The Asanoyama Affair — Commentary

The big ‘ole caveat: There is no news in this post that has not been mentioned before, I don’t think. This is just Andy expressing his views, and his views alone. There are a few points that I want to make out of this Asanoyama drama, especially as similar scandals have ensnared Ryuden and Abi.

Covid Compliance Questions

First, I wanted to address the Covid restrictions themselves. It would be a difficult, stressful life for groups of young men to be restricted to barracks for more than a year while Japan has tried to stanch the spreading infection. We’ve seen several scandals over the year that hint at the many stressors. My personal opinion is that this is the tip of the iceberg and I would not be surprised if more outings are uncovered but we need a better description of compliance before we can make any judgements. Understandably, it would be difficult to monitor the comings-and-goings of sekitori, especially popular rikishi who have TV appearances and events to go to, even during the pandemic. So it would also not be surprising if news of some outings are handled quietly and do not make the papers.

However, the Kyokai has had one fatality directly due to Covid. Ryuden’s closeness with Shobushi made revelations of his violations a bit difficult to reconcile. But the organization itself understandably has to take a very tough line, though I would not be surprised if, individually, many more oyakata and rikishi do not understand what the big deal is. Maybe the impression, mentally, is that Shobushi was unlucky. So many other wrestlers have gotten it and recovered. I hear that refrain a lot here, too. But the stories that will make it to the press will be those that are not only repeated but involve something extra, like affairs (Ryuden, Tokitsukaze), or hostess clubs (Abi, Asanoyama). The latter of which were focused on early on in the pandemic as accelerating the spread.

The lies, though. C’mon, guys. You know that will make it worse. That said, there’s been some discussion online that Asanoyama is effectively a scapegoat, sacrificed to protect those who continue to break restrictions. I say that without a serious discussion and thorough understanding of what compliance looks like in meetings with sponsors, it is inappropriate to make really wild accusations that the Kyokai is complicit in pardoning non-compliant behavior.

We know wrestlers appear on TV shows. We know wrestlers visit their former high schools and colleges. Goods are being donated to stables. I imagine commercials are being filmed and various visits to stables and to sponsors are made. These can be done in a compliant fashion. However, making friends with a reporter, going out 15-times to a hostess club*, and then conspiring to lie and actually destroying evidence (chat records) to cover up the meetings…<sarcasm>would likely not be compliant behavior</sarcasm>. So until the line is clearly drawn in the discussion, it’s certainly not appropriate to say non-compliance is rife and EVERY meeting is non-compliant.

There are also varying shades of “non-compliance.” In the rail-regulation world, we speak of inspector’s discretion. If something is non-compliant, in many cases they are trusted to use their judgement to determine whether the non-compliance is worthy of a defect (citation) or a more serious violation. Some things are automatic, though. Speeding in the railroading world is handled much more strictly than on the highways. I’m not sure if you all are aware of the Amagasaki train accident, but that illustrates the dangers of overspeed on rail. So, even without an accident, your certification — and your job — is on the line if you’re caught speeding.

But let me ask, back in the automobile world, have you ever sped while driving? Over 12mph over the speed limit? No? Around here, that’s where enforcement starts. Park illegally? Wear a mask in a way that didn’t cover your nose? Well, if you ever did anything not in strict compliance, do not worry, you’re not automatically guilty of more serious crimes like robbery or murder. (This is my #1 frustration with those silly “Lock them up” chants I hear in political rallies on both sides. Even if an action is not only non-compliant but an outright crime, jail time is often not automatic. Due process is a very good thing.) Back in the sumo world, the Kyokai knows their policy and procedures. They conduct investigations and learn the facts. While it would not surprise me if there have been more, it’s rather wild to accuse the Kyokai of complicity without a thorough understanding and description of compliance and without clear, specific allegations.

The Reporter Friend

Second, the unusual extra detail of the Asanoyama scandal is the way it impacts a newspaper, Sponichi. He went to the hostess club, multiple times, with a reporter. When found out by another publication, Asanoyama and the reporter conspired to lie and destroy incriminating chat histories. The ethical violations are serious so the paper fired the reporter, salary reductions to his supervisor, managing director, and the CEO, the paper apologizes to sumo fans and the Kyokai, is conducting more training and being more rigorous about compliance…including the creation of a code of conduct.

