The shock retirement of sumo’s bad-boy grand champion on Thursday capped a week of tumult for the ancient but troubled sport that began with the surprise election of a reformist former wrestler to its highly conservative governing board.
Newspapers rushed out special afternoon editions announcing the departure of yokozuna champion Asashoryu following reports of a drunken assault outside a nightclub – the latest of many public relations disasters for a sport with a mythical past and semi-religious pretensions.
The bulky but strikingly muscular Asashoryu declined to discuss the incident that forced the sudden end of his colourful career, but apologised for “causing trouble”.
When asked about his best memories in the straw-and-sand dohyo ring, Asashoryu – his real name is Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj but like all wrestlers he has a single sumo moniker – blinked back tears as he talked of an early bout in which he toppled the then yokozuna Musashimaru while his parents watched. “I was proud of that,” he said.
Yet less lustrous moments of Asashoryu’s time as champion have been seen by many in Japan as symptoms of trouble in the world of sumo, which prides itself on reverence for tradition – wrestlers ritually purify the ring with salt before each bout – but whose stars sometimes fail to embody the required warrior dignity and rectitude.
In recent years, sumo has been plagued by scandals including the death during a hazing of a young wrestler, alleged bout-rigging, and episodes of dope-smoking.
Concerns about creeping dominance of the sport by foreigners supposedly out of tune with Japanese values had been fuelled by the Mongolian Asashoryu’s alleged misconduct outside the ring and his violations of etiquette within.
State broadcaster NHK on Thursday highlighted such offences as when he pointed at the sand outside the ring “as if in criticism of the referees” and when he “raised clenched fists after a victory”.
And while Asashoryu’s resignation may mollify critics who say sumo is suffering moral decline, it deprives the sport of its most striking personality and finest talent at a time when it is suffering from falling attendances. His record of 25 championship wins has been exceeded by only two wrestlers and his rivalry with yokozuna Hakuho – an even bigger but much quieter fellow Mongolian – had enlivened audiences.
Still, the drama of the champion’s departure is likely to have less long-term significance than the surprise electoral triumph of one of his most famous yokozuna predecessors, the former wrestler Takanohana.
A scion of one of sumo’s most celebrated dynasties, Takanohana – whose real name is Koji Hanada – had cast aside traditions of respect for seniority and of consensual leadership by forcing a contested election for the Japan Sumo Association’s 10-member governing board.
The 37-year-old’s surprise election on Monday – achieved at the expense of an entrenched incumbent – was seen by many as the opportunity for sumo to finally adapt to the challenges of the 21st century.
“It should be lauded as a major step forward that Takanohana and others changed the status quo of the rigidly controlled organisation through the election,” the Mainichi newspaper declared. “It is an urgent task to reform a sumo association plagued by numerous problems.”
Veteran sumo commentator Doreen Simmons says that in spite of the impression of stasis, JSA elders have in fact been seeking with some success to reform the sport – although she describes many of their attempts as too tardy cases of “dorobo o mite, newa o nao” or “starting to make a rope after spotting the robber”.
And Ms Simmons is sceptical about the turbulent Takanohana’s prospects for pushing reform: “He was a big star – but he has also got a reputation for being really quarrelsome. He fought with this father, his mother and his brother.”
Still, many Japanese hope for change that will modernise the sport while maintaining its best traditions.
“It’s good that Takanohana has got in. His thinking is more in tune with that of today’s young people,” says Yoshio Hatano, head of a small technology company in the western city of Osaka. “For good or for bad, he’s a person who will break with the old ways – and I think that’s probably for the best.”