SUMO/ Some banned wrestlers branch out, others want back in

March 19, 2012

It’s been a year since 25 active and former sumo wrestlers were banned from the sport indefinitely for their suspected involvement in bout-rigging. Those former wrestlers have spent the past 12 months in very different ways. Some have turned to professional martial arts while others have become white-collar workers. A few work at their parents’ eateries, while some foreign wrestlers have returned to their home countries. We talked to two wrestlers dealing with their bans in different ways.

Ousted juryo wrestler Kiyoseumi, 27, whose real name is Takayuki Ichihara, opened his own little bar. Snack Ai is located on the second floor of an office building about five minutes’ walk from JR Kinshicho Station in Tokyo.

Ichihara, who weighed almost 180 kilograms during his prime, runs this small 15-seat bar by himself. He opened it in November 2011, financing it with the 2 million to 3 million yen ($23,900 to $35,960) he had saved as a sumo wrestler. He is hoping to attract sumo fans by “providing a space for sumo fans to exchange information.”

One reason he switched to the service industry is because being a rikishi involved pleasing clients--or supporters, in the case of wrestlers--and he liked the interaction. Wrestlers would often be treated to lavish meals by supporters. In return, they would please the supporters by lifting them up or playing the role of a respectful, powerful rikishi.

“Sumo wrestlers are like male versions of geisha,” Ichihara says. “I enjoyed entertaining my supporters.”

Ichihara came up with the idea of opening a bar a year ago during the bout-rigging scandal, fully aware of the risks involved in starting a business.

“I wanted to be a man who could send his parents on a vacation as a present,” he says.

His parents, who run a business leasing electronic appliances in Aichi Prefecture, taught him the bookkeeping skills that he needed for his new business. Ichihara still dreams of sending his parents on that dream vacation.

Ousted makuuchi wrestler Sokokurai, 28, whose real name is Enhetubuxin, is originally from China. His name was not on the list of suspects that the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department submitted to the Japan Sumo Association via the sports ministry. But the JSA still urged him to retire based on witness testimony of wrestlers who admitted to bout-rigging. When he refused to voluntarily retire, Enhetubuxin was fired. He is now in court seeking to reclaim his status as a professional sumo wrestler.

During a March 1 oral argument, a former wrestler who testified for the JSA said he “brokered Sokokurai’s match-rigging more than five times.” But Enhetubuxin vehemently denied those charges.

“That’s nonsense,” he told the judges. “I have never spoken to him.”

Many stablemasters say Enhetubuxin has virtually no chance of being allowed back into sumo. Still, he isn’t giving up. With the help of his former supporters, he has resumed full-scale training this month in hopes of making a comeback.

“This has been the longest year of my life,” Enhetubuxin says. “I want this court battle to end soon and return to the sumo ring.”

The former wrestler now works on a chicken farm in Fukuoka.

“I try to forget about sumo but I can’t. Can you just let me live in peace?” he says, when asked about the bout-rigging scandal.

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Bar owner Takayuki Ichihara, former sumo wrestler Kiyoseumi, pours a drink. (The Asahi Shimbun)

Bar owner Takayuki Ichihara, former sumo wrestler Kiyoseumi, pours a drink. (The Asahi Shimbun)

  • Bar owner Takayuki Ichihara, former sumo wrestler Kiyoseumi, pours a drink. (The Asahi Shimbun)

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