Grand champion Harumafuji to retire over assault incident
TOKYO (Reuters) – Grand champion Harumafuji has told Japan’s sumo association he intends to retire, an association spokesman said on Wednesday, after his assault of a junior wrestler tainted the image of the national sport just as it was regaining popularity.
The 33-year-old Mongolian-born “yokozuna” (grand champion) apologised earlier this month after media reported he had beaten junior wrestler Takanoiwa while drinking at a restaurant-bar with other wrestlers.
The reports added that Harumafuji had become incensed when he saw the younger wrestler checking his smartphone after being chastised for having a bad attitude.
The incident has highlighted the ancient sport’s struggle to reform harsh conditions that can breed violence in its closed, hierarchical world, although some wrestlers say there have been improvements in the decade since a trainee was beaten to death by other wrestlers.
“Sumo, recognising its responsibility as the sport with the longest history in Japan, must stamp out violence so that the expectations of the people, including youth, are not again betrayed,” Education Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi, whose ministry oversees sports, said in a parliamentary committee meeting.
A Japan Sumo Association spokesman said Harumafuji’s “oyakata” (head coach) Isegahama, who runs the gym where he trains, had informed the JSA of the wrestler’s decision on the grand champion’s behalf.
The head of an advisory body to the JSA, the Yokozuna Deliberation Council, had said this week the affair warranted “extremely harsh punishment” but did not issue a final decision because both the JSA and police were still investigating.
“There is almost no doubting that an act of violence was carried out,” Masato Kitamura, chairman of the panel, told a news conference after a council meeting on Monday.
“The general feeling within the council is that a strict disciplinary measure is required,” he added.
A former oyakata was sentenced to five years in prison in 2010 after a court found he had ordered wrestlers to beat 17-year-old trainee Takashi Saito, who had tried to run away, in 2007. Saito died from his injuries.
Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu quit the sport that same year after a probe into reports of a drunken scuffle in Tokyo.
Those incidents and increased competition from other sports eroded the popularity of sumo, in which giant wrestlers clad in loin-clothes seek to topple or push each other out of the ring.
However, January’s promotion of Japanese wrestler Kisenosato to grand champion, the first home-grown yokozuna in 19 years, helped to rebuild the sport’s fan base.
Harumafuji, one of many Mongolian wrestlers to dominate sumo in recent years, started his career in Japan at the age of 16 and was promoted to yokozuna in 2012. He has won nine grand tournaments in all.
The assault affair has grabbed headlines since the news broke earlier this month and on Wednesday was the second top news story on public broadcaster NHK, after the launch of a North Korean ballistic missile that splashed down near Japan.