Dirty diapers: How the sumo scandal is a casualty of the National Police Agency war on the yakuza

Sumo, yakuza, and gambling–What started as a scoop by weekly magazine Shukan Shincho revealing a somewhat imaginable connection between the three has blown up into a huge scandal that has lost several wrestlers their jobs and cost the sport sponsorship, TV slots and, worst of all, face. Foreign media have given the issue more than ample coverage while Twitter has been full of cynical and firey commentary ranging from why a yakuza hand in the sumo world even comes as a surprise to why sumo wrestlers aren’t allowed to bet on baseball.

Jake has much to say on the subject, of course, and has offered his underworld knowledge to various media as they rush to cover what is looking to be a major turning point in Japan’s largest traditional sport.

From AFP:

Experts point to a shortage of money that has made sumo wrestlers and stables vulnerable to organized crime. Sumo’s popularity is falling as baseball and football have become the country’s most popular sports.

“The yakuza have always been huge supporters of sumo, financially and in other capacities,” said Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice and a specialist on organised crime in Japan.

“Many sumo wrestlers have yakuza ‘patrons’ who give them money under the table to supplement the sumo wrester’s meagre income and reward them for their victories or encourage them to train harder.”

Read Japan’s sumo bodyslammed by scandal.

And The Observer:

Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice and an authority on organised crime in Japan, said the scandal was connected with a fresh crackdown on a notoriously violent faction within the Yamaguchi-gumi that also had strong ties to the sumo world. “The media haven’t suddenly decided to expose the relationship between sumo and the yakuza,” Adelstein said. “The details were leaked to them by the police.

“Failed sumo wrestlers often end up as yakuza enforcers. The sumo world and the yakuza world have long been intertwined. Some ex-sumo wrestlers have even become yakuza bosses.”

Read Sumo threatened by scandal and crime.

Jake expounds on the topic:

The current scandals involving Japan’s organized crime groups, the yakuza, and the Sumo Association, and the sport of sumo itself shouldn’t be seen as an aberration in Japanese society or something that has never existed before–that would be missing the point. It simply is one battle in a war between Japan’s National Police Agency and Japan’s most powerful criminal organization, the Yamaguchi-gumi, that began in September of 2009. The damage inflicted on the image of sumo as Japan’s national sport and the careers of many wrestlers–they simply are casualties of war. And in the case of the Sumo Association, some of those wounds are also decidedly self-inflicted.

The story really began at last year’s Nagoya tournament when member of the Yamaguchi-gumi Kodokai were given front-row seats at the match and appeared in the NHK television broadcasts. This allegedly was to express solidarity with their jailed boss, Tsukasa Shinobu, who is serving time on fire-arm charges. (In prison, yakuza are allowed to watch sumo matches but not other sports events, and especially not boxing.) The expressed reasons for the yakuza presence may be true but in reality, yakuza often get the best seats at sumo matches and sports events, particularly at sumo matches. This is because they are often a source of revenue for the smaller sumo stables and yakuza and sumo ties have always been strong. In any event, the Kodo-kai members parading in front of the television cameras did not go unnoticed by the authorities. However, the Aichi Prefectural Police were aware of the special seating arrangements for Kodo-kai members since 2006 according to police sources; it simply wasn’t an issue for them.

In September of 2009, Ando Tokuharu, the head of Japan’s National Police Agency (NPA) declared war on the Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai (4,000 members), the ruling faction of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest syndicate (36,000 members) and directed all police departments in Japan to devote their energies to arresting Kodo-kai members, crippling their businesses and front companies, destroying their revenue sources, removing their spheres of influence, and inflicting as much damage to the group as possible, by any means possible. The declaration partly has to deal with the Kodo-kai’s attempts to intimidate police officers and their refusal to honor the unwritten agreements of cooperation between law enforcement and organized crime that have existed for decades. From October of 2009, discussions began at the NPA level on how to expose the Kodo-kai and sumo world ties in a way that would do the maximum damage to the Kodo-kai’s reputation. The police have always known that sumo and the yakuza were connected. Now for the first time they were ready to make an issue of it.

