Sumo's Grand Champion Forced to Retire... For Beating Up Another Wrester

Sumo Grand Champion Harumafuji Retires
Mongolian-born sumo grand champion or 'yokozuna' Harumafuji at Meiji Shrine, Tokyo, January 6. Harumafuji has apologised after reports he'd beaten junior wrestler Takanoiwa while drinking at a restaurant-bar. BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty

Sumo grand champion Harumafuji announced he would retire on Wednesday to take responsibility for injuring a junior wrestler in an incident that has threatened to taint the image of Japan's national sport just as it was regaining popularity.

The 33-year-old Mongolian-born "yokozuna" (grand champion) had already apologised earlier this month after media reported he had beaten junior wrestler Takanoiwa while drinking at a restaurant-bar with other wrestlers.

"As 'yokozuka' I feel responsible for injuring Takanoiwa and so will retire from today," a stern-faced Harumafuji told a news conference carried live by several Japanese broadcasters in Fukuoka, southern Japan, site of the most recent tournament.

"I apologise from my heart to the people, sumo fans, the Japan Sumo Association, to supporters of my 'stable' [gym] and my 'oyakata' [coach] and his wife for causing such trouble."

Takanoiwa, 27, did not take part in the latest tournament due to his injuries, which the sumo association said included a fractured skull and concussion.

"I had heard that he was lacking in manners and civility and thought it was my duty as a senior wrestler to correct and teach him," Harumafuji said. "But I went too far," he said, adding that the incident did not occur because he had been drinking.

The incident has highlighted sumo'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.

"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.

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, who often found himself at odds with sumo authorities over his behaviour, 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 silk loin-cloths seek to topple, throw or push each other out of a raised ring.