Don’t Pin The Blame On Alcohol

On the third day of the Kyushu basho, when the news hit us that Harumafuji had beaten up Takanoiwa, I – like many sumo fans around the world – was shocked to the core.


There are not many rikishi at the top of the sport whose perceived character is so far away from “violent drunkard” as Harumafuji’s was. This man was known for helping old ladies with their baggage, for being nice to children, for making himself available to fans. He was known for his habit of embracing his opponents after a yori-kiri, to prevent them from injuring themselves falling off the dohyo, and for being generous with his advice to young wrestlers as well as tough opponents. And he was also known for his responsibility to his rank, as demonstrated when he persisted in the Aki basho despite injuries and serial losses, because he was the sole Yokozuna in attendance.

How does one reconcile this image with that of a violent rampage in a bar? Many of us assumed that it was the alcohol. It’s not unheard of for people with good self-control to become violent under the influence. In one of my comments, I compared Harumafuji to Hercules: Hercules, who was a strong but gentle person, was struck by madness and killed his wife and kids. When the madness left him, he had to face what his own hands had wrought.

This was a fine picture to paint, but it left us with the puzzle of why the Yokozuna did nothing once the hangover was gone. Where was that famous sense of responsibility? How could he proceed in doing Yokozuna dohyo-iri while he knew that he committed an act of violence that was no less severe than the one that caused Asashoryu to retire? Was Harumafuji really such a cynical hypocrite?

Bruce suggested that the Yokozuna offered to resign but was denied until the NSK could think of the best solution. This, too, didn’t feel right to me. The worst time for any scandal to break is in the middle of a basho. If he had reported it at the end of the Jungyo, I would have expected the NSK to handle matters at least partially before the basho, and to at least instruct him to go kyujo and make himself scarce from the beginning to the end of the basho.

Another puzzling aspect was that it seems his answers to the police questioning were detailed and coherent. To me that seemed beyond the capability of a brain soaked in so much alcohol as to cause a man to entirely forget his values.

Earlier today, the Yokozuna and his visibly weeping stablemaster held a press conference, which shed some light on some of these questions.

When asked about the reason for the violence, Harumafuji said: “I feel that it is the duty of a sempai and a Yokozuna to correct low-ranking rikishi’s manners and conduct. In scolding him, I injured him, and this brought mayhem and trouble for everybody involved.”

When asked why he then continued in his daily life as if nothing has happened, he replied “I didn’t know that this would get to the papers. Takanoiwa came later to apologize. I told him to be thankful he has a big brother to guide him, and told him to take care and work hard, and we parted with a handshake. I didn’t think the matter would go any further than that.”

Both Isegahama and Harumafuji stressed that this was not caused by drunkenness. Isegahama said that he has never seen or heard rumor of Harumafuji being violent when drinking. Harumafuji repeated the same: “I have never hurt anybody or acted violently when I drank, and I have never been told that I act badly when drunk.”

Later the same day, Demon Kakka was asked to comment to the press about the Harumafuji resignation.


Demon Kakka (formerly Demon Kogure) is this flamboyant rocker, who is known for always being in character, and for being a huge sumo fan. He is a popular sumo commentator. Some of you may have seen him in various sumo TV shows, including the “Sunday Sports” program in which he interviewed Harumafuji after the yusho he won in the last Aki basho.

Kakka gave the press the straight dope:  After saying that in his personal opinion, he would have preferred Harumafuji not to retire, he then continued: “In the sumo world the tradition of ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ is still entrenched. Harumafuji must be thinking: ‘Why am I being singled out about something everybody is doing’? The fact that this tradition is considered obvious in the sumo world makes the current problem a structural issue. Times have changed. The Yokozuna’s retirement is not going to solve the problem. The sumo world needs to think up ways to bring up its rikishi other than the current merciless system”.

