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The Grand Sumo Tournament Scandal:
Will Contestant Athlete Self-Governance Remain?

Yasuaki Muto
Professor, Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University

Old Veterans to Reform the World of Sumo

Ignited by the recent scandal, reform of the Japan Sumo Association (hereafter referred to as the association) will be implemented by someone from outside the association. An acting chairman has already been appointed, and it is thought that the board is largely made up of old veterans whose abilities to manage have been suspended.

The association has a management style in which contestants govern themselves. That is to say that, as wrestlers who have attained a high level of success become seasoned veterans, they become councilors of the association, with the chairman selected from among them. By way of comparison, baseball players who excel in their profession become coaches but not management executives of baseball teams. In soccer, ex-players often become soccer association or J-League executives, in what is clearly administration by athletes.

However, once these players have retired, they belong to businesses that have no relation to soccer, gaining experience as general members of society, before getting involved with their sport's organizations. By contrast, the old veterans who manage the grand sumo tournaments only have experience in the world of sumo, and in this sense, it could be called 100% athlete-governed.

I can't help but wonder whether management is possible by people who have lived only in the world of sumo. It seems natural to think the current scandal is a consequence of this kind of management system and that this system is the reason why people from outside have been appointed to make reforms.

At the same time, however, it is probably a bit early to target management by an outsider with no sumo experience. Cutting to the chase, it is perhaps not so much that we should not put an end to the athlete-governed system, but rather that we cannot. It is thought that this is because it is difficult, at least in the short term, to envisage independent management taking the place of the existing system. Moreover, even if management of the association through a special manager could be achieved, it would be even more difficult to impose the same system in the sumo stables. The association should consider developing and implementing reforms by a seasoned veteran.

The Association has the Ability to Manage Itself

For the record, it is not that the association has always provided poor management in the past. While there has been no shortage of scandals, they have been extremely stable financially. This is because stable income has been achieved through the fact that the wrestler payroll system avoids steep rises in labor costs in tandem with a lack of dependence on sponsorship, accepting of foreign-born wrestlers, bringing college-graduate wrestlers with a good record into the Makushita, and the revival of sell-out tours of the country where performance rights are sold to the area sponsors. While performance revenue is pocketed by the sponsors, by selling the performance rights, the association can gain a fixed income without incurring any risks, showing a rather astute ability to adapt to the economic climate. We shouldn't think that Sumo has been protected by virtue of its status as the national sport—allowing it to somehow soldier on.

What Measures are Necessary

Concerns expressed about the ability to manage fail to take into account the association's track record. Clearly, the issue is all about the big scandal, and it is the feeling that this reflects the essence of the world of sumo rather than its association that makes people worry about the future.

The first measures we should take are to prohibit any contact with antisocial elements, to educate all persons concerned from the old veterans to the members of the sumo stables and to hand out severe punishment against violations.

That said, it is hard to envisage this being enough to completely sever relations with these antisocial elements. If pressed for some measures off the top of my head I would first suggest that the association reaffirm the customer's scruples. This would include people who provide renovations, repairs, and security; tea rooms and their customers; and promoters of provincial tours, with probably a need for clear regulations regarding sustaining members too. Secondly, it is most important that rather than merely severing ties between these antisocial elements and the sumo stables we remove all opportunities for such relationships to develop. Unregulated receipt of monies by members (old veterans included) from people outside the profession should be prohibited, and if money is to be received, this should be done as an organization and recorded as revenue, with tax paid accordingly. If the stables mention how this is beyond their administrative capabilities, the association could dispatch a licensed tax accountant.Ideally, sumo stables should be incorporated with an accounting advisor present.

Dwindling numbers of newcomers is the greatest problem

This might be considered a bit harsh and inappropriate in view of the customs, traditions and culture of the sumo world, but neither traditions nor culture can be protected without a certain amount of thoroughness. This is because of the great crisis brought about by this scandal where the numbers of newcomers may dry up. With the present scenario, guardians, high school or university teachers and foreigners alike will naturally have misgivings about sending children or pupils into the sumo world. Unless this is wiped away numbers of beginners will decrease sharply.

Reform through self-cleansing and the responsibility to explain

From now on, it is most likely that management will become more transparent, with a concentration of newcomers entering stables which clearly demonstrate a complete absence of connection with antisocial elements as the sumo world tries to cleanse itself, and having done so, each stable will move toward competing with transparent and sound management. I hope to see such acts of self-cleansing which are necessary conditions for self-autonomy. However, there is a fatal problem with this method. If the seasoned veteran does not know how to ensure transparency, even if the stables are managed properly, this new situation not be transmitted outside. In order to conquer this problem, it is thought that there is a need for the association to check the soundness and transparency of stable management and prepare and employ standards (rules) and means (tools) for diplomatic explanations.

Yasuaki Muto
Professor, Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University


Born in 1955, he received his master's degree from the University of Tokyo. Having been chief researcher at the Mitsubishi Research Institute, he is currently a lecturer at Waseda University's Faculty of Sport Sciences. At the same time, he also serves as head of the management advisory committee for the Japan Professional Football League (J. League). He specializes in management and sports management.

Literary works (sole author)

Techniques of Future Prediction (Published by PHP Institute, 2009)
The True State of Holdings Management (2nd edition, published by Nikkei Inc., 2007)
Latest Ideas on Management (Published by PHP Editors Group, 2007)
What is Fund Capitalism? (Published by Toyo Keizai, Inc., 2005)
Sports Finance (Published by Taishukan Shoten, 2008)
The Management of Professional Sports Clubs (Published by Toyo Keizai, Inc., 2006)
and many others.