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Sumo world’s ties to gangsters and baseball betting have long legacy

Ever since weekly tabloid Shukan Shincho reported (in its May 27 issue) that sumo wrestlers frequently gamble on professional baseball games with organized crime members, the Japan Sumo Association has been on the defensive.

On Sunday, the association decided to dismiss 34-year-old wrestler Kotomitsuki and his stablemaster Otake. Other wrestlers and senior advisors received punishments.

Recent revelations that Yamaguchi-gumi crime syndicate members have been supplied with ringside seats for past matches — ostensibly so that fellow gangsters behind bars can catch a glimpse of their compatriots on television — have also soiled the image of the pastime.

Shukan Shincho May 27

Two days after the firings, NHK announced that it would not provide a live broadcast of the upcoming tournament in Nagoya as a result of viewer complaints over the ongoing scandals.

Yet very little has been explained regarding the intricate connections the grapplers have with mobsters and just how they were gambling on ball games. For that, The Tokyo Reporter turns to a back issue of Flash (June) for a little insight.

“It is not just the rikishi [wrestlers], it is also former grand champions [yokozuna] and sumo officials who are betting on baseball,” a senior member of a Kansai boryokudan, or a yakuza group, explains to the tabloid. “The gamblers stay at inns in the countryside with people affiliated with gang groups and bet on games. Some officials will have their wives there. Relatives of gangsters who are running the gambling ring will also be in attendance. This practice has a long history; it didn’t start just yesterday.”

Revenue collected from baseball betting has historically been one means of income for yakuza groups. “The practice started in the Kansai area in the ’60s,” says a journalist who covers criminal activities. “In the ’80s, it spread to extend nationwide.”

The source says that a single game can see between 10 million yen and 100 million yen change hands.

The betting system is much more complicated than simply picking a winner. In each game, a betting line, or hande, is determined by a bookmaker. This number is based on a variety of factors, including the strength of the teams and the scheduled starting pitchers.

“On the day of the game, the hande of each game is decided by noon and passed to a yakuza messenger who will then distribute them to the gamblers by email,” explains a person affiliated with gang groups. “All bets must then be placed by 2 p.m. that day.”

Two different types of hande are generally applied. Flash provides a photo of a mobile phone screen that displays hande data for the games of May 24. As an example, the favored Yomiuri Giants are given a hande of 1半5 (which is read ichi han go) over the Orix Buffaloes. This means that should the Giants win by a single run, wagers on the Giants are considered losing bets. If the Giants prevail by two, punters will receive a return of 50 percent. If the difference is three or more, then bettors will get even money returned.

In another case, a 1.5 hande is applied to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters over the Yakult Swallows. This translates as follows: should the Ham Fighters win by a single run, bettors receive a 50 percent return; and even money is reached for a two-run difference or better. The magazine notes that Nippon Ham Figher star right-hander Yu Darvish will often receive a 2.3 hande, meaning a whopping three-run margin would be required for even money.

It should be noted that a 10 percent commission gets taken off the top by the gang group on all wagers.

Interestingly, starters in the Central League are guessed at — a necessity given the league’s tendency of not naming starting hurlers in advance. On May 24, both Yudai Kawai and Kenta Asakura were listed as probables for the Chunichi Dragons against the Rakuten Eagles.

“At least three games must be wagered on,” says the same senior gang member from Kansai. “The money must be paid each Monday. Bets are commonly between 10,000 yen and 1 million yen.”

The same source says that the bets are usually placed by company presidents, members of the sumo world and entertainment figures. Betting on high school baseball also takes place, with gamblers often wagering on games involving their alma maters.

“Since the wrestlers train in the morning, they have time during the day to check the hande numbers,” says the senior boryokudan member quoted previously. “In the afternoon, they’ll have their bouts. So at night they’ll watch the baseball games.”

Sumo and the criminal underworld have a long history, says Flash. “Years ago, sumo wrestlers visited cities and towns in the countryside on special tours,” says the crime journalist. “The people sponsoring the events — which means providing the catering, security and lodging — were local leaders and gang groups.

“Nowadays, the tours don’t happen, but the intricate relationship still exists,” the same journalist continues. “At the sumo stables, for example, it is still up to the yakuza to provide security and transportation, and should there be trouble with a particular wrestler, it’ll be the yakuza who’ll keep it away from the media.”

Sumo watchers feel that the sumo world needs to change its culture if it wants to transcend from mere entertainment to actual sport. “The wrestlers are always receiving everything, always having everything done for them,” explains a person connected to sumo. “If this doesn’t change, they’ll never be able to sever the ties with gangsters and move forward.”

Source: “Kakukai to boryokudan ‘kuroi kankei,'” Flash (June 15, pages 9-11)