MARTIN FACKLER “Sumo’s Ties to Japan Underworld Go Beyond Limits” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/06/world/asia/06sumo.html
Sumo experts and former wrestlers say the sport was driven into the arms of organized crime by cash problems caused by a decline in attendance and corporate sponsorship. In short, critics say, sumo has proved to be yet another Japanese institution that is unwilling or unable to adapt to the changes brought by the nation’s economic decline.
“Sumo is one of those stubborn holdouts of Japan’s old-fashioned, closed ways,” said Takanobu Nakajima*2, a professor of business at Keio University in Tokyo, who wrote a book about sumo.
Indeed, he and others say that the sport has clung to its old ways to an extent surprising even in change-averse Japan. They say this has been most evident in sumo’s inability to reverse its declining popularity, particularly among youths drawn to other entertainment, like soccer and online games.
Sumo experts say that the sport, like Japan’s overall economy, became bloated during the economic heyday of the 1980s, and then failed to adapt to leaner times by downsizing. The number of stables — the semifeudal camps where wrestlers live and train — is now 51, twice as many as in 1970. Yet the number of wrestlers has declined in the last two decades to fewer than 700 from 1,000.
That has left several stables with as few as a half dozen wrestlers, none of whom occupy the higher ranks likely to attract sponsors. These smaller stables struggle to pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to feed, house and pay for the travel of their wrestlers. But they have refused the obvious solution of consolidating into a smaller number of larger stables, the experts say.
Combine sumo’s financial problems with its lack of transparency — stables are legally treated as the personal property of their stable masters and are subjected to minimal oversight by the ministry of sports and education — and the result was an environment that made the sport all too vulnerable to the underworld, the experts say.
This was evident in the May ticket scandal. While corporations once bought the best seats at sumo tournaments, cutbacks have left gangsters as one of the few groups still willing to pay for tickets that cost more than $300 each, according to the experts.
For some in the sumo world, one of the more disturbing aspects of the scandals is the ruthlessness displayed by the yakuza in preying on sumo’s weaknesses. Until recently, the experts say, sumo enjoyed cordial relations with organized crime, which was traditionally tolerated in Japan as a way of imposing order on criminal activities, helping to keep the streets safe.
Takakoshi Matsumoto, 54, a retired wrestler, said it had not been uncommon for him and other wrestlers to be wined and dined by supporters who appeared to be yakuza, though they were polite and never made threats. That is why, he said, he was particularly stunned by the recent scandal in which a former wrestler turned gangster was arrested last month on charges of extorting almost $40,000 in hush money from Keiji Tamiya, a top wrestler whose gambling activities he had threatened to expose to news media.
“The crime syndicates must be feeling the recession, too,” said Mr. Matsumoto, who now operates restaurants.