The reputation of Japan’s national sport suffered another blow today with the arrest of a sumo trainer over the death of a junior wrestler following an alleged assault at a training camp last year.
Junichi Yamamoto and three wrestlers belonging to his stable were arrested on suspicion of inflicting bodily harm resulting in the death of Takashi Saito, a 17-year-old novice who fought under the name Tokitaizan.
Yamamoto, 57, is alleged to have struck Saito over the head with a beer bottle after he attempted to abscond last June. The stable master, whose sumo name is Tokitsukaze, then allegedly ordered three senior wrestlers to assault him.
The following day the teenager collapsed and died after an exhausting sparring session in which he had been forced to fight multiple opponents until he could barely stand.
Yamamoto, a hard-drinking former wrestler with a famously fiery temper, admitted striking Saito but denied ordering the assault, in which one of the assailants was armed with a metal baseball bat.
The sumo association initially said Saito had died of heart failure, but his parents contacted police after noticing heavy bruising and what appeared to be cigarette burns on his body. An autopsy showed he died of multiple trauma shocks triggered by the attack.
His death promoted the government to order a review of sumo’s grueling training regime
"It is regrettable that the wrestlers were arrested," the Japan sumo association’s chairman, Kitanoumi, told reporters. "We hope that they cooperate with investigations to find out what really happened."
Saito’s death has tarnished sumo’s image at a time when many promising youngsters are shunning the ancient sport in favor of the better salaries and lifestyles offered by other professional sports.
Saito had twice tried to return home without permission, complaining to his parents that he lacked privacy and was unable to adapt to the discipline of stable life.