Kakka has a point there. Take the case of Kasugano oyakata, who disciplined Tochinoshin and two other wrestlers by beating them with golf club in October 2011, for repeated violations of the dress and curfew code. After matters became public (because of an anonymous tip to the police), he admitted to “going to far”, apologized, got severely reprimanded by the NSK… And Tochinoshin and the two others apologized and were disciplined (in a more humane manner). He now serves as the head of the NSK public relations department.

Why should Harumafuji have thought that he would end up any differently? The picture now becomes much clearer. He didn’t actually think he did something as bad as Asashoryu. Asashoryu attacked a man who was not related to the sumo world. This is something that Harumafuji would never do. But Harumafuji thought that he was “doing it for Takanoiwa’s own good”. It’s not violence if it’s education, and it’s not education without violence, as Kakka said. And apparently Takanoiwa also accepted those terms. The Yokozuna did not think he did something a Yokozuna shouldn’t do until the matter hit the papers. Even after that, he was quoted as saying that “the one thing that he didn’t want to do was to retire”, continued to practice every day, and even announced that he will be kyujo for the jungyo. These are the acts of someone who believes he has at least some hope of keeping his rope and his hairdo.

It was not until the YDC made its “dealt with with utmost severity” statement that the Yokozuna realized that his act is not going to be treated like the Kasugano case, and had to offer his resignation hurriedly before the deliberations of the Banzuke committee.

Details of the press conference: NHK (Japanese)

Demon Kakka interview: Sponichi


34 thoughts on “Don’t Pin The Blame On Alcohol

  1. I’m of the opinion that he might have survived if he was Japanese. Was it you, Herouth, who said that on twitter there were five people clamoring for his ouster for every one person expressing sympathy?

    • Yes, that was I. I think that it could be that the YDC would have come up with a less severe statement if we were talking about a Japanese Yokozuna. But I’m not sure that, if Harumafuji did not believe he was doing something legitimate, that he would have tried to actually avoid intai even if he could.

  2. Well, sorry but not sure I’m buying it. Of course, anything I or anyone else says is pure speculation, so perhaps we shouldn’t speculate and just accept the situation for what it is.

    However, I don’t buy the “alcohol wasn’t a factor” defense. The very first step is to admit you have a problem. And he shouldn’t have been anywhere near a bar anyway, it isn’t seemly for a Yokozuna.

    I think there’s a LOT more to this story than we will ever know, so best to simply move on.

    • Wait, why isn’t it legitimate for a Yokozuna to be anywhere near a bar? Two other Yokozuna were there and nobody is saying anything about that to them, including the YDC.

      By the way, I’m not saying it wasn’t a factor at all. It probably caused the man to hit a lot harder than he would have if he was completely sober.

      The very first step is to admit that you have a problem. But what if you don’t have a problem? Just a single case of overdoing things?

        • Sure, he has a problem: he is under police investigation and lost his job. But does he have an alcohol problem?

        • Have you ever been to a bar? Some dudes deserve a punch in the face. (Full disclosure: I have been kicked out of Gas Panic in Yokohama.) I’ve been witness to some vile treatment of women, especially, in bars. I’ve even been roofied.

  3. Sumo is shooting itself in the foot with this decision. He’s the 2nd best Yokozuna they have at the moment. They’re already losing good talent to serious long-term injuries. The old ways just might be how they lose the resurgence in popularity.

    • It will be easy to apply the proof to your hypothesis: they are coming off an incredible year of six fully sold out honbasho. Even a ticket unsold next year would be a step back and while we’ve discussed the kyujo rikishi being a factor, it will be very easy to point the finger at the handling of this incident (by any or all parties) as a factor in that. Time will tell!

  4. Given how systematic the issue of excessive violent punishment can be in sumo it feels like Harumafuji is being used almost as a sacrificial lamb in the hopes that they can just keep brushing it under the carpet. It makes this very upsetting because its an issue that feels like it needs to be addressed and Harumafuji deserves far, far better than that.

    • It’s more “made an example of” than “sacrificed”. Two things you can say about pretty much every behaviour that has caused scandal in sumo in recent times: 1) It was technically forbidden already. 2) The guys getting caught were unlikely to be the only ones doing it.

