Friday, July 9, 2010

Wrestling with Gambling

The latest scandal bedeviling the sumo world involves, as anyone who has read a newspaper or watched TV lately knows, wrestlers and stable masters revealed to have been gambling. The biggest problem involves wrestlers who have been betting on professional baseball, with the apparent involvement of the yakuza. Extortion added fuel to the media's fiery denunciations of the sumo association's oversight, and the usual parade of ex-policemen, sports journalists, essayists, lawyers, and various "experts" of various kinds appeared to add heat--but not much light--to the "discussion".

It didn't help that the gambling news came very soon after the scandal about yakuza having been provided with ring-side seats so that they would appear on TV and encourage their imprisoned friends watching the televised matches from their cells.

It could have been worse; the sumotori could have been betting on sumo matches, but I haven't heard even a hint that any of the wrestlers or stable masters were doing that. The news about baseball players caught betting on baseball barely lasted a day, being eclipsed utterly by the sumo gambling scandal.

So now an ozeki and a stable master have been fired, numerous others  have been suspended, the sumo association is reeling in disarray, and there was serious doubt for a while about whether the upcoming Nagoya basho (tournament) would take place.

NHK, after waffling for a couple of weeks, decided not to do their regular live broadcast for the first time in over 50 years, and several companies decided to withdraw their long-running (and very lucrative)  sponsorships, at least temporarily.

I can follow the strong negative reaction to gambling wrapped up with the yakuza, particularly since the news followed rather closely on other scandals involving drug use by a couple of wrestlers, a fatal hazing incident,  and the spectacular fall from grace of ex-yokozuna Asashoryu after what seems to have been a drunken brawl.

Canceling the Nagoya basho would have been very unfair to the many other sumotori who have been diligently practicing and were evidently uninvolved in gambling. I think NHK (no strangers to scandals themselves, by the way) made a very bad call in deciding not to televise the tournament. They claim that 68% of the 13,000 viewers who contacted them advocated not televising, but I very seriously doubt that's an even distribution of viewer sentiment (what about the millions who didn't call?), and it's definitely punishing the innocent.

It was predictable, though, as were the various sponsors' flights: they are trying to avoid being tainted by scandal and being seen as supporting malefactors.

What bothers me most about this whole situation, though, is that it's not only about betting on baseball, or even about gambling involving yakuza. Some of the suspended wrestlers were gambling in card games or in mah jong games, and although I might have missed it, I haven't heard that those involved the yakuza. Nevertheless, many announcers and news analysts (along with those ubiquitous "experts") have been wringing their hands and making all sorts of outraged noises about all of this terrible gambling.

Give me a break.

I've known hundreds of people who play mah jong, and known of maybe a couple of thousand more, and every single one of them played for money. Maybe not a lot of money but, like friendly poker games, people who play mah jong bet on it. Including probably at least half—and I'm being very conservative here—of the people on TV who are bemoaning the moral turpitude of the sumotori who did it. I don't really know about card games, since I haven't seen or heard of that many card games being played in Japan. But virtually every adult who plays mah jong--and that's a lot of people--bets on it.

I'm not a gambler myself, but if I were I'd be very unhappy to be reviled for it by anyone who plays mah jong, or even pachinko, the vastly popular pinball game in which—very ingenuously—one wins prizes, not money,  so it's not technically gambling…but every pachinko parlor has, within a few steps of the door, a place where those prizes can be exchanged for cash. I've known a couple of professional pachinko players, in fact; quite a few people make a living at it.

Castigating people, sumo wrestlers or not, for doing what millions of their countrymen do daily—gambling for money--is amazingly hypocritical. Unfortunately, in Japan blatant and widespread hypocrisy is something that you can bet on happening.

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