In January of 2010, the Sumo Association agreed to ban yakuza from attending matches after immense pressure from the NPA, and they publicly proclaimed that they would do so. This helped set the stage for what was to come later. In May of 201o, the police leaked to the media that at the 2009 Nagoya Tournament a total of 55 Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai members had been in front row or prime seats at the event. NHK, Japan’s version of the BBC, which televises the tournaments, “scooped” the story on May 25th of this year. (There are plausible rumors amongst other reporters that NHK was spoon-fed the story by the NPA, which also knew that NHK would have the footage, because of course, NHK were the same people who originally aired the matches). This forced the Sumo Association to conduct an internal investigation and more or less banish the Sumo Association executives who had arranged for the yakuza to receive the special reserved premium spots. Even though the Nagoya tournament incident predated the Sumo Association pledge to forbid yakuza from attending matches, in the public eye, it made the Sumo Association look hypocritical and it also tarnished the image of the Kodo-kai as well. In addition, the police leak of this information created dissent and chaos within the Sumo Association–a situation advantageous to the police who planned to play sides against each other in an attempt to expose the baseball gambling and yakuza connections.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department Organized Crime Control Bureau has been peripherally aware of Yamaguchi-gumi ties to the sumo world since the investigation of Suruga Corporation in late 2007-March 2008. Suruga Corporation, once listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, employed a Yamaguchi-gumi front company to consolidate real estate projects by scaring away tenants in areas ripe for real estate development. They also sold condominiums in Mongolia to Japanese businessmen and Asashoryu and other Mongolian sumo wrestlers functioned as salesmen/brokers in the operations. At Suruga Corporation sponsored parties to sell the condominiums, sumo wrestlers and yakuza fraternized with businessmen representing major Japanese corporations investing in Mongolia. In that investigation, other ties to the Yamaguchi-gumi and the sumo world were also noted. It should be noted that while the yakuza working for Suruga were arrested for violations of the lawyer laws, no one from Suruga Corporation was arrested or prosecuted for hiring them. This may have been because on the board of directors was a former NPA bureaucrat from the Organized Crime Control Bureau and a retired prosecutor. It may simply be that under current Japanese law asking an organized crime front company to settle land disputes itself is not necessarily a crime.

This year, the Mongolian born sumo wrestler Asashoryu assaulted a civilian and paid damages to keep it quiet, but the story was leaked to the media nevertheless. The resulting scandal forced him to retire. The “victim” in this case reportedly repeatedly provoked and poked and prodded Asashoryu until the point where Asashoryu lost his temper and punched him. The “victim” also allegedly had ties to the Yamaguchi-gumi  and other anti-social forces, including the Inagawakai, which is now very much under the Yamaguchi-gumi umbrella. What the authorities believe and so did other Mongolian Sumo wrestlers in the Sumo Association, was that Asashoryu was set up for a fall by a rival Japanese sumo wrestler faction in the organization which wanted to get rid of him and diminish the Mongolian faction influence. They supposedly did this by outsourcing the work to the Yamaguchi-gumi’s Kodo-kai. Whether that was the case or not, when Asashoryu was questioned by the police about the incident, he talked about a lot of things and aired a lot of grievances. As did the Sumo wrestlers who were kicked out for alleged use of marijuana. Note: I wouldn’t want to imply that Asashoryu was solely responsible for the baseball gambling investigation or the cause of the story to break or that he was the sole person talking to the police, that would put him in a rather precarious position.  He’s a piece of the puzzle. As early as January of this year, the National Police Agency had solid intelligence from both the Aichi Prefectural Police Department and the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department that a number of sumo wrestlers were socializing with the yakuza and gambling with them as well.

