Le Petit Banzuke Illustré
Hors série n°22 - july 2007
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Nadine Rayon
translated by Martina Lunau
proofread by Brian O'Flaherty

Tokitaizan: Death of a shin-deshi

The world of professional sumo has crossed from one period to another. The promotion of Hakuho to the rank of yokozuna finally turns the page of what was quasi-exclusive domination by Asashoryu. The new era would seem to promise some memorable moments, and the divine wind, which used to protect Japan from a Mongolian invasion, will not blow any more on the banzuke.

However, an event that is more tragic and more rare in sumo has shown another reality recently; a much darker reality: June 26th, Tadashi Saito, 17 years old, deceased after training in his heya.

Saito (Photo: Martina Lunau)

Entering sumo

Tadashi Saito is originally from Shibata, in the prefecture of Niigata. He was born there on October 23rd, 1989. During his schooltime he practised many sports, particularly karate, judo, baseball and tennis, but did not have real experience in sumo.

In spring 2007, Tadashi Saito left the college of Toyosaka in Niigata before finishing, and entered the professional world of sumo. The young rikishi, who measured 1m82 and weighed 112 kg, was officially affiliated to the Tokutsikaze Beya last April and passed his medical examination on May 2nd. He passed his mae-zumo tournament at Natsu basho reaching a score of 1-4. He had just taken over the shikona of Tokitaizan and was about to start at jonokuchi 39 in Nagoya basho.

Saito, during the persentation of shin-deshi at Natsu basho (Photo: Martina Lunau)

A tragic training session

The facts were finally known on June 28th but it all happened two days beforehand, on the 26th. On this day, the first training session of Tokitzukaze Beya took place for Nagoya basho. The heya had been established in the prefecture of Aichi, in Inuyama, a city in the surroundings of Nagoya.

The new rikishi, Tokitaizan, entered the dohyo at 10h30. One hour later, during butsukari-geiko, he said he felt ill and his breathing became difficult. He stopped training to rest but his state did not improve and he lost consciousness. When medical help arrived, shortly after 12h30, the young boy had already suffered heart failure. He was transported to the hospital of Inuyama, accompanied by his oyakata, and he was declared dead there around 14h10. The diagnosis was that of sudden cardiac insufficiency.

Tokitaizan, a rikishi who joined the heya during the last tournament, was the "little newbie", at the rank of jonokuchi. Tokitsukaze beya is directed by Tokitsukaze oyakata (former komusubi Futsatsuryu). After this tragedy the heya will count 15 rikishi in its ranks. Amongst them are komusubi Tokitenku, maegashira Toyonoshima and Tokitsuumi and also jonidan rikishi Tosayutaka, on which there is big hope for the future.

28th June, "No training today" (Mainichi)

Because of the death of the young recruit, the heya's training was halted for two days and started again on June 29th. On June the 30th the funeral of Tadashi Saito took place in Niigata and Tokitsukaze oyakata participated. Taking into account the circumstances of the teenager's death, one could have feared a certain embarrassment between the oyakata and the family, but in the end everything remained quiet.

29th June, training starts again (Hochi)

The circumstances of death

Beyond the tragedy of such a death, certain elements caused, and fed, the discussion.

First of all the physical state of Tokitaizan. When the body of the young man arrived at Niigata, late in the night of the 26th and into the 27th, his face and his body carried traces of bruising, which encouraged his family to ask for explanations. The following day, Tokitsukaze affirmed: "There was no act of violence. It occurred during normal training". These words did not satisfy Makoto Saito, the father of the apprentice fighter, "His face was deformed by the wounds. The bruises were really impressive and for more safety I want confirmation of the causes of his death." This required an autopsy at the Faculty of Medicine in Niigata.

One can also wonder about the freedom in which Tadashi Saito decided to train. In the past he expressed several times that he would give up his career as a rikishi and return to his home. In June he also ran away from the heya several times. Once, he even arrived back at his parents: "the training is hard, the hierarchical reports/ratios are painful. I want to stop." His father then returned him to the heya.

On June 28th, Tokitsukaze oyakata gave a press conference trying to clear up the situation. Obviously moved, his words to the parents of his young pupil were: "Words will not change anything. The parents entrusted their child to me and this is what has happened." He affirmed again that the fatal training was completely usual. He also refuted the suspicions of possible violence or bullying on behalf of elders in the heya: "There is nothing. The elder ones did everything they could to help Tadashi Saito to acclimatise to his new life."

28th June, Tokitsukaze Oyakata explains (Mainichi)

That same day, the results of the young fighter's autopsy did nothing to assuage the possibility of a link between the many wounds and the cause of death.

Kitanoumi rijicho also commented on the drama: "the training is important to make progress. Perhaps they should be adapted for each pupil. Somebody died, and this is terrible. We take the opinion of the specialists. We will intensify our medical controls immediately." A medical department, which depends directly on the NSK, organizes a medical test of the rikishi twice a year. According to this medical department, neither the electrocardiogram nor the ultrasonic examination of Tokitaizan revealed any anomalies at the time of the medical examination of the shin-deshi.

On June 29th, the Inuyama police interviewed Tokitsukaze oyakata. The investigation is still open and there may be more questions from other authorities and his rikishi. For the moment, Tokitsukaze oyakata wishes that his rikishi are able to continue with their preparations for Nagoya basho. The medical examination scheduled for Nagoya basho was cancelled because of the lack of applicants. Mongolian fighters dominate sumo. The fall in popularity of sumo in Japanese society is a regular item on the agenda. However, after such a tragic drama, other questions will appear. They will require answers; and perhaps changes.