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.

Board Meeting News

On May 27th, a regular meeting of the NSK’s board has taken place. The main points of interest are:

Araiso oyakata to start a new heya

The board approved the request of former Kisenosato, now Araiso oyakata, to split away from Tagonoura beya, and start his own heya. Araiso beya will become reality as of this August. At first, it will take residence at Tsukuba city in Ibaraki prefecture (Araiso’s home prefecture), and a permanent one will be built in the city of Ami in Inashiki District of the same prefecture.

Araiso is to take 4 wrestlers and a gyoji with him. The wrestlers are freshmen Nishihara, Taniguchi and Kato, who have joined Grand Sumo in Haru, and set foot on dohyo for the first time in Natsu basho, and veteran Adachi, who joined at around the same time Kisenosato did.

(Usually an oyakata who splits off takes only his uchi-deshi – rikishi he recruited with the intention of establishing his own heya – together with him from his old heya. Adachi is an exception, and I think the reasoning behind it is that with three complete novices, a heya required a seasoned anideshi to teach them the off-dohyo “way of sumo”).

Decision about Asanoyama has not been made yet

Apparently, the investigation into Asanoyama’s shenanigans turned out to be complex, and is still on-going. Another board meeting is set for June, but Shibatayama oyakata, the NSK’s spokesperson, said the investigation will not necessarily be complete by then.

A decision has been made about Ryuden

Ryden has been found guilty of breaking the NSK’s COVID regulations, having gone on unnecessary outings 25 times between March 2020 and January 2021, for the purpose of seeing a woman who was not his wife. Those meeting happened mostly during basho, some just before it.

Ryuden’s punishment is a suspension for 3 basho, including Natsu basho, which he has already spent kyujo. He should be back by November, and will likely be ranked at Makushita by then.

Ryuden’s shisho, Takadagawa oyakata, has been punished with a reduction of 20% of his salary for 6 months.

Nagoya basho will be held without vaccinations

Although an earlier plan has been to vaccinate all the rikishi and staff in June, this seems to have been set aside, probably due to the slow progress of vaccinations in Japan.

The basho will still take place at Nagoya, and all involved will undergo a PCR test before traveling there. The plans are to:

  • Hold the new recruit checkup at the Kokugikan on June 18th
  • Publish the banzuke on June 21st
  • Hold PCR tests over the 23rd and 24th
  • Each heya will depart for Nagoya after completing the PCR test.

Natsu Day 15 Highlights

Senshuraku is always a fun day of sumo. I have had the good fortune to attend a few of them, and in the day before COVID, there would be a genuine festival atmosphere among the fans in attendance. The day starts in the afternoon due to the short schedule, and the fans show up mostly before Juryo gets underway. There are ceremonies, awards presentation, some singing, and the whole things ends with a gyoji being tossed into the air.

Looking at video from Tokyo, its clear the sumo fans are trying to carry on as close to customary is possible, while in the middle of a state of emergency. I can only hope the time when it all goes back to it’s wild, raucous natural form is close at hand.

With most of the make / kachi-koshi already decided, today’s matches were more for ranking in July than anything, at least until we got to the finals, where Takakeisho defeated Terunofuji in the final match, forcing a playoff. This was the spot that I think the oyakata were curious about, Terunofuji had shown losses in Makuuchi playoffs in the past. Some had declared he lacked the mental toughness to really come back from a situation like what had just happened on the dohyo, to be able put it behind him and face it as a brand new match.

But we can now assume the remake of Terunofuji was extensive and meticulous, and he dispatched Takakeisho in the first 10 seconds, to claim his second consecutive yusho, and set the stage for an attempt at Yokozuna promotion in July. He becomes the first rikishi since Futabayama to win two consecutive yusho starting from Sekiwake. As mentioned over the course of this basho, he is the only man putting up Yokozuna grade results right now, and he is doing it consistently.

Highlight Matches

Ishiura defeats Kotonowaka – Ishiura continues his perfect record against Kotonowaka, overwhelming him at the tachiai. Kotonowaka did give it his all, but he finished dumped to the clay by Ishiura’s shitatehineri. I know Ishiura has some injuries he is working around, but he finishes strong with 2 straight wins. Both end Natsu wit 7-8.

