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article imageSumo champs perform New Year ritual after scandal-hit 2017

By Harumi OZAWA (AFP)     Jan 9, 2018 in Sports

Sumo's three grand champions clapped their hands and stamped their feet in a traditional New Year offering to the Shinto gods Tuesday, as the sport seeks to turn the page on a scandal-hit 2017.

Wearing just their traditional white knotted belts -- or "kesho-mawashi" -- with colourful aprons, the "Yokozuna" champions performed the ritual in front of an appreciative crowd of hundreds of fans.

Hakuho, Kisenosato and Kakuryu were flanked by a traditional sword-bearer and another attendant whose job is to walk ahead of the champions parting the crowds.

The rite took place at Tokyo's Meiji Shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji, the great grandfather of reigning Emperor Akihito, making explicit the links between the sport and the Shinto tradition in which it is steeped.

The "ring-entering" ceremony is also performed at the start of each day in sumo's top-division tournament.

Japan's ancient sport is keen to start afresh after an annus horribilis in 2017, culminating in the resignation of one of its top champions in disgrace.

Harumafuji, 33, was charged and fined 500,000 yen ($4,400) for a brutal assault on a rival wrestler while out drinking in an incident that has rocked the sport to its core.

Yokozuna are expected to be beyond moral reproach, but the writing was on the wall for Harumafuji after he confessed to hitting fellow wrestler Takanoiwa for texting his girlfriend.

Mongolian Harumafuji, who reached sumo's hallowed rank five years ago, admitted punching his fellow countryman Takanoiwa and bashing him with a karaoke remote control.

The scandal mirrors that of another Mongolian star, Asashoryu, who stepped down in 2010 after being accused of breaking a man's nose in a drunken brawl outside a Tokyo nightclub.

Another embarrassment hit the sport early into the new year when reports emerged that the top-ranked referee had sexually harassed a teenage trainee.

According to public broadcaster NHK and Kyodo News, Shikimori Inosuke, 58, drunkenly molested his male junior by kissing him and touching his chest at a hotel in Okinawa, where sumo wrestlers were on a winter tour.

- 'Break records' -

Fans at the shrine on Tuesday said they hoped the sport could put the embarrassments behind it.

"I would like the sumo world to put an end to the recent scandals. I want them to be the people that children can get excited about and respect," said 42-year-old hairdresser Yukiko Akiyama.

"Hurting somebody physically and mentally is not tolerated in today's world," said another sumo fan, 30-year-old Yuki Ujiie, an orthopaedist.

After the unwelcome distractions outside the ring, the man-mountains will get back to the business of pushing, shoving and throwing each other around at the first tournament of the year in Tokyo on January 14.

Hakuho said his goal for the year was to "break records one by one."

He said he was aiming to secure his 1,000th win in the top division and complete his 63rd tournament as a Yokozuna, which would also be a record.

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