While we can hope the relationship between the reporter and Asanoyama had been a friendly, though professionally inappropriate one, the paper sure thought the implications were serious enough to pull no punches. Hopefully, the adoption of more rigorous standards will be good for the paper in the long run. Let’s face it, serious, objective journalism is important and needs to be held to a high standard. Sports news papers and the weekly publications that have been central to this tale are not held in the regard of Nikkei or Asahi Shimbun but they do provide more coverage of sumo than what we get from most formal news sources. Improved standards of “gossip” papers, or broader (non-scandal) coverage in elite papers is better for us fans.

Reluctant Opportunities

Third, is this punishment unduly harsh on low-ranking wrestlers? I am going to take the contrarian view on this and say no. The sumo world is rather full of these mis-matches. It’s an open competition where a new recruit may have serious university experience and still get pitted against Shonanzakura to start their career. Abi clinched the yusho in a match against Dewanoryu, who picked up his first Osumo win against Shonanzakura after losing to Nihonyanagi in his first ever bout. Enho gets no consideration for his mass disadvantage in nearly every bout.

That said, I’m confident that the Kyokai seriously considers who they schedule and will generally pit contenders against contenders. The guys Shonanzakura will face, for example, usually do not finish the basho with winning records — often they don’t finish with more than 2 or 3 wins. However, when Terunofuji was in Jonokuchi, most of his competitors finished 6-1, or 5-2, and the same with Abi in makushita. When Asanoyama is in Sandanme, he will be in the winners’ bracket facing the guys who are in contention for the yusho. I find the chance to be a great opportunity for the guys who do get chosen, not as an unfair punishment.

Not Brothels but Not Crochet Clubs, Either

*Lastly, I do think I need to shift any perception on the internet of hostess clubs as being brothels. They’re not. I’ve had the same perception in the past, before I actually met a some hostesses and former hostesses and went to hostess clubs. The first time I met a former hostess, I was actually talking to my best friend. We were chatting about nightlife in Japan and she opened up to me that she actually worked as a hostess for a week. A friend took her to her club for a week and she made enough money by sitting and talking to guys.

A few of my hostess friends tried to convince me to give hosting a try. I know a few hosts, too, but let’s face it, I’ve never been a night-owl. Anyway, they would take me out with them to their clubs in Roppongi. The atmosphere in those places actually reminded me of this restaurant back home where about half-a-dozen guys in their 50s would come have breakfast and coffee, basically because there was a charismatic waitress who worked there. When she got married, had a baby, and quit, the restaurant struggled to stay open and closed shortly afterwards. I know it was a TV show but I doubt Norm went to Cheers for the beer. It’s sure not why, pre-pandemic, I would hang out at Quadrant in downtown DC.

Once I actually went to one by accident. My wife and her mom still laugh at the “Pabbu Incident.” I was going to meet one of my wife’s friends and I saw a Jazz パッブ. My wife loves Jazz music so I thought I’d check it out and if it was any good, I’d bring her back. When I went in, they had a stage at the front with a piano. Then there were a series of tables with booths facing the stage. It kind of reminded me of a place where Sinatra or Sammy Davis Jr. would have been on stage and guys in tuxes and women in long dresses would be sitting drinking martinis or fancy cocktails. But it was early, so I was there, alone.

The hostess sat me down at a big booth at the back…and then she sat down with me. Then, another woman came in and sat down on the other side…both dressed very elegantly and both sporting big smiles. One asked me what I wanted to drink. I don’t remember what I asked for but when she scurried off and the other woman stayed behind and started asking me “small talk” questions, it clicked. The woman who met me at the door and brought me to my seat wasn’t the hostess. She was a hostess. The other hostess came back with my drink and both stayed with me in the booth. We chatted, I finished my drink, and left to go meet up with Yoshiko.

