(AFP) – Feb 8, 2008
TOKYO (AFP) — Japanese leaders voiced outrage and demanded the sumo world shape up after a former stable master and three disciples were arrested for the violent hazing death of a teenage apprentice.
Japanese newspapers ran front-page photos of the former stable master Junichi Yamamoto, 57, who covered his face with both hands in a car as he was taken away by police late Thursday.
"I am disappointed," Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said in parliament. "We need to take it seriously that a young man with a future lost his life like this and that happened in the world of Japan's national sport."
Chief government spokesman Nobutaka Machimura said: "In my personal opinion, it's unforgivable that such a tragedy occurred in the world of sumo, of which I'm very fond."
Sumo dates back 2,000 years and is heavily ritualistic, with wrestlers expected to be humble role models.
But violent hazing has long been seen as customary during training, contributing to the sport's struggles in attracting new recruits.
While wrestlers have been detained before over beatings, the case is believed to be the first example of one being arrested over a death.
Yamamoto, who ran the stable under the name Tokitsukaze until being dismissed by the Japan Sumo Association in October, admitted he hit trainee Takashi Saito, 17, on the knee and head with a beer bottle a day before his sudden death.
He has also admitted the elder wrestlers -- aged 22, 24 and 25 -- beat up Saito with a baseball bat. The trainee had repeatedly tried to run away from the stable in central Aichi prefecture.
Saito collapsed during practice and was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead from heart failure.
Isenoumi, one of the Japan Sumo Association's managing directors, met with vice sport minister Kenshiro Matsunami and apologised for the scandal.
"I am sorry for such a disappointing development in which three active wrestlers were arrested," Isenoumi said.
Critics say the closed nature of sumo has led the sport to sweep scandals under the carpet until they come to public attention.
"I want the sumo association to be accountable and restore its honour so that it would not betray the expectations of fans," said sport minister Kisaburo Tokai.
While Saito's plight threw a spotlight on the physical abuse suffered by sumo trainees, local police were also under fire for failing to investigate.
Aichi prefectural police only probed the death after Saito's family asked for an independent autopsy, believing his death may have been due to injuries.
"The police administration can learn a lot from this," said National Public Safety Commission chairman Shinya Izumi.
Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura said that sumo needed to shape up as it is the national sport.
"I want the Japan Sumo Association to review the entire sport in a responsible manner," he said.
The apprentice's death is only one of a series of scandals to hit the ancient sport.
In 2007, top-ranked wrestler Asashoryu was slapped with an unprecedented half-year suspension after he bowed out of taking part in a non-competition provincial tour.
The Mongolian grand champion has long been rejected by Japanese traditionalists, who see him as too brash for the sport.
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