In sumo, the 2,000-year-old national sport of Japan, secrets appear to be as sacred as traditions. Last month former sumo wrestler Keisuke Itai (right) alleged in the popular Japanese weekly magazine Shukan Gendai that the sport is fraught with rigged matches from the highest level down. Itai, who was a well-known wrestler from 1978 to '91, claims that about 80% of top pro bouts—including his match against Hawaiian-born grand champion Akebono, which Itai says he threw for 400,000 yen (around $3,700 U.S.)—were fixed. Though Itai says the percentage of fixed A-list bouts has dropped significantly in recent years, he told a Feb. 2 meeting of the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan (FCCJ) that the sport must be cleaned up to address a decline in ticket sales.
The Japan Sumo Association, the sport's governing body, has denied Itai's allegations. To add to the association's rebuttal, chairman Katsuo Tokitsukaze has threatened legal action against Itai, who refuses to retract his statements despite having no physical evidence to support his claims. "I am the evidence," Itai has said.
Most of Japan's major newspapers, notorious for their reluctance to take a stance against the establishment, have given Itai's claims scant attention. "Since the entire sumo world is involved, we don't want to risk our relations with [the sport]," says one editor at Sankei Sports, a major daily sports tabloid. "Nobody has a problem with fixed bouts in pro wrestling, right?" said another sportswriter for the magazine Shukan Bunshun, who requested anonymity. "These issues are incessantly raised because sumo is glorified as the national sport."
Since revealing his story, Itai, who now runs a restaurant specializing in chanko-nabe, the rich stew that is the staple of wrestlers' diets, reports having received harassing phone calls at 5 a.m. He's all too aware of the fate of two whistle-blowers who alleged in 1996 that sumo was tainted with match fixing, tax evasion and links to the yakuza, Japan's version of the mob. Days before they were scheduled to make a speech to the FCCJ, the informants, Itai's former stable master Konoshin (Onaruto) Suga and another sumo insider, Seiichiro Hashimoto, died within 12 hours of each other in the same hospital, both reportedly of respiratory ailments. Doctors for the two called it a coincidence, and the police saw no foul play.
Still, with public suspicion surrounding those deaths lingering, Itai's allegations weigh heavily on some sumo officials and athletes. "This charge has to be seriously investigated," said Giichi Hirai, a member of the council that selects sumo's grand champion. "If true, there have to be measures taken to warn all the wrestlers."