Big Bad Boy

Japan Airlines is bankrupt; Toyota Motor Co. is imploding, Seibu Department Store is closing its prestige Ginza store; Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's approval ratings are tanking – and Grand Champion Asashoryu has quit the sumo ring in scandal. Is there nothing to lift the winter pall over Japan?

The 29-year-old Mongolian-born Grand Champion tearfully called it quits earlier this month following reports that he had allegedly beat up a man after getting drunk at a night club in the middle of the annual New Year's tournament, which he had easily won.

Asashoryu was the big bad boy of Japanese sumo wrestling. During his meteoric rise as a sumo wrestler he won 25 "Emperor's Cups", making him the third-ranking sumo champion of all time. His quick, brash style in the ring has also helped to reinvigorate the sport, which has been steadily losing spectator interest to other sports, especially soccer.

In sumo, two competitors, some of whom can weigh up to 500 pounds, glare at each other from a crouch then suddenly explode into contact in an attempt to push the other out of the ring or at least make him touch the ground with any part of the body except the soles of his feet.

Asashoryu did all those things, but it seems that the sumo giant had become too cocky for his own good, especially in a sport such as sumo that is so tradition-bound, some might say too tradition bound. Even his gestures in the ring bothered some aficionados. In victory he had the un-sumo-like tendency to pump his fist like a NFL football star scoring a touchdown.

One of his most notorious incidents came in 2007 when he complained of a back injury to get out of a charity tournament he didn't want to play in. Unfortunately for him, he was photographed playing in a impromptu soccer game back in his home town of Ulan Bator. The Japan Sumo Association (JSA) banned him from the next two tournaments.

At least Asashoryu seems to have avoided any involvement with the doping scandals that have enveloped the Japanese sumo world in recent years. The drug in question is not steroids, as one might be expect from a sport where bulging biceps are so important. No, the drug is ordinary marijuana.

The issue, which might have been brushed off in the US, caused consternation in Japan. The JSA took the issue seriously enough to expel four wrestlers, including three Russian sumo wrestlers, from the sport. It was probably the biggest drug-related scandal in Japanese sports.

Sumo wrestlers are still, to some extent, treated like adolescents. They live and train under tight discipline in communal setups known as "stables," under the watchful eyes of their stable "masters." As they gain in rankings, they may get more freedom but are also expected to behave themselves.

Asashoryu held the rank of yokozuna, or grand champion, which carries more weight -- some might say more baggage -- than simply being the best in the sport. A yokozuna is expected to comport himself with a considerable amount of dignity, such as, of course, avoiding public bar room brawls.

"Asashoryu is the first yokozuna who has behaved as if a yokozuna could do whatever they want, so long as they are strong," wrote Japanese sumo writer, Kiyoshi Nakazawa. A more charitable view holds that Asashoryu rose too quickly in his career and never imbibed the proper attitudes.

The coaches (called here stable masters) did not do enough to inculcate the more traditional values of the sport. This was especially true as he came to Japan as a teenager from Mongolia and rose to the highest rank in just four years. "We have to wonder if the sumo world was really equipped to prepare Asashoryu for his position of responsibility," opined the Asahi Shimbun.

He wasn't the first big time sumo wrestler to be accused of lacking in "dignity." In the early 1990s the Hawaiian-born wrestler, who assumed the name of Konishiki, came close to becoming a yokozuna, when questions were raised ostensibly about whether he had the right stuff.

The fact that he was enormous – his nickname was The Dump Truck – led some to say he won his matches from sheer size rather than skill. But Konishiki scotched his chances by publicly proclaiming, "If I were Japanese, I would be a yokozuna already." The sport's elders considered this a very serious breach of decorum.

In those days a foreign sumo wrestler was something of a novelty, but no more. It is estimated that some 40 percent of the approximately 700 professional sumo wrestlers in Japan today are foreign born, many of them from Mongolia, but also Russia and occasionally even from the US. At the moment every yokozuna is foreign-born.

That winds of change are blowing in the staid world of sumo was evident only a few weeks before Asashoryu's resignation when a "reform" candidate won a seat in election for the Japan Sumo Association's board of directors. In recent years the posts had been decided in advance among the several factions in sumo and ratified in uncontested elections.

The new director goes by the name of Takanohana and is himself a distinguished retired grand champion. Only 37 years old, he is far younger than most of the directors, who tend to be in their 50s and 60s. It was a sign that some voting members think that they believe that change is necessary.

Some of the new ideas being bruited to bring sumo into the modern world include raising the pay of junior wrestlers and officials, introducing sumo into primary schools to encourage more interest among young Japanese for a sport that is becoming more and more dominated by foreigners and making better efforts to inculcate sumo traditions, especially with the foreign-born wrestlers, like Asashoryu.