Le Monde du Sumo
N°23 - august 2007
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Thierry Perran
translated by George Redlinger
proofread by Susan Lyon

The yokozuna Asashoryu suspended for two tournaments

A yokozuna taken by the sumo police

Kitanoumi rijicho on August 1st (source: Jiji)

Well, here we are again. Asashoryu has achieved another first as a yokozuna. Following an extraordinary meeting of the administration on August 1st, 2007, Kitanoumi rijicho announced to the press that the yokozuna Asashoryu would be suspended for the next two tournaments, and that during those four months he would be confined to his home (with exceptions for the hospital, the heya and a few meetings in exceptional cases, after approval) with a reduction in salary of 30%. His master, Takasago oyakata, also saw his salary reduced by 30% during this period. This umpteenth gaffe by Asashoryu will prevent him from getting on the dohyo before 2008, if he ever returns...

On July 22nd, in Nagoya, Asashoryu put everything he had into pulling off his 21st yusho, despite a first-day loss. The yusho was yet another impressive feat, since the yokozuna achieved it while suffering a stress fracture of the vertebrae. Doctors directed him to rest for the following 6 weeks. But as chance would have it, the NSK had organized a grand tour of the provinces in the northern part of Japan from August 3rd to 20th, with "mere" 17 stops, travelling by bus or by train. With his back in a sorry state, Asashoryu decided to bow out, something to which the NSK eventually agreed, to the great detriment of the local event promoters.

So it was as a convalescent that the yokozuna left for Mongolia after the Nagoya tournament. But the return of the hero to his country of birth always makes a sensation there, and his status as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF didn't help. In fact, UNICEF organized a soccer match for July 25 between teenagers from Japan and Mongolia at the national stadium, and the Mongolian government, as well as the Japanese foreign ministry, solicited his participation in the event. Asashoryu stressed himself out hoping not to offend anyone, and jumped into the soccer match in a red T-shirt in the style of the English wonder Wayne Rooney.

Asashoryu ready for a football game (source: NNN)

The problem for Asashoryu was that there were other celebrities participating in this match, among whom was the soccer player Hidetoshi Nakata, former member of the team AS Rome. The event was therefore followed by Japanese television, and the images of Asashoryu, all smiles, playing soccer and even skillfully scoring a goal, had a disastrous effect on the senior ranks of the NSK as well as on the Japanese public. For everyone else, it looked like the yokozuna was faking an injury. The NSK, which had excused him from the big jungyo, was humiliated in public and its authority, already repeatedly flouted by the Mongolian rebel, was trampled. The reaction of the NSK could be nothing but forceful. The yokozuna returned to Japan in a hurry, presenting his apologies and a medical certificate on the stress fracture of his vertebrae, but the cat was out of the bag.

Asashoryu at Narita airport (source: Jiji)

Had it not been for the solicitation from the Mongolian government and the Japanese foreign ministry, Asashoryu could have been forced to retire for such dealings outside the dohyo, just as was the case for the yokozuna Maedayama, who was caught at a baseball game in the middle of a basho when he was supposed to be at home with an injury. But let's come back to the history of the tension between Asashoryu and the NSK, which partly explains the severity of the punishment given to the yokozuna.

An attitude far from irreproachable

It was not easy for a 23-year old young man to rise to the highest rank, and therefore become the center of attention, of the national sport of Japan. Since his promotion to the rank of yokozuna in 2003, the fiery Mongolian Asashoryu never received universal acclaim, due to the lapses in his conduct on and off the dohyo.

Asashoryu pointing at a trace on the dohyo (source: NHK)

On the dohyo, one unfortunately remembers his poor attitude towards Kyokushuzan, going so far as to get himself disqualified for pulling Kyokushuzan's hair, a first for a yokozuna. Furthermore, his visceral hatred of losing pushed him towards behavior inappropriate for his high ranking, such as his refusal to bow to the victor, and his reluctance to accept controversial decisions, going as far as pointing to tracks near the tawara, or provoking the judges with a stare to call for a mono-ii. Lastly, his stubbornness in going against the protocol and taking his kensho (prize money) with his left hand ended up agitating a good number of people.

Outside the dohyo, the lapses in his conduct were even worse. In 2003, his infamous first year as yokozuna, he destroyed the rear-view mirror of Kyokushuzan's car following a defeat, not to mention the time he returned to Japan from Mongolia with his hair in a ponytail. Just before his marriage, after a night out of heavy drinking, he made a noisy return to his heya, breaking down the door at the entrance. But for the NSK, the biggest problem remained the frequent trips to Mongolia, often taken without the knowledge of his shisho, Takasago oyakata (who was already very busy directing one of the largest heyas in addition to his functions at the heart of the board of directors of the NSK, notably the delicate responsibility of public relations.)

Takasago oyakata on August 1st (source: Hochi)

The poor relationship between Takasago oyakata and the yokozuna was without a doubt one of the sources of these recurring problems, and it was for this reason that Takasago oyakata was himself punished. On several occasions he had been put in embarassing situations, thinking that Asashoryu was at home in Tokyo when in fact he was not in Japan. The death of the former Takasago oyakata had surprised Asashoryu in Mongolia, creating its own set of scandals at the time.

An uncertain future

It is more than likely that Takasago oyakata would retake the reins over Asashoryu during this confinement to his home, if Asashoryu were to continue his career. This forced rest would permit him to heal completely from his injuries, even if it could cost him around 30 million yen between the loss of his salary, the kensho not collected, and the missed yusho. On the evening of August 1st, Asashoryu made a statement of peace, saying that he loved Japan, the Japanese, and sumo and that he would persevere to be in full form for his return in January 2008.

The cat won't be around for a while, so it's the chance for the mice to dance. Let's bet that they will take advantage of this exceptional window of opportunity.