The “sumo wrestlers betting on baseball” story was leaked to Shukan Shincho by the police. Just as in October of 2008, the police leaked to the same magazine the story of how Japanese gang boss Goto had a lavish birthday party attended by celebrities, including famous enka singers. The mass media then picked up the story, the Shukan Shincho article turned out to be correct, and NHK banned the attending singers (Kobayashi Akira etc.) from appearing on television. Just as NHK is now not broadcasting the Sumo tournament. In Goto’s case, the scandal resulted in his fall from power. In the case of the Kodo-kai, top level executives will be forced to resign or be arrested for their part in the baseball betting operations. In fact, the arrest of yakuza crime boss, Mori Kenji, (Yamaguchi-gumi Tsukasa Kogyo), on gambling charges, several weeks ago may be part of the current investigation as well. In his hotel suite, where he held a traditional gambling session, sumo wrestlers, celebrities, and some corporate executives were also alleged to be in attendance. One part of the sumo-yakuza-gambling scandal that may never come to light is that, not only were sumo wrestlers were participating in the gambling, so were some executives from the Japanese companies sponsoring the sumo tournaments. For those reasons, the investigation is likely to be cut off at a predetermined point before it becomes an international embarrassment. Established connections between gambling, yakuza, sumo and major Japanese corporations wouldn’t reflect well on the business image of Japan. There is already a proposal to “pin the crime” on low-level yakuza boss who died of natural causes last year, designating him the “puppet master” who ran the show. Dead men make the perfect fall guys and don’t say things they shouldn’t.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department is doing their job and doing it in the way they’ve probably always wanted to do it. Except now they are acting with the approval of the National Police Agency from the top down. When the curtain is pulled away, it will be revealed that the Yamaguchi-gumi was running most of the bookie operations, that they made the baseball betting possible and that the Yamaguchi-gumi and Sumo Association ties have been strong for several years. (Some of the bookie operations were run by different crime groups in different regions.) In the end, the NPA will achieve another victory in its war on the Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai. Their biggest victory will be in terms of public relations. By showing that the yakuza have corrupted Japan’s national sport, they turn public opinion against the yakuza and create an atmosphere where stronger anti-organized crime laws are likely to be supported.

Ironically, the exposure of sumo wrestlers involved in high-stakes gambling operations run by the yakuza and Sumo Association executives giving special perks and favors to yakuza–these very issues also came to light because some Sumo Association members tried to use the yakuza to solve internal conflicts within the organization, and many Sumo wrestlers were happy to be on the organized crime dole.

All over Japan’s legislation on the local government level, there are laws which are pending which would make it a crime to pay money or offer rewards to the yakuza for any services performed. The new laws will in essence punish not just the yakuza for their crimes but the civilians who utilize them as well. A similar law is already on the books regarding racketeers (sokaiya) and it had a devastating effect on that as an illegal business.

However, all the law really does is put into legal code Japanese folk wisdom that has been around for years: “When you curse someone, dig two graves.” Or as some Japanese cops jokingly put it, “When you use the yakuza to get what you want, you’re sure to get something you don’t want as well.”

Update 07/11/2010

The article here, Ex-Sumo Wrestler Involved In Baseball Gambling Connected to Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai is in  Japanese, from Sankei Newspaper, but it discusses the Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai connection to the current scandal in explicit terms. In May of this year, Ando Tokuhara, the head of the National Police Agency, obliquely hinted at the Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai and Sumo connections in his press release of instructions (kunji) to Japan’s police department heads,  which called for a crackdown on the Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai, including their banishment from Japanese society and reduction of their spheres of influence, while explicitly mentioning the Sumo Association.

Also it’s worth mentioning that the excellent book, Sumo: A Thinking Fan’s Guide To The National Sport by David Benjamin, almost foretells the current troubles on pages 231-233, in an entry called “Cracks In the Facade.”  It starts off describing how powerful the Sumo Association has been in Japan for years, cozying up with major media, suppressing any scandal.  It notes that in recent years: “The weekly magazines had become so persistent, in accusations about matters like hazing, links to the Mob, and yaochozumo (fixed matches), that the Sumo Association could no longer keep such stories entirely out of the mainstream press.Two ex-rikishi, reportedly ready to spill the beans about yaocho, died mysteriously.”

