Sumo grand champion Harumafuji felled by assault allegations
One of the biggest stars of sumo wrestling has announced his retirement after allegations that he assaulted a fellow wrestler.
Harumafuji, one of four reigning grand champions – or yokozuna – said he was quitting the sport, weeks after he allegedly attacked Takanoiwa, a younger wrestler, leaving him with a fractured skull and concussion.
“As a yokozuna, I feel responsible for injuring Takanoiwa and so will retire from today,” Harumafuji told a news conference broadcast live on TV on Wednesday.
“I apologise from my heart to the people, sumo fans, the Japan sumo association, to supporters of my stable and my coach and his wife for causing such trouble.”
The Mongolian wrestler’s exit from sumo at the pinnacle of his career comes as the sport was beginning to regain its popular appeal after a slew of bad publicity.
The episode has prompted criticism of sumo authorities for failing to rid the sport of violence, a decade after a teenage trainee collapsed and died after being beaten by fellow wrestlers for threatening to abscond from his stable.
Japan’s education minister, Yoshimasa Hayasahi, said sumo, as Japan’s oldest sport, needed to take its responsibilities more seriously. It needed to stamp out violence and “never again betray its fans, particularly young people,” he said.
Violence aside, sumo has been rocked by evidence of match-fixing and illegal betting in recent years.
In 2010 another Mongolia-born grand champion, Asashoryu, was
forced to retire weeks after he allegedly assaulted a man outside a nightclub in Tokyo.
Harumafuji’s stable master, Isegahama, said the 33-year-old wrestler had “caused great trouble” to the sumo association and the watching public, adding that as a yokozuna he had to take responsibility for his actions.
He allegedly assaulted Takanoiwa, a lower-ranked wrestler from another stable, during an evening out at a restaurant in late October.
Initial reports alleged Harumafuji was armed with a beer bottle but several witnesses have since claimed that he repeatedly punched his victim, a fellow Mongolian, and struck him with the remote controller for a karaoke machine.
He had reportedly turned on Takanoiwa because he continued to look at his smartphone while he was being reprimanded for his poor attitude.
“I had heard that he was lacking in manners and civility and thought it was my duty as a senior wrestler to correct and teach him,” Harumafuji said. “But I went too far.”
He denied that he had been drinking excessively before the assault. “I have never been told I have a drinking problem,” he said. “This did not happen because I had drunk alcohol.”
The injured Takanoiwa did not take part in a recent 15-day tournament in south-west Japan, while Harumafuji withdrew on the third day after media first reported the assault allegations.
Police have questioned Harumafuji, who could be charged over the allegations, according to Kyodo news.
“Tremendous damage has been caused to sumo,” said Masato Kitamura, chairman of the body that rules on promotions to the sport’s highest rank, adding that the incident had “let fans down”.
Japanese media were unanimous in condemning Harumafuji and sumo authorities, and warned that fans could lose interest in the sport.
Harumafuji has decided to retire from sumo after allegations that he assaulted a lower-ranked wrestler and tarnished the image of Japan’s national sport. Photograph: Naohiko Hatta/AP
Yokozuna Harumafuji performs the new year’s ring-entering rite at the annual celebration at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. Photograph: Issei Kato/Reuters