Later, when I got back to my mother-in-law’s place, I asked her and my wife…”So, um… What’s a Pabbu?” Then I told them about my evening and they both cracked up. “I thought ‘Pabbu’ just meant, ‘Pub,” I said. Other Pabbu may not provide such individualized attention I received at the Jazz Pabbu but I’ve not gone back to find out. However, if I were single and bored, sure. It’s not like a ソープ or something. While the “red-light” reputation is a bit overblown, they are not good places to frequent during a pandemic and have been highlighted by the government as hotspots that lead to the spread of the virus. When we think of the Kyokai’s Covid restrictions, even with the new face-shields these places are not going to be compliant.

Anyway, feel free to disagree with me on any points below. I’m interested in starting a conversation here and seeing what y’all have to say.

14 thoughts on “The Asanoyama Affair — Commentary

  1. A note about regulations.

    From banzuke announcement day until senshuraku, no inessential outings are allowed, period. That means the low-rankers are allowed to go out to buy food, but – and this has been stressed very explicitly by the NSK in their post-Abi workshops – sponsors/tanimachi are not an excuse. They are not allowed to hang out with supporters. Nishikijima oyakata did – and now he is out of the NSK.

    Sekitori who live at the heya are subject to the same restrictions as non-sekitori. Sekitori or former sekitori who live outside the heya are only allowed to commute from home to heya and back. Visits to hospitals, rehab, and other health providers are generally allowed.

    Between senshuraku and banzuke announcement, the restrictions are more lenient, and that’s the time when rikishi visit high schools, families, and so on. After going out on such an excursion, they are expected to be tested once they return to the heya. That doesn’t mean this period is taken as party time – they need to get permission and specify what they are going to do – visit a school, scout for deshi, etc.

    • I just wonder how many of those who passed the judgement on Asa and Nishikijima were guilty of the same transgression, but did not make the mistake of getting caught.

  2. Keep in mind that Sponichi’s publisher is part of the Mainichi Shimbun group, and Mainichi is one of the major respected broadsheet newspapers on the level of Nikkei and Asahi. The public may be treating the sports dailies as a different thing with lower expectations of journalistic propriety, but I’m not sure that’s true on the corporate side.

  3. Did I get the timeline correct on this?

    The journalist was called in by his paper first, denied it, he contacted Asanoyama to concoct a cover story before the NSK started any questioning, then when the NSK was enlightened and questioned Asanoyama he lied to protect his “friend” as well as himself, and then things took a bad turn.

    • The timeline is right, but the story was concocted to protect Asanoyama, not the other way around.

      • Thank you for the clarification, Herouth.
        Still thinking Asanoyama was unduly influenced by his erstwhile BFF into lying to the kyokai initially: journalist gotta save the golden egg and his job, too.
        My assessment of Asanoyama has changed from brazen idiot to malleable chump.
        Anyhow, it’s a done deal. And I wish him better days ahead.

  4. I’m uncomfortable with harsh discipline for offenses which are offenses solely because of conditions caused by a pandemic which global authorities utterly failed to control and suppress. In some ways, the innocent are being punished for the failures of the powerful.
    On the other hand, it has always seemed to me that it is a privilege to become an ozeki. It is one of the only two ranks which involve a special ceremony, and a pledge to uphold the honor of the rank and of sumo. All the people who have done so much to keep sumo going throughout the pandemic had every right to feel that Asanoyama let them down. It was pretty obvious that his punishment had to be more severe than that of Abi and Ryuden. If violations by other people emerge, they will need to be considered on their own merits. I can’t see that he is being treated as a scapegoat.
    I didn’t see Asanoyama as a potential Yokozuna, because I didn’t think he had the necessary mental intensity. (Unlike Terunofuji and Takakeisho) His transgression confirms that he didn’t have the dedication to improving his sumo, and some of his lackluster performances were saying the same thing.
    One can only hope this reverse will drive him to grow more determined when he does come back, but I don’t think that is a given.

    • I thought Asanoyama seemed burdened by high expectations ever since becoming Ozeki, which he may have been trying to escape from by going out. And there was a bad example being set in his heya, which may have made him think it’s okay, everyone is doing it. But after seeing how Abi and Ryuden were punished he should have known.

      Mentally this could be hard to come back from. He strikes me as someone who would be particularly sensitive to feelings of shame and letting people down.

