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Editorial: Credibility of sumo world hangs in balance after Harumafuji assault

During a tour of regional Japan in October, yokozuna Harumafuji allegedly attacked fellow Mongolian sumo wrestler Takanoiwa with a beer bottle during a banquet. The assault left the younger man with a skull base fracture and other injuries that took two weeks to heal.

Sumo is different than other sports, in that it originates in Shinto ritual. A yokozuna's ring entrance ceremony in fact incorporates prayers for peace and a good harvest. As their role is imbued with such deep meaning, yokozunas are expected to go beyond the three traditional qualities of a good wrestler -- heart, technique, physique -- and be exemplars of good character.

Violence is unworthy of a yokozuna, the most honored rank in the sumo world. The Japan Sumo Association is set to open a meeting of its crisis-management panel to determine a response to the Harumafuji incident. The association should impose harsh penalties.

The ancient sport has repeatedly been beset by violent incidents. In June 2007, 17-year-old junior wrestler Takashi Saito (Tokitaizan in the ring) was first beaten with a beer bottle by his stablemaster before his fellow wrestlers continued the assault. Saito died of his injuries, and the stablemaster and the others involved in the beating were charged and convicted over his death.

Then in 2010, yokozuna Asashoryu retired after admitting he had attacked a man during the New Year's Grand Sumo Tournament that January.

Following these incidents, the sumo association launched a training course for wrestlers on observing the rules of society. Why did this not prevent a recurrence? The sumo association must investigate this failure and thoroughly rededicate itself to changing the thinking in the sport.

An illicit baseball betting scandal also broke in 2010 and a match-fixing scheme surfaced the following year, draining the sport of its vitality as fans turned away from the ancient spectacle of the sumo ring.

Sumo is popular once more. Banners proclaiming "thanks to fans for a full house" have been on display for every grand tournament day so far this year, and will apparently stay up through the end of the current Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament. That would make 90 straight days of sellouts, the longest such string since 1996.

Once-distant sumo rikishi have in recent years used Twitter and other account-based social media to build a more personal rapport with fans.

Meanwhile, the sport was given a jolt of life and energy this year when Kisenosato became the first Japan-born wrestler to become a yokozuna in 19 years, and again when longtime yokozuna Hakuho set a sumo record with his 1,048th career win.

All this effort expended by so many to recover sumo's popularity has been rendered moot by Harumafuji's behavior.

There are also questions concerning the sumo association's response. Just after the attack in late October, the Takanohana stable, to which Takanoiwa belongs, apparently reported the incident to police. However, the association said nothing publicly about the incident until news of the assault broke on Nov. 14. So when did the association actually learn of it? The organization is duty-bound to provide a thorough explanation.

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