Le Petit Banzuke Illustré
Hors série n°23 - september 2007
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the full french issue, with pictures,...)

Thierry Perran
translated by George Redlinger
proofread by Barbara Patten

Asashoryu, a yokozuna in depression

A media frenzy

Musashigawa oyakata and Isenoumi oyakata had no idea what they had just gotten into (source: Jiji Press)

When the NSK suspended yokozuna Asashoryu for 4 months from all competition and also put him under "house arrest" it could not have imagined the ensuing media storm, the diplomatic imbroglio, and even the pyschological thriller a la One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Only this time, there was no Jack Nicholson in the main role. It was our yokozuna Asashoryu who was the object of discussion. The most uncompromising man in professional sumo, he who inspires fear in all his opponents, he who survived the most terrible hardships, dealt very poorly with this punishment and fell into a severe depression.

One might have believed it was a bad joke, seeing how unbelievable the whole thing was, coming from someone who is mentally the strongest in a world which doesn't let the weak-willed survive... But no, Asashoryu seems to be human in the end, and the champion very likely had a nervous breakdown. He withdrew into himself, not speaking to anyone. The situation became critical, and the media affair surpassed the competence of a completely powerless Takasago oyakata. Under pressure from the press, this same Takasago oyakata, who tried desperately to push Asashoryu to apologize at a press conference, asked instead for an appraisal of the mental state of the champion.

The waltz of the psychiatrists

Doctor Yoshida facing the press (source: Jiji Press)

In order to assure itself that the yokozuna was really ill, the NSK ordered Takasago oyakata to deal with the situation while the majority of the rikishi were in the northern part of Japan for a gigantic tour of the provinces lasting one month. Realizing that he would not succeed in obtaining his press conference, he sent a number of psychiatrists to see his protégé, who was becoming more and more ill. Alone in the midst of a pack of journalists, the yokozuna stopped seeing anyone. His wife and his children were not with him and he had asked them not to come to Tokyo for fear of being harassed. The official doctor of the NSK, Mr. Honda, diagnosed an emotional disorder at the beginning of August. Those close to Asashoryu, as well as Takasago oyakata, invited other psychiatrists who confirmed the diagnosis and declared that the yokozuna must be near his family soon, signifying that he had to return to Mongolia and therefore violate his punishment. For the senior staff of the NSK, that would be a public humiliation and they asked Doctor Honda to re-examine Asashoryu. The situation became almost comic when it was learned that the doctor was on holiday and that he had announced from his vacation residence that he would not take Asashoryu as a patient in any case. During this time, Asashoryu's state continued to decline and his muscular physique was quickly degrading.

Takasago oyakata on the road

CNN also joins the party! (source: Nikkan)

Bouncing between a vegetative Asashoryu, an aggressive committee of directors of the NSK, and a demanding press, Takasago oyakata cracked as well and decided also to take a vacation. In this sea of delirium, the grandiose jungyo in Northern Japan went completely unnoticed, a damning indictment of the NSK. Asashoryu was on the cover of all the written and televised press, and even CNN sent a team to the front steps of his home. Faced with such a fiasco, Kitanoumi rijicho took things back into his control and handed the affair to Doctor Yoshida, a specialist in emotional disorders, who confirmed once again the previous diagnosis. Deciding to no longer take a risk with Asashoryu, the NSK reversed its initial sanction and authorized Asashoryu to recuperate in Mongolia. Takasago oyakata, who contributed greatly to the fiasco, was sent off to Mongolia to make sure that all the arrangements were carried out. Humiliated, he presented his apologies at a press conference.

Isenoumi and Takasago oyakata on August 28th (source: Jiji Press)

A return to diplomacy

Asashoryu at the airport on August 29th (source: Hochi)

The situation is already complicated, but it becomes dangerously so when one considers that Asashoryu is an icon in Mongolia. Some place him just after Genghis Khan in the hearts of the Mongolian people. So when it was learned that the foreign minister of Mongolia was the origin of the soccer match, the diplomats could no longer lounge in the corridors. The Japanese Ministry of Education, which has the NSK under its jurisdiction, therefore asked for a full accounting of the affair, reminding the oyakata of his obligation to the mission of education. Demonstrations also erupted in front of the Japanese embassy in Mongolia. The president of Mongolia also got involved, declaring: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do", but he tempered his words by expressing his hope that the NSK and the fans would take into consideration that Asashoryu was still just a young man of 25, far from his home.

The airport in Ulan Bator, August 29th (source: Jiji Press)

Asashoryu boarded a plane for Mongolia on August 29th under the lights of the boarding ramp. Kitanoumi rijicho was worried to see Asashoryu with his head down continuously and thought that he had lost weight. The media circus awaited Asashoryu also in Mongolia. But this time, the Mongolian government decided to take good care of its champion. Asashoryu was entrenched in his camp "Dreamland" (see our article in Le Monde du Sumo #18) and the state deployed the army and the police to form an impressive security shield. The press is unable to get access to the champion and Asashoryu is being treated by a Mongolian psychiatrist whom he visits under escort. Nobody knows if Asashoryu will be seen again on the dohyo, but it's clear that he will never be the same. His mental superiority had definitely been tarnished.