't come up with a plan.
TIME: How much do you weigh?
Itai: I weigh 104 kg. I was 138 kg when I was fighting. 1'm 175 cm tall.
TIME: What about your family?
Itai: I have two boys, 19 and 7.
TIME: Are either of them future sumo wrestlers?
Itai: Nah. They like soccer.