Vantage Point : Sumo Whistleblower Says He's on a 'Mission'

TOKYO: Since Keisuke Itai started a snowballing scandal over match fixing in sumo wrestling last month, Japan has spent almost as much energy speculating about his motives as examining his weekly serving of titillating revelations.

For the most part, his detractors and supporters alike believe his accusations but think he is driven by ulterior motives. Why else, they ask, would Itai expose Japan's national sport as being rotten to the core; one of his most damning charges so far is that in the 1980s a stunning 80 percent of top professional bouts were rigged, including many of the 1,000 or so he fought in more than a decade in the ring.

Depending on whom you listen to, Itai, 43, told his lurid tale to the Shukan Gendai, a weekly magazine, to raise money for his struggling restaurant, to punish the Sumo Association for denying him the opportunity to become a coach, or to avenge the suspicious death of his stable master — the last sumo insider to allege widespread match rigging.

All three explanations are plausible.

Itai concedes that his chanko-nabe restaurant, which serves the giant stews sumo wrestlers rely on to bulk up, is suffering because of Japan's recession. Although Japanese weekly magazines routinely pay for interviews, typically around $500, they would easily shell out $50,000 for a scoop such as Itai's. But a reporter at the Shukan Gendai said the magazine had paid Itai only "several hundred thousand yen" (several thousand dollars) as a courtesy, and that he had never once demanded money.

The Sumo Association, which employs and sanctions wrestlers and coaches, denied Itai's request to become a coach after he retired in 1991. In the late 1980s, another Japanese weekly, the Shukan Post, wrote that Itai effectively ran bout rigging in sumo by keeping track of what wrestlers owed each other. The Association denied the magazine's assertions — Itai now says they were true — but distanced itself from him all the same. "When I was an active wrestler I was a disgrace," Itai said.

What is more, his former coach, Onaruto, passed away mysteriously in 1996 after penning a book called Yaocho, Japanese for match fixing in sumo. Onaruto, who only used one name according to sumo tradition, and Seiichiro Hashimoto, the book's co-author, died within 12 hours of each other of the same respiratory ailment in the same hospital. Police never found any evidence of wrongdoing, but Itai said — and Japanese magazines have reported — that his old boss was entangled with a major yakuza crime syndicate. With that in mind, many sumo insiders fear he was killed by the yakuza for writing in their book that organized crime was deeply involved in sumo.

Either way, the barrel-chested former wrestler insisted in a rare interview that he made his damning allegations not because of anger or desperation but because of remorse for sullying sumo. Using the language of Christianity, Itai said he was on a "mission" from God.

"I believe in God 100 percent," said Itai, who in his late 20s joined the God Light Association, a small religious group. "I feel no hatred. It just dawned on me that perhaps it was my mission to get rid of match fixing."

To die-hard sumo fans and the Sumo Association, Itai is an unlikely apostle. Since he gave a press conference publicizing his accusations two weeks ago, he has received threatening phone calls at his home. Tokitsukaze, the head of the Sumo Association, last week wrote to him demanding he retract his allegations, and threatened him with legal action. There was also anger among the 19 active wrestlers who Itai accused by name of taking falls or buying victories in the last tournament, which ended Jan. 23. Some insisted he come up with hard evidence to substantiate his claims — or shut up.

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IN RESPONSE, Itai called a second press conference Tuesday. "I shall never apologize because what I say is the truth," he said. "I want the Sumo Association to apologize," for allowing bout rigging to continue, he added. "I want it to realize that its apology could help revive sumo's popularity.

"I'm 100 percent sure I will win," in a court battle, Itai said. "I am the evidence. In global sports, I think no other sport has as much bout rigging as sumo."

Itai's revelations have left elite segments of the Japanese media in a tight spot. Although several lowbrow newspapers, magazines and TV stations have followed the scandal closely, Japan's most influential newspapers and NHK, the state broadcaster, have shied away from it.

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