The Japan Sumo Association (JSA) reprimanded yokozuna Hakuho on April 24 for calling on fans to join in a traditional Japanese “sanbon-jime” hand-clapping ritual during a ringside interview after the Mongolian won the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament in March.

The operator and regulator of professional sumo wrestling criticized Hakuho’s action for “undermining the tradition and order of the way of sumo.”

There is, indeed, nothing laudable about the top-ranking sumo wrestler’s eccentric, norm-defying behavior. But there is another, more serious and important issue concerning the unconventional yokozuna that the association should grapple with.

It is the association’s anachronistic and unreasonable requirement that a retired wrestler have Japanese nationality to run a sumo stable, or "heya," as “oyakata,” or a stablemaster.

This unwritten rule has forced Hakuho to apply for Japanese nationality to pursue post-retirement career as oyakata, also known as “toshiyori.”

Hakuho’s achievements as a sumo wrestler are gigantic and glorious. Since coming to Japan from Mongolia to become a sumo wrestler at the age of 15, Hakuho has accumulated a record 42 trophies and retained the sport’s highest rank for more than 10 years.

He fully deserves to become a stablemaster as “ichidai toshiyori,” a special honor bestowed on yokozuna who have made remarkable achievements in sumo. He wanted to be accorded the honor without acquiring Japanese nationality.

Few would criticize him for harboring a desire to keep pursuing his passion for sumo after retirement while preserving his national identity.

But the association has shown no intention to rethink this rule, forcing Hakuho to make an agonizing choice.

After his father, who opposed his son’s changing nationality, gave the nod to the idea before his death last spring, Hakuho finally made the decision, according to the yokozuna.

It is painful to imagine the emotional turmoil the two Mongolians went through.

In defending the association’s policy, one JSA official said, “Sumo is Japanese culture. Sumo wrestlers inherit it. Therefore, if stablemasters who instruct them are foreigners, they cannot give proper instructions.”

This is a completely unconvincing argument.

It is no longer possible for professional sumo to maintain the levels of wrestling performances inside the ring without foreign wrestlers.

Quite a few foreign wrestlers have demonstrated great coaching skills as stablemasters after retirement.

On the other hand, some Japanese oyakata have left the sumo world in disgrace after becoming embroiled in scandals.

Clearly, there is no relationship between coaching prowess and nationality.

The association should focus on finding wrestlers who have the qualities and passion needed to be a good oyakata, regardless of their nationality, and providing solid support to their efforts to develop the skills and abilities to guide and instruct younger wrestlers and manage stables well.

Professional sumo has been plagued by an endless series of scandals concerning such evils as violence, drug abuse and match-fixing. This clearly attests to the fact that the mind-sets and capabilities of stablemasters, the lynchpins of the profession, have failed to keep up with the changes and demands of society.

The process of obtaining the “toshiyori myoseki” (sumo elder name) qualification remains highly opaque despite repeated calls for reform.

There has been a scandal over the sales of the title for several hundreds of millions of yen.

It is said that there has been strong resistance to reforms from the vested interest.

Behind the association’s reluctance to scrap the nationality rule are reportedly fears that foreign nationals would eventually constitute a majority of stablemasters if the step is taken under the current system.

The system, in principle, grants the toshiyori titles to retired wrestlers according to their ranks when they were on the active list and serves as a platform for asset building.

This reluctance is a shame and disgrace to the entire professional sumo community.

The association has a compliance committee composed mainly of independent experts that is tasked with monitoring the management of the organization for any problems and compliance with the laws and social norms within the community.

The nationality rule is an issue that should be discussed at the committee.

--The Asahi Shimbun, April 26