I’d almost forgotten about those unfortunate two. It always struck me as a little odd that both whistle blowers should fall ill and die in the same hospital shortly after holding press conferences where they announced that they were ready to blow the lid off the dirty diaper bin of the sumo world. (Probably just a coincidence. Squealers and whistle blowers in the sumo world probably tend to feel so bad about betraying the sport, that they invariably get really sick and die, of the same illness, around the same time–which is why you only need to do one autopsy for every two mysteriously deceased wrestlers)

However, I think the two dead rikishi held one of their press conferences at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan, that means there should exist an audio recording of the conference or a transcript. Any enterprising reporter who’d like to “dig up” that story and is in good health, good luck.

Also check out  Tokyo Reporter’s summary of weekly magazine reporting on the dismal state of sumo affairs and organized crime links.  As usual, Brett does a stellar job of putting the popular press spin on events into context: Sumo worlds ties to gangsters baseball betting have long legacy.

The Nagoya Tournament, which NHK is not broadcasting, opened as planned. A reporter friend in Nagoya says the police presence there is immense.  It marks the first time that the Aichi Prefectural Police have posted organized crime control division detectives to guard the entrances and check for a yakuza presence. It isn’t just to keep the yakuza from watching the contest. The National Police Agency quietly fears that a sumo wrestler will be killed or have their “suicide” arranged by the Yamaguchi-gumi as a warning to others to keep their mouths shut.  It only takes one death or serious assault to make thirty people suddenly very quiet and forgetful. This makes investigations difficult.

However, the yakuza don’t always have to use direct brute force to get a point across. If I were a sumo wrestler who’d admitted to participating in gambling or had talked at length to the police, I’d be extremely careful when eating my chanko nabe; I’d probably insist on making my own, with no added secret ingredients.

Finally, Mori Kenji, a recently arrested Yamaguchi-gumi Kodokai member, was also reported to have attended Asashoryu’s birthday party last year.  By now, no one should be surprised that the yakuza and the sumo wrestlers associate with each other–the question is just how symbiotic the relationship really has become.  Recent reports suggest that many of the shops and businesses selling Sumo tickets are also run by the yakuza as well. What many fear is that when you remove the yakuza support and sponsorship of the Sumo wrestlers and the smaller Sumo stables, the whole thing will began to collapse under its own weight.

Update 07/12/2010 (corrections to previous posts are colored)

The Sumoforum.net has some very interesting posts on this subject, some poking holes in this article, some supporting it. In any event, most of it is rather intelligent discourse and polite–something quite rare for on-line forums about any subject.  I could be wrong, of course. I will point out that what I wrote in Tokyo Vice in 2008 about Goto-gumi, Goto Tadamasa’s links to Sokagakkai and powerful politicians and his liver transplant at UCLA were more or less confirmed with the publication of Goto’s memoirs in May of 2010 (this year). He’s donating all of his profits on the book to charity, which is very nice of him. Just wanted to say that I’m right some of the time.

Anyway, reading the posts which express reasonable doubts made me decide to add more source materials where possible (although not everything could be found in English).  Check out the forum yourself if you’re interested in following the story. I’m taking a break from it until the first arrests or  perhaps until the TMPD files papers on the dead yakuza boss. (It’s a classic way of solving a case–blame it on a dead guy, file charges with the prosecutors (shoruisoken) and then call it a day. Case closed).

16 thoughts on “Dirty diapers: How the sumo scandal is a casualty of the National Police Agency war on the yakuza”

  1. Is it a coincidence that all this get tough policy really started to get implemented after the fall of the LDP?

    Also, what’s with the FSA suddenly allowing Western Union to launder money (there’s been no WU here up to now except for some operations through a minor regional bank, which stopped a few months ago)?