      Same here. As far as the public image of sumo goes, corporal punishment is already outlawed. It obviously goes on anyway and everybody on the inside tends to turn a blind eye to it, which means that the real cardinal sin is: getting caught. And the ones who do get caught will invariably be punished, just to make everybody else remember what their (official) obligations are, in this case either “don’t beat up others” or “be more circumspect when you do it”.

      I’ve been debating with myself whether Harumafuji was hurt additionally in this matter by being yokozuna. I suspect not. In the post-Tokitaizan climate, I think a random maegashira beating up another random maegashira to the point that he couldn’t participate in the basho would have found himself intai’ed as well, possibly even without getting the chance to announce the retirement himself.

      • It’s still questionable as to whether Takanoiwa could have participated in the basho; it looks just as likely that Takanohana intentionally blew up the damage report in order to blow this scandal as big as it has been, and Takanoiwa would have competed if he had been given the chance to.

    • I am glad to see to see that Demon Kakka shares some of our opinions here about the influence of the traditional sumo system in Harumafujis downfall. I like him much better than some of the talking heads on the news.

      He’s a scapegoat, and because he retired of his own accord before the investigations concluded, there’s less pressure for the top brass to change a damn thing. That’s why all of Takanohana’s talk about reform feels really hollow and self serving, cause I’m sure he’s looked the other way in the past when physical punishment has been dished out to youngsters.

      Sorry for blaming the alcohol for the beatdown!

  5. If Kisenosato had done it the YDC would have found a way to cover it up to protect their fat maid. The truth is that they were happy to get rid of a Mongolian yokozuna!

  6. For those speculating that he was treated unfairly because he is non-Japanese, can you provide examples of instances where a Japanese Yokozuna committed a transgression that was at least as serious as Harumafuji’s and did not receive as severe a treatment or judgment by the YDC or Sumo Association? This is not a challenge but a sincere interest in discovering the bases of your positions. Thank you.

    • It’s hard to say, because there hasn’t been a Japanese Yokozuna from January 2003 to January 2017. As Demon Kakka says, times have changed. In years past, this incident may not have caused media turmoil at all. So is it because it’s the 2000s or because the Yokozuna are all Mongolian?

  7. Hi, first time poster after a few weeks lurking, started following Sumo in January after having been a fan of Japanese pro wrestling (Puroresu) since 2005 and US stuff (WWE etc) since about 1999)

    My first thought when this all broke (boy was I shocked when I saw it on the BBC news website) was that this had shades (albeit of a complete different extreme in terms of severity of crime) of the Chris Benoit saga. Benoit (and yes, I know pro wrestling is a staged endeavour) was the kind of guy who in a really sleezy and murky profession was always seen as a true professional and a good example to follow, never say die and all that sort of thing. He then ends up killing himself and his wife and son, exposing pro wrestling to a media shitstorm over the issues of steroids, drug abuse and the effects of CTE. In a way, from what I’ve learned of Harumafuji, it’s similar in the sense he was seen as a true professional, a decent all rounder who would give 150% and who was one of the good guys and yet he ends up doing something bad that causes a media shitstorm. In the same way that it would be Chris who did what he did (and not somebody with a bad reputation), I can’t help but feel the same thing has happened here.

    I also like to take a gander at Sumotalk and I saw an article one of the guys on there wrote during the Asashoryu scandal in which he claimed he had heard that a famous Japanese Yokozuna (name beginning with the letter C) had apparently beaten up a stablemate so badly he was forced to retire and needed surgery. I know Japan has had a sometimes uneasy relationship with outsiders in Sumo, so am I to assume that some of this violence is commonplace and just happens to get hushed up when convenient?

  8. Maybe it’s my background but I was so desperately hoping there was going to be a Jamie Foxx/T-Pain reference in this article…

  9. Wasn’t it you Herouth, in one of your earlier post’s on this topic, that stated that Harumafuji had a reputation as a violent drunk?

