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.

Juryo Promotions Announced

The Japanese Sumo Association has announced that four Makushita wrestlers are being promoted to Juryo for July’s tournament. Kotokuzan from Arashio-beya (apparently NOT from Sadogatake-beya) will make his Juryo debut. Yago, Kaisho, and Abi return to the salaried ranks.

The headline here is that Abi, and his shiko?, will return to Sekitori status after serving a suspension for breaking Covid protocols with Fukushima (then Gokushindo). He has stormed back in the most rapid fashion, scoring 14 straight regulation victories, including a victory over Kaisho. While Abi was away, Ichiyamamoto returned and has established himself as a solid Juryo rikishi with a very successful Natsu. I am eager to see if the two of them go toe-to-toe at some point.

Abi’s redemption comes at an awkward time as current Ozeki Asanoyama is facing down a similar scandal, though the facts in his case are still being investigated and thus a punishment has yet to be determined.

Yago will be eager to finally find a permanent foothold in the division. He is talented but has struggled with injuries, seemingly yo-yoing between Juryo and Makushita. Kaisho reached Juryo briefly in 2019 for two tournaments before falling back into Makushita. For Kotokuzan, his promotion has been a long struggle. He has been in Makushita since the end of 2016, back when Terunofuji was an Ozeki the first time ’round. It will be interesting to see if he’s got a spark in his sumo that can keep him around for a while.

Makushita Yusho Race Heats Up

Tonight there are three yusho race elimination matches in Makushita between 3-0 record-holders with kachi-koshi on the line as well as a slot in another to follow. The headliner in tonight’s action is Abi. The former Komusubi will face Shinohara. Shinohara is certainly a young one-to-watch, having won first yusho last year in his debut tournament…the “silent basho” back in Osaka.

That’s right, the same tournament that saw the debut of Nabatame, Hayatefuji, and Taiyo (all of whom he defeated in that first tournament). Others to debut in that same tournament were Kirameki and Takeoka. A solid recruiting class. Thanks to the SumoDB, YouTube, and Twitter, there are several videos of him in action out there but Abi will clearly be his biggest challenge yet. One bout of interest would be this one against former sekitori Takaryu, from Hatsu.

He’s got a complimentary oshi-style so this bout against Abi should be a bit of a slap-fest, if the two get into it. He’s also got a great hatakikomi weapon at his disposal. In a similar move, he got wrapped up here against Hokutoshu but at the tawara tries ottsuke to dislodge Hokutoshu’s arm before deciding to bring him down with Midorifuji’s patented katasukashi.

With his fast, powerful tachiai, Shinohara will be an interesting challenge but should certainly be out of his league against someone who has faced Hakuho four times, including this kinboshi. There were a few videos online but I chose this one because it’s over so quickly so the slow-mo replay is helpful. Some of the other videos made me really miss zabuton-throwing.

Tomorrow, a bit further down the banzuke, Tomokaze is up for his kachi-koshi in another yusho race elimination bout.

It Is Time To End the SNS Ban

In a time when sumo events can no longer be sold out, people are hungry for content.

If you know me by now, you know I don’t like to bury the lede. A couple years ago, after an incident starring notorious trickster and lord of the night Abi, the powers that be within the Sumo Association enacted an instant, enduring, and comprehensive ban on rikishi social media use. I think it’s time to end it.

Sumo has a lot of rules. This itself is not bad, and I am certainly not here as a foreign person to criticise the culture or the structure that has created the somewhat rigid and fascinating world we all follow. I understand why, for instance, rikishi may not be permitted to drive a car.

When the ban was enacted, perhaps the Sumo Association had one too many complaints, one too many episodes of feeling the sport’s name had been dragged through the mud by some joker. In (association) football, you’d call this “bringing the game into disrepute.” Were pranks the only reason this happened? It’s hard to say, but other rikishi came under the microscope or were reprimanded previously for tweets appearing to be sympathetic to controversial political causes or in some cases holocaust denial.

What is uncontested, however, is that this social media ban has left an enormous hole in the online experience for sumo fans. It’s not that rikishi had an awful lot to say before anyway, always giving their thoughts in some kind of expression of their will to gambarize and do their style of sumo, with better results in the upcoming tournament as a gesture for the support of their fans. But it’s the nuances in between which are missed.

These days, as fans we’re reliant on a small but passionate collection of archivists throughout the digital ecosystem to dig up quotes and photos from various newspaper articles and bring them to the world. Fortunately these people exist on YouTube, in places like the Sumo Forum, on Twitter (folks like our own contributor Herouth), and sites like this one.

Without this, for whom would we cheer? For sure, many fans are attracted to a rikishi’s fighting style. Sometimes it’s their physique (or lack of it) that creates a fan. But many folks – especially those of us who have followed the sport at least a fair few years – are inspired by the personalities of these characters. We can’t do sumo, we want to know what it’s like. We’ll never have (and probably don’t want) the lifestyle that comes from living in a heya. That doesn’t mean we don’t have an almost voyeuristic passion about the lifestyle and the desire to at least be able to understand and explore it, if only at arm’s length.

The digital experiences that rikishi are able to create and share with the wider world give us, as fans, the ability to have these feelings realised. When we hear that a rikishi like Tobizaru is learning English so that he can communicate with sumo fans around the world, we know that he has everything to do so at his disposal… except permission. And as the pandemic edges ever onward, and as cities like Osaka are robbed yet again of the live event, there’s an enormous part of the sumo experience missing right now. Some stables have stepped up a (somewhat) curated view into their day-to-day activities in the meantime – occasionally in highly entertaining fashion – but this is both limited in scope, and, as with many things in sumo, often lacking individuality. While other industries and sports have done all in their power to transition live experiences to the digital space, sumo’s given us a livestream of keiko every couple months.

I’m not complaining about that (I would, however, like to see one of these newly built stables go full 1999 and put a webcam in an upper corner of the keiko-ba, but that’s a matter for another day). But there’s more that can be done to engage people during this time who live in Japan and can’t go to sumo, or who would be visiting Japan at the peak of the country’s decade long tourism drive and would be experiencing sumo. Let’s be clear, this ban happened because at times rikishi can be the worst ambassadors of the sport. But they are also always the best ambassadors. That will never be a big yellow mascot, and it will never be a group of recently retired oyakata.

At this point, years on, we have to ask how long should this ban really last. Are there risks to ending it? Absolutely. There will always be risks. Maybe because of those risks, and the behaviour of a handful of jokers, the ban lasts forever. That would be the whole sumo community’s loss: let’s not even consider it.