Daiamami defeats Kagayaki – Kagayaki got a double inside grip at the tachiai, but struggled to do anything with it. They both paused for a while, thinking it through. When Kagayaki dialed up the pressure, Daiamami turned and swung Kagayaki down to pick up his 7th win. Kagayaki really needs to regroup and return to his good sumo.

Chiyoshoma defeats Shimanoumi – The only Darwin match, and really Shimanoumi, were you drinking rather than watching old Chiyoshoma matches? If you were not sure how to find them, there are plenty on Jason’s sumo channel and the always golden Kintamayama. While everyone in the sumo world was looking for a henka, including everyone who read Tachiai’s day 15 preview, it seems Shimanoumi was not. Chiyoshoma improves to 8-7 and is kachi-koshi while Shimanoumi is make-koshi at 7-8.

Takarafuji defeats Chiyomaru – Chiyomaru defaults to slap and tug sumo on days that end in “Y”, and Takarafuji knew what to do with that. Chiyomaru can bring some intensity, but he can’t keep it going for long. So Takarafuji stayed stabled, kept his sumo efficient and rode out the storm. As Chiyomaru tired, Takarafuji took control, ending with an oshidashi push out. Takarafuji improves to 7-8 for May.

Kaisei defeats Tochinoshin – I was half wondering if we were going to see a straight up yotsu battle from the start, and indeed we did. The Tochinoshin of old had the brute power to lift and carry Kaisei about, but with his bum knee, that is now a distant memory. Kaisei consolidated his grip, dropped his hips and pushed forward with power to finish Natsu 9-6.

Akua defeats Hidenoumi – Akua attempted a giant haymaker slap, which was only partially effective. In response Hidenoumi locked up Akua in a rather awkward position, robbing him of any use of his left hand. It looked like it was all Hidenoumi, but Akua managed a throw at the bales to rescue the match. Both end the tournament at 5-10, with Akua declared captain of the Juryo bound barge of the damned.

Chiyotairyu defeats Onosho – Onosho went for the mega-thrust during the tachiai, and did not keep his eyes on Chiyotairyu. Chiyotairyu stepped to the side and slapped Onosho down. Chiyotairyu improves to 10-5 for Natsu, while Onosho is make-koshi at 7-8.

Kiribayama defeats Tsurugisho – Kiribayama got his preferred grip in the tachiai, and Tsurugisho struggled to do anything other than try to stay steady. Kiribayama improves to 6-9 for his final Natsu score.

Terutsuyoshi defeats Aoiyama – Terutsuyoshi tried a jump to the side, and if the intent was to get inside and against Aoiyama’s chest, it worked brilliantly. With Aoiyama’s thrusting attack unavailable, Aoiyama was at the mercy of his smaller opponent. After a few struggles to consolidate his position, Terutsuyoshi unleashed the throw, bringing Aoiyama down. Terutsuyoshi finishes 7-8 for Natsu, winning 6 of his last 8 after a terrible start.

Hoshoryu defeats Tobizaru – Tobizaru was the early aggressor, but could not really control the match. Hoshoryu rallied and drove Tobizaru from the ring, but not into the fans, to the great disappointment of many. Hoshoryu finishes 7-8.

Okinoumi defeats Meisei – Meisei delivered a strong tachiai, but Okinoumi wrapped him up, shut him down and rolled him to the clay with a kotenage. Okinoumi finishes May 9-6.

Tamawashi defeats Hokutofuji – Hokutofuji puts up quite the pre-tachiai show, but today Tamawashi went hard into Hokutofuji’s chest, and just never slowed down. It was 3 steps to the bales, and Hokutofuji was out. Tamawashi finishes Natsu 7-8.

Kotoeko defeats Wakatakakage – Kotoeko continues his dominance over Wakatakakage. Wakatakakage launched hard at the tachiai, and was pushing well on center-mass. But Koteko pulled and leapt to the side, sending Wakatakakage to the clay. Both end Natsu with 9-6 records.