    1. Actually, it’s because of the fall of the LDP. The National Police Agency has judiciously leaked to the press since 2007, that the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Democratic Party of Japan have a cooperative agreement. It is certainly true that the Yamaguchi-gumi and another major organized crime group told their members to support the DPJ in 2007. No one is exactly sure why. The NPA has always been tight with the LDP. The DPJ wants to do things like standardize video taping of interrogations and give voting rights to foreign residents–all things that that police and the National Police Agency opposed. The DPJ has also opposed all attempts to pass a criminal conspiracy law which is what the police want on the books to really dismantle the Japanese mafia. (Or at least have the option or the threat of being able to do it.)
      Look at it this way, in some ways, the National Police Agency crackdown on the Yamaguchi-gumi hurts the DPJ and that’s in their best interests. Also. the Yamaguchi-gumi Kodokai began doing things like intimidating the police, photographing police officer family members, gathering information on detectives, and has been very antagonistic. This hasn’t set well with the police. In essence, the fall of the LDP, gave the police a great number of reasons to really crack down on organized crime, because its in their best interests to have the LDP back in power.

    2. Don’t know what’s with the FSA allowing Western Union to do wire transfers. (I can’t say it’s all money laundering or that any of it is).
      I will say that Kamei Shizuka, the former Minister of Financial Services, who recently resigned, has been strongly associated with former yakuza counselor Kyo Eichu (currently in jail) and received payments from at least two yakuza bosses in his career. He seems to have implemented policy during his time in power that benefitted organized crime. I won’t say that Western Union operating on a larger scale in Japan makes money laundering easier or that there is any evidence that its being used that way.

  2. Jake – thanks for the comments – I’d always assumed that the LDP were the puppets of the gangs (construction biz and whatnot – also what you say about Kamei, who was high up in the police agency at one time) and for that reason the gangs would like to have LDP back in power. Now you’re telling me that the NPA also want the LDP back in power? What a weird world we live in.

    WU – it’s the weapon of choice for the West African advance fee fraud scammers, “overpaying check” scammers, etc. because it’s almost totally unregulated in the destination countries. It is the perfect way to move money around under the radar for them – one would assume for other people as well. All you have to do is set up a network of mules.

    1. There have been times when the LDP was effectively a puppet of the gangs, for example when Takeshita Noboru in his bid to become Prime Minister of Japan asked Ishii Susumu, head of the Inagawakai (at the time) and one of the greatest yakuza who ever lived, to shut up Nihon Kominto. He put himself in the debt of a yakuza boss and his party at Ishii’s disposal. What is not well-known was that Nihon Kominto itself was under the auspices of the Yamaguchi-gumi Takumigumi at the time. Takumigumi has always been the smartest and best behaved of the Yamaguchi-gumi factions.
      However, in general, instead of having a political party like the LDP under the thumb of the yakuza, you have individual politicians connected to a yakuza boss or a yakuza faction. Just like the LDP has warring factions, the yakuza groups, even the Big Y, I, and S have warring factions as well.
      Yes, the NPA wants the LDP back in power.
      Didn’t know about the WU role in the 419 scams (nigerian fraud) but makes sense.

  3. Hoping that you can flesh out the details a little more regarding Asashoryu’s set-up.
    Who are the “rival Japanese sumo wrestler faction” that wanted to get rid of Asashoryu?
    And why did they want to diminish the influence of the Mongolian faction? — it sounds like there must been some specific problems.

    1. Thanks for pointing out the link. Well, then it’s not mysterious at all, just convenient. Just as the New York Times article has it. And they did one autopsy, not two, so of course, we can be sure it was the same ailment.

  4. Thank you for the report , the updates and answers to comments. I find it interesting that the NHK is backing away from the Sumo Kyokai over this, while for many years they have been using Kitanofuji as their big hitter for honbasho broadcasts. It has been reported on Sumo Forum that Kitanofuji has some association with organized crime himself, and had been in trouble with the NSK over those connections in years gone by.

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