Crucial Tape to Be Unveiled This Week : Ex-Sumo Star Claims Proof of Bout-Rigging

TOKYO: Keisuke Itai, a former sumo wrestler, says he will come out of hiding this week to unveil proof that the sport's governing body knew about bout fixing.

The weekly magazine Shukan Gendai had been running a series of exclusive interviews with Itai, a 43-year-old former wrestler, in which he said sumo was plagued with bout-rigging.

Itai said that for five years until his retirement in 1991 he had overseen much of the match-fixing, explaining his nickname of "Bookmaker."

In the magazine last week, Itai said there was a "smoking gun" tape he recorded in 1989 at a secret meeting of the Sumo Association, the sport's governing body. Itai said the tape, which the magazine authenticated and the Sumo Association has not disputed, proved that the sport's top officials were aware of bout-rigging but had done nothing to stop it — a charge that officials deny.

Even before the latest revelations, the Sumo Association threatened Itai with a lawsuit for defamation. Now, Itai says he fears for his life.

Itai said two friends, both sumo insiders, had told him that someone had offered the Kominto, a powerful rightist group, 300 million yen ($2.7 million) to "get you." The same group was reportedly after Onaruto — Itai's former coach and the last sumo insider to allege widespread match-rigging — when he died mysteriously in 1996. Onaruto died a month before his own exposé was published, but police reported no evidence of foul play.

Itai also said that a reporter from Shukan Gendai had heard that the Kodokai, a vicious organized-crime gang, had been offered 50 million yen to silence Itai.

Itai said he had no way of confirming the threats. All the same, he went into hiding Monday, reportedly fleeing with only a change of clothes, a copy of his "smoking gun" tape and some of his favorite jazz recordings.

But "Bookmaker" was still prepared to take a gamble. On Friday, he came back to Tokyo to prepare for what he hopes will be a crushing blow: the distribution of copies of his secret tape at a news conference this week.

On Saturday, in his room at a grimy hotel close to the Sumo Association's headquarters, Itai handed a copy of the tape to the International Herald Tribune.

On the tape, which runs for 17 minutes, several top Sumo Association officials, identified by Itai and Shukan Gendai, address roughly 100 wrestlers and coaches at a meeting. At one point, Shinichi Morishima, a top official, warns the audience that "rigged sumo," which he also described as "spiritless, lazy sumo," could be the downfall of the sport.

"When wrestlers participate in sumo wrestling that is spiritless, the essence of sumo is lost," he says. "If wrestlers can maintain their position or the Sumo Association lets this take place, we will get used to it, and it will spread. In other words, sumo will cease to be what it is and become a show."

The tape makes it clear that sumo authorities knew of bout-rigging but did not back up a warning with any action.

Itai said he had made the tape after the Shukan Post, another Japanese weekly, alleged that match-fixing in sumo was widespread. Itai recorded the proceedings on a Walkman that he said he carried for listening to jazz.

"I recorded it without giving it much thought," he said. "I didn't realize how explosive the tape was until after I retired."

Shukan Gendai said it had told Tokitsukaze, the head of the Sumo Association, about the tape before publishing Itai's story and that Tokitsukaze had said the meeting was not about match-fixing but merely about allegations at the time. He characterized Itai's interpretation of the gathering as misleading.

Many Japanese say they suspect Itai is publicizing his allegations for ulterior motives. Itai, a member of the God Light Association, a small religious group, has said he is on a mission to cleanse Japan's national sport of bout-fixing. That, he says, is the only way to halt the sport's slide in popularity.

Itai said he found it difficult to foresee the outcome of the events he had set in motion. He said he expected little official help, as Japan has no witness-protection program to shield him from purported assassins. In any case, the only possible breach of the law in this case is a failure by wrestlers to declare bribe income to the tax authorities.

Probably only one thing is certain: that the sumo world will ostracize Itai for triggering one of the most wide-ranging scandals in its 400-year history.

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