Daieisho defeats Myogiryu – Daieisho managed to find one last win this May, in a tournament I am sure he wants to put behind him. Myogiryu offered only token resistance, and it was over. Both end 6-9.

Mitakeumi defeats Ichinojo – Ichinojo seems to have settled on his “Boulder” defense for this match, and Mitakeumi was not impressed. There was a moment when Ichinojo had an opening, but for whatever reason decided to thrust against Mitakeumi’s head, leaving his body wide open for the push that sent him over the bales. Mitakeumi finishes the tournament with 10-5, and a likely return to Sekiwake in July.

Takanosho defeats Takayasu – Takanosho chose to test Takayasu’s endurance, which was a fun decision. But it did not take him long to understand this would never be in his favor. Fortunately for Takanosho, he had no locked up with the former ozeki, but managed to stalemate him at arm’s length. Through some well timed lateral moves and a deflection sumo, he managed to get above an over-extend Takayasu and thrust him down. Takanosho ends the tournament at 5-10.

Shodai defeats Endo – I know there was a minor hype bubble around Endo these past two days. He had some sharp sumo and played spoiler better than anyone could have imagined in act 3. But Shodai, on the verge of losing his 7th match, remembers his Acme tools, somehow re-asserts his balance when he is on one foot, and just body bumps Endo completely off the dohyo. Shodai ends 9-6, and Endo is not going to be able to participate in any playoff. Nice ottsuke, Shodai. More of that please.

Takakeisho defeats Terunofuji – A solid “Stand him up and slap him down” gambit from Takakeisho send Terunofuji face first over the tawara, taking Takakeisho to 12-3, and tying up the yusho race in the final match. This was the moment of discovery – we had seen the Terunofuji of old mentally crumble at this point.

Playoff match – Terunofuji keeps his balance over the arches of his feet, and stays stable. Takakeisho tries a hit and shift strategy a few times, but Terunofuji knows if he remains upright, owns the center of the ring and waits, he can get his hands on Takakeisho and own the match. This comes on the 4th merge, and Terunofuji returns the favor from the first match, slapping down Takakeisho from the side and taking his 4th Emperor’s cup. Well played to both of the Ozeki, and congratulations on a tournament well fought.

With that, Tachiai’s daily coverage of the Natsu basho is complete. Thank you, dear readers, for sharing our love of sumo, and reading along with us each day.

Natsu Day 15 Preview

At last, we come to the end of it. I consider this basho to be a healthy preview of the post Hakuho era, as “The Boss” did not even cast a shadow over this May’s proceedings. Its all be up to the Ozeki, and for some of them, they are just fine in that esteemed role. With luck, we will get to see the greatest Yokozuna of the recorded history of sumo mount the dohyo in competition at least one more time before we fully embrace the new age of sumo.

There is, sadly, only one Darwin match. It seems the rikishi corps recognized the funnel, and decided to own their fates, took their losses, and exited the march toward the 7-7 single elimination format. There is always July…

Of course all eyes are on the final two matches of this final day of Natsu. Ideally Shodai would take Endo apart as an Ozeki should to a Maegashira 8. But Endo is under ranked this basho, and Shodai is not anywhere close to his Ozeki form. And Endo win would stage him to challenge for the yusho, if…

The final match, Terunofuji has to defeat Takakeisho to take the cup. Should he lose, he either faces Takakeisho again, or Takakeisho and Endo. History describes Terunofuji having a poor record in yusho playoffs, the playoff against an injured Kisenosato in Osaka comes immediately to mind. To me, this is a test to see if he really has gone beyond his mark reached during his first tenure as Ozeki, his sumo is better, he is more focused, but did he also gain the mental toughness to be the best on the dohyo? We will get to see in just about 12 hours.

What We Are Watching Day 15

Kotonowaka vs Ishiura – I am looking for Ishiura to win this one, and both to finish at 7-8. Our ace prognosticator, lksumo, sees a high likelihood for Ishiura to stay in the top division for July, in part because there are not enough promotable scores at the top of Juryo for a big swap.

Daiamami vs Kagayaki – Both exited the funnel on day 14, and get to compete for a possible 7-8 finishing record.