      I’m sad it all happened. Not as sad as I was about Harumafuji, though, who had more interesting sumo.

    • “I’m uncomfortable with harsh discipline for offenses which are offenses solely because of conditions caused by a pandemic which global authorities utterly failed to control and suppress. In some ways, the innocent are being punished for the failures of the powerful.”

      That’s a fair point although I think it’s also important to remember in this case that the severity of the punishment was less to do with the action (for which a lesser precedent had already been set and adhered to), but with the lying. Unfortunately, the responsibility for that falls with no one other that himself (and those involved in the cover up, although they can’t force him to lie). I fully agree with you that people will take it for granted that he will “come back” from it.

  5. “is this punishment unduly harsh on low-ranking wrestlers? I am going to take the contrarian view on this and say no”

    I don’t think it’s that contrarian of a viewpoint. I fully agree. Listen: Abi, Ryuden and Asanoyama weren’t going anywhere barring a serious freak injury. They were fixtures of the top two divisions for years to come. There are 70 rikishi in the top two divisions at all times. This means that as a result of their actions, the door has been kicked open for 3 lower division rikishi who wouldn’t ordinarily be there (or 3 guys who get a second chance to kick on). They may take that opportunity and establish careers as salaried rikishi or not, but that’s fully on them if they don’t and it’s a chance they otherwise might not have had. So certainly, some will benefit and that can’t be overlooked just because some guy at Makushita 45 or whatever has to face the former Ozeki.

    Further, are we feeling bad for the guys in Jonidan or whatever who get steamrolled by Ura or Murata or even Terunofuji? I’ve never heard any “poor so and so, he’s had to face Ura at Jonidan 75.” For some of these guys, a matchup against these guys, a matchup against a former Ozeki in Sandanme will be the highlight of their career. For other guys who are in the undefeated bracket (assuming he doesn’t lose, which as Kintamayama says, is no certainty), you’re looking at one match out of 7, if you go 5-2 instead of 6-1 or 6-1 instead of 7-0, you still get a huge promotion. It doesn’t derail your career. Maybe there’s less chances to win a lower division yusho, but that’s not really the point.

    That all being said, I still have four lingering doubts (this comment is becoming its own article, haha): first, as Kintamayama says, Abi may be the exception rather than the rule that these suspended guys will simply steamroll the opposition. Second, former Ozeki simply don’t drop to the fourth division, something like that would be seen as being beneath one who has held the rank, and Terunofuji’s situation was extreme and outside of his control and as it has been reported, he even had wished/attempted to retire many times. So third, I do wonder whether he may simply just go intai altogether once he stops receiving his salary. Because lastly, where is there left for him to go? Not that he necessarily mentally has it in him to become a Yokozuna, but would he now be facing an even higher threshold (ie not two yusho ‘or the equivalent’, but simply two yusho) on account of lacking hinkaku (given that he straight up lied to the kyokai about his misdeeds)? It’s an interesting discussing and a very subjective one (although I’m sure usual suspects may try and paint it as a black and white issue).

  6. Comment Deleted by Andy

    I don’t delete comments very often but the comment by Maciek was offensive. If you “don’t understand [a place] at all,” I would advise against commenting on it. There’s often quite rational and reasonable explanations for things which may not seem logical to you. If anyone would like more information on the reason for the deletion, or launch an appeal, either leave a comment here or email me.

    • Sorry, didn’t mean to be offensive.

      It was not clear from how I wrote the comment, but I wanted to express my objections to the actions of Sumo Association, not Japan as a country.

      I apologies.

      I still think the comment has valid points. It looks to me that the sumo is the only sport on the planet which level is gradually going down and this is mostly because of decisions of the sumo elders.

      If the association really wants the sumo to be Japan’s own business, closed to the rest of the world, they are on the best track.

      • It had VERY valid points. Japan’s vaccine rollout has been very slow. Please feel free to submit another comment…just choose your words a bit more carefully. If you do, I will delete my comment about the deleted comment and forget it ever happened. I am very glad you commented again. I was tempted to leave it up because often these work themselves out …just, if left up it may have created more headaches than either of us wanted. I also didn’t want you to wonder “what happened to my comment?”

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