Probably because they’re big and soft and have silly hair, we usually think of sumo wrestlers as gentle giants. But the wrestlers and their sport have been embroiled in scandals in recent months, so much so that next month’s grand tournament may be cancelled. And, to make matters worse, not only do the scandals involve gambling and possible mob ties, there’s a hairdresser known for his topknots in the middle of it as well.
Sixty-five of the sport’s 700 active wrestlers have admitted to illegally betting on baseball and other sports and games, according to a Japan Sumo Association spokesman. And some of the betting may have been through yakuza, the tattooed Japanese mafia that make the Italian mafia seem cuddly. To top it all off — and make us want to get cracking on a sumo-world screenplay — a 29-year-old hairdresser named Tokoike who styles the wrestlers’ sexy topknots, is allegedly the gambling operation middleman.
In recent years, Japan’s traditionally deified sumo wrestlers have been showing themselves to be mere mortals. In February, Asashoryu, a former Mongolian grand champion, retired after a drunken street fight in Tokyo. Numerous wrestlers have been arrested for smoking pot (shocker, with those physiques) and one trainee died in 2008 as the result of a hazing incident.
The scandals threaten Japan’s national sport at a time when its popularity is on the decline as soccer and baseball gain in popularity. Increasingly, the sport’s top athletes aren’t Japanese but rather Eastern Europeans and Mongolians. No word yet if Tiger Woods will be consulting with sumo image officials.