        • Hmm. That article repeats a factual error: not everybody in that meeting was from Mongolia. Ishiura was also there, as affirmed by Miyagino oyakata. I think it is based on one of the earlier stories in the press.

          The NSK crisis committee has just briefed the riji. Their report says that he was not normally known for bad drunken behavior.

  10. This is, really, what I was most worried about. Not that Harumafuji had a bad case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Asahi, but that beating someone up for disrespect is the done thing in sumo circles and Harumafuji was honestly shocked that this was being treated so differently than every other time he’s done it, every other time he’s watched someone else do it, and every other time it was done to him while he was still a junior rikishi.

    Why was this the one that went public? Was it a particularly bad incident of violence? Did someone get worried about Takanoiwa, take him to hospital, and then find they were unable to continue the usual cover-up? Did Takanoiwa carry a grudge? Or did someone (Takanohana) decide to use it as a political power play?

    Look, beating someone up is a really shitty thing to do. But I can’t be upset with Harumafuji for it if he’s in a culture where it’s the done thing.

    I want sumo culture to get better, to make sure this violence and abuse is a thing that does not happen, and I recognise that’s going to have to start by dragging it out into the open, and this may, ultimately, be for the best. But I wish it hadn’t started with Harumafuji.

    • Well, the Taka side is still not clear. Lots of stories going around. The current version seems to be that Takanoiwa at first hid the injury, but when he felt really unwell and asked to be taken off the torikumi, he had to tell Takanohana the whole story, at which point Takanohana decided that he would file a police report, which he said he would have filed no matter if it was his deshi or some other heya’s deshi who got attacked. Then there was that medical report that drew the press’s attention.

  11. Problem wasn’t alkohol. Harumafuji was very nervous cause of the”wacky”Aki Basho, with a lot of pressure for him. For a simple error doubt to this, we lose a GREAT champion. I’m very sad.

    • While I appreciate the sentiment, there is no reason to believe that Harumafuji was under any more pressure than he is used to coping with. He just won a yusho. He was very happy and relaxed after the Aki basho, and talked about going for another yusho.

      While Kisenosato and Kakuryu were under increased pressure because of their absences, he got good marks from the YDC. There was no reason for him to be anxious.

  12. “he knew that he committed an act of violence that was no less severe than the one that caused Asashoryu to retire”. Asashoryu beat up a random dude outside a bar; Harumafuji disciplined a lower-rank rikishi who was irrespecutful to arguably the greatest sumo yokozuna of all time. How can the latter be more severe and scandalous to the former? Isn’t ranking supposedly a big deal in sumo? Inside every stable, if a lower rank rikishi talk shit to the yokozuna, I am pretty sure he will be berated and even physically punished. You can argue about the severity of the two incidence (whether a beer bottle is involved and the mysterious two different versions of medical reports), but in no way Harumafuji’s motive is more severe and scandalous to the sumo world than that of Asashoryu’s.

    • The phrase you quote is a reference to the early reports on the incident which described it as Harumafuji hitting Takanoiwa with a beer bottle and fracturing his skull.

      • Beyond that, it refers to the way we perceived the whole incident from our point of view. Even when it was clear that the beer bottle never came in contact with the victim’s skull, I was still puzzled at how the Yokozuna considered what he did was worthy of a Yokozuna.

        It wasn’t until after the press conference and the Kakka commentary that I came to understand that he was thinking he was educating the man. That’s the whole point of the post, really.

    • Ranking is of vital importance to just about every sport I can think of. I agree, as you said, rikishi expect it. The random dude in the bar is not a part of that life. However, initial reports were of the use of a weapon and then a sustained beating of a prone adversary who reported serious injuries and had to go to the hospital. I believe those initial reports are still coloring the situation and the investigation of the event. As to motive, I’m not sure of the circumstances of Asashoryu’s fight. If he was hitting on someone else’s wife, or the opposite, or just a disagreement over a spilled beer, the facts would make a huge difference in my mind.


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