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Japan's Sumo having ties with Underworld?

Japan's sumo is going through its hard times from damaging scandals and declining popularity. Recently investigation suggests that the sumo wrestlers might be having ties with organised criminals(Underworld)

On Sunday, the Japan Sumo Association, the sport's governing body, announced the firing of a top wrestler and a stable master a powerful coach who controls a cluster of wrestlers for betting on professional baseball games in a gambling ring run by organized crime. Two other stable masters were demoted, and 18 other wrestlers were barred from competing in the next tournament.

This came after an apparently unrelated scandal two months ago over the sale of tickets for prized seats at the foot of the sport's raised dirt ring to around 50 members of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's largest crime syndicate. The seats allowed the gangsters, known as yakuza, to be clearly visible during television broadcasts of the bouts, a brazen display that sumo experts said was aimed at cheering up an incarcerated syndicate boss watching from prison.

Facing a public outcry, the association has warned that the sport, which claims to date back at least 1,300 years, must clean up or perish. On Sunday, a dozen hulking wrestlers, wearing traditional kimonos, bowed deeply in apology before flashing cameras.

Sumo had already been shaken in recent years by scandals over marijuana use, the fatal beating of a 17-year-old novice wrestler and media accusations of bout-rigging.

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, a professor of business at Keio University in Tokyo, who wrote a book about sumo.

The recent scandals have hurt sumo even more, driving away sponsors. The sumo association says annual income from sponsors and sales of tickets to its bimonthly tournaments dropped to about $110 million last year from about $150 million in 1999.

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.

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.

Former wrestlers and sumo observers say a similar story may be behind the gambling scandal: as legitimate sponsors dropped out and more underworld money flowed in, wrestlers and stable masters found it hard to refuse offers to join in betting rackets.

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.

Src: NYTimes

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