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Sumo hazing allegations rock Japan

  • Story Highlights
  • Police arrest three sumo wrestlers and their stablemaster over wrestler's death
  • Police allege the trainer ordered the wrestlers to beat the 17-year-old wrestler
  • The case has shocked Japan where sumo is regarded as near-sacred sport
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From Kyung Lah
CNN
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TOKYO, Japan (CNN) -- When Japanese police arrested three sumo wrestlers and their stable master on Thursday over allegations they beat a 17-year-old wrestler to death, the case sent shockwaves across a country that links its national identity to the sport.

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Sumo stablemaster Junichi Yamamoto following the young wrestler's death in October.

In scenes unprecedented in Japan's history, where wrestlers are seen as national heroes, the sumo stars were shown handcuffed and with jackets over their heads surrounded by cameras and reporters.

Police arrested sumo wrestlers Masakazu Kimura, 24, Yuichiro Izuka, 25, Masanori Fujii, 22, and their stablemaster, Junichi Yamamoto, 57, who is also known as Tokitsukaze. Aichi prefectural police allege Yamamoto ordered the three wrestlers to beat a 17 year old junior wrestler so brutally that he died.

Takashi Saito, 17, collapsed at his sumo stable and was rushed to the hospital.

Initially, the boy's death was listed as "ischemic heart failure", until his family viewed his body. They say his body was covered in bruises, cuts and burns. They begged police to open an investigation, believing he'd been punished for trying to flee the stable.

"He said he'd be a good boy, I just need to come get him (from the stable)," his father told reporters last summer, through choked tears. "I should have listened and trusted him."

Police say on June 25, Yamamoto instructed the wrestlers to beat the boy using sticks and a metal bat.

Yamamoto publicly denied striking Saito inappropriately, though he did admit to striking him on the head with a beer bottle during dinner that day. He told reporters shortly after Saito's death, "This was an ordinary practice. How could you think I would do anything to hurt someone I consider my child?"

The results of an autopsy conducted last year by Niigata University concluded that Saito died of shock caused by multiple injuries.

In a separate autopsy, specialists at Nagoya University confirmed earlier this month that shock caused by multiple external injuries contributed to Saito's death.

The arrests have shaken Japan's national sport to its core.

The Prime Minister, on the floor of the Parliament, urged the nation to carefully examine its sport. The Sumo Association says it will look at how young sumo are hazed, a process that often batters them to toughen them up.

"There will be some change in the short-term, but in the long-run, nothing will change," says sumo analyst and Japan Times sumo columnist Mark Buckton. "These are bad apples who took it too far." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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