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Once, while I was typing up some notes in the bedroom at the stable, I asked Murayoshi what the real name was for what I'd been calling the "Zamboni sessions," during which the wrestlers push each other across the ring between grappling matches.

"Butsukarigeiko," he answered. "It's the most brutal part of practice."

After a moment, he asked me, "Do you think we're rough on each other?"

"Yes," I answered without missing a beat. At practice that day, I saw Moriyasu pull Batto around by his neck and throw him on the ground every time the Mongolian failed to push him across the ring during butsukarigeiko. Moriyasu tortured him like this endlessly, until Batto was covered in dirt, hyperventilating and weeping. I could barely watch after a while, but nobody else seemed to regard it as a very big deal.

"I thought Moriyasu was really rough on Batto today," I said.

"Oh, that?" said Murayoshi. "That was nothing. It used to be much more rougher."

When Murayoshi joined the stable 11 years ago, such brutality during butsukarigeiko was a daily occurrence, he said. And he said wrestlers went even harder on their subordinate stablemates before his time.

"But Japanese people these days aren't as thick-skinned," he said. "They whine and get homesick. They wouldn't put up with too many beatings; they'd just pack up and leave."

In addition to being beaten by each other, Murayoshi said, they were also whacked around pretty regularly by the Oyakata and the Kashira. "When I started, the Kashira used to beat me with a stick if I made the same mistake more than once," he said. "Sometimes he hit me because he thought I had a bad attitude."

A few days later, Hiroki substantiated Murayoshi's description of the Kashira of years' past. Now a harmless if thuggish presence in the stable, the Kashira was apparently once a real mean son of a bitch. He used to sit, watching practice in the same spot before the heater that he still occupies, with a long, menacing stick across his lap. "If someone fouled up during practice, he'd whack him in the ass or the thigh—sometimes he'd even knock him in the head," he said.

But about four years ago, Hiroki said, the Kashira changed. His temper cooled down and he stopped attacking the wrestlers during practice. And the stick disappeared.

David Shapiro, the American sumo expert I talked to after I left the stable, offered a similar reason as Murayoshi's for sumo having grown more gentle: modern Japanese kids won't put up with too many beatings.

"It's how they're being raised at home," Shapiro told me. "Before the war, if a kid goes out to do sumo, his dad says, 'Don't come back home until you reach juryo," which is the Sekitori's rank. "Now his mom says, 'If you don't like it, just come home.' It's hard for a kid who's raised like this to take a beating and then come back for more."

This trend of young Japanese growing less indulgent of their superiors is beneficial to a modern country trying to raise a questioning, assertive citizenry, Shapiro said. But it's no good for producing tough-as-nails sumo wrestlers.

When I visited the Oyakata in his office, I asked him if he thought sumo was getting gentler. He did, but he didn't see it as a consequence of the decline of corporal punishment in the sport. Rather he thought it was because young sumo wrestlers are unwilling to push themselves as hard as their forerunners were.

"Maybe it's getting gentler," he said. "But the problem is with the wrestlers themselves. If someone works hard, then the sport if tougher."

The Oyakata didn't seem to miss the days when training involved a healthy dose of physical abuse. "Wrestlers don't get better through beatings," he said. "They get better through good training advice. Everyone's body is different, so everyone needs to be trained differently. Just beating someone with a stick is easy."

NEXT: The Big Dohyo-Matsuri