Shimanoumi vs Chiyoshoma – The lone Darwin match, with both men having a 2-2 career record. I like Chiyoshoma in this one, because I know he is an expert at some janky sumo when he needs it, and today he needs it.

Chiyomaru vs Takarafuji – Takarafuji should pick up a final win today to finish 7-8, mostly because he has a well earned reputation for being able to be Chiyomaru (8-1 career).

Tochinoshin vs Kaisei – Tochinoshin is bound to take a solid slide down the ranks for July, even if he picks up a final win today to close out at 6-9. Fortunately for him, the rest of the banzuke is likely to be a scrambled mess.

Hidenoumi vs Akua – Two more looking at substantial drops, and I am pretty sure they will send Akua down to the middle of Juryo, even if he picks up a final win today against 5-9 Hidenoumi.

Chiyotairyu vs Onosho – Onosho needs one more win to finish with kachi-koshi, and he drew a tough opponent to overcome to reach the safety of 8. True there are 9 ranks between them, but Chiyotairyu has been fighting well all month, where Onosho is very much day by day. They have a 5-5 career record.

Kiribayama vs Tsurugisho – Two more with big drops in their near future, we Tsurugisho at 4-10 against Kiribayama at 5-9. I am sure who wins this one matters in the banzuke room, but both men are going to want to re-set following this May’s results.

Aoiyama vs Terutsuyoshi – Even if he loses today, it looks like Aoiyama’s mid-basho return likely helped him. He picked up at least 4 wins, and kept his move down the ranks in some degree of check. It would be good to see Terutsuyoshi pick up a final win and finish 7-8.

Hoshoryu vs Tobizaru – A little sad for Hoshoryu, who came away with a make-koshi for his first trip to the joi-jin. Such results are common, and I have no doubt that he will be back. He will sharpen his sumo, gain a bit of mass and hit a bit harder next time. If he ends up around M8 or so for July, he should be able to turn in a fairly solid score.

Meisei vs Okinoumi – Both are kachi-koshi, but 10 ranks separate them – wow! That being said, right now Okinoumi is more than a match for Meisei, and we should see him continue his 6-0 dominance of the Tatsunami man.

Tamawashi vs Hokutofuji – To be honest, they both fought well this tournament, but Tamawashi maybe fought a bit better. It’s a bit sad to watch him age out of the sport, much as our dear departed Yoshikaze did. They have an even 6-6 career record, so this one is a complete toss up.

Wakatakakage vs Kotoeko – I would love to see Wakatakakage hit double digits, and if he does, I would not be surprised to see him holding a sansho trophy and grinning at the end of the day. He has a career deficit of 4-1 against Kotoeko, so he needs to really gamberize today.

Myogiryu vs Daieisho – Daieisho needs to go back and get a sumo tune up. He is quite distant from his unstoppable oshi-zumo that gave him the Hatsu yusho. The truth is, these guys get hurt in practice, and their performance suffers. Whatever has robbed him of his sumo, I hope he can make repairs and return strong in July.

Mitakeumi vs Ichinojo – Matching 9-5 records, and we get to see which man can take it to double digits. The career record favors Mitakeumi 10-4, but that is no reason to not look for Ichinojo to pay the size card. For him, its a very large card indeed.

Takayasu vs Takanosho – The Sekiwake finally battle it out, and their records are mirror images: Takayasu at 10-4 and Takanosho at 4-10. This is more than just a filler match, Takayasu may be on the verge of piecing together an Ozeki run, and the 11th win in May would actually make things a bit more practical for him in July.

Shodai vs Endo – The first of the big matches. Shodai holds a 7-3 career record against Endo, and I would love to think that he can finally unpack some of his acme sumo from that cartoon bag and use it to drop an anvil on an opponent. But who are we kidding? Shodai has been limp all May, and Endo is really genki right now.

Terunofuji vs Takakeisho – This one is likely for the rights to lift a big fish, and I expect both of them to attempt do blow the other one off the dohyo. Takakeisho with an earth shattering shove, Terunofuji dumping him over the edge like a toxic bag of week old shellfish. They have a 2-2 career record since 2020, so look for a brawl to end it all.