Our podcast The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News, Series 6, Teetering – how a Hawaiian beach bum held my career in the balance, enters sumo’s inner sanctum, turning a routine event into a reckless gamble
In Episode 8, as our Ass Prod enters sumo’s heartland, we learn of the unusual contents of his jacket, and how they’re supposed to be deployed.
Like all stories, it’s best to start at the beginning:
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Written, narrated and produced by SternWriter
Audio production by Rupert Kirkham
Podcast sting by Samuel Wain
Series sound composition by Simon Elms
If you enjoyed this series, why not try these ones…
- Series 1: The Story of Ganbaatar – the only qualified deep-sea navigator in Mongolia
- Series 2: Betrayed – A Tale of Christmas Spiritual Pollution
- Series 3: Life on the Edge – Taiwan, China, America and the Moment I Realised Mrs. Wang Was Mostly Guessing What Her Husband Said
- Series 4: The Quiet Revolutionary – the heroic role played in a plot to assassinate the King by someone you’ve all heard of
- Series 5: A Classical Chinese Dirty Joke, Told Thrice
The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories is a See Through News production.
See Through News is a non-profit social media network with the Goal of Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active.
For more visit seethroughnews.org
Episode 8 – A Winter Jacket, an Invitation and a Bottle of Whisky
By the time my taxi arrives in Ryogoku, there’s already quite a crowd outside Jesse’s stable.
Plenty of sumo fans, of course, plus curious locals and passers-by, but they’re hanging around the periphery.
Directly in front of the stable, workmen in white helmets and hi-vis jackets are already assembling two semi-circular tiers of platforms. They’ve already erected the waist-high metal fencing at the front.
After two years as an Ass Prod in Japan, I know the drill. I plunk my tripod down as close to dead centre as available – three or four Japanese TV crews have beaten me to it, but, I’m pleased to note, we’re the first foreign news outfit on the scene.
The tripod is enough to stake ABC News’s claim until our crew finishes the live shot with the American Correspondent and joins me at Akebono’s stable.
My primary task complete, I stand guard, watching the rest of the Japanese and foreign press arrive. As the TV crew cars pull up, their designated tripod-bearers leap out, and rush over to claim the best remaining spot.
The higher back row of platforms is for TV. Our cameras have a clean view of the front door of the stable, over the heads of the occupants of the lower tier, now filing up with the still photographers.
In turn, their lenses point over the heads of the print and radio journalists assembling at ground level.
They’re separated from the front of the stable by the metal fencing. A thicket of microphone stands is already growing rapidly.
As each new hack, snapper or crew member arrives, we exchange collegial nods and bows, and then gossip.
We don’t all know each other already, but are soon exchanging name cards just in case, before huddling with our own particular tribe. This story has assembled quite a convocation of hacks – the sports specialists over there, the general news lot over there, and over here, the foreign press.
Within 30 minutes, all positions are full, and the bit of the press coverage you don’t see on your screens starts – the hanging around on standby, waiting for something to happen.
After two years in the TV news business, I know 90% of the job involves hanging around at press conferences, chatting to colleagues with half an eye on a doorway through which the object of our coverage would at some point appear.
More often than not, this happens in stuffy, overcrowded, fluorescent-lit rooms with no catering facilities. This morning, however, there’s a pleasant hum to the press pack.
Being outdoors in January isn’t always great, but today’s a cracking winter’s day – blue skies, no wind, the promise of cherry blossom in the air.
Being on the street means much better catering options than hot cans of coffee and packets of rice crackers from vending machines.
Add to that the particular character of sumo-town, with the cotton-kimono clad wrestlers strolling around the streets, trying not to betray their own excitement at all the hullabaloo.
It is, after all, a special Special Occasion. Over the past 300 plus years there have only been 63 days when a new yokozuna has been announced. And none of them has ever been a foreigner.
My bureau colleagues show up. The veteran cameraman clicks the ABC News camera onto the tripod. The sound guy adds an ABC News microphone to the growing copse of mic stands. My primary mission, securing a good spot for the press conference, has been comprehensively accomplished.
I can now raise my eyes to the higher-hanging fruit. My stretch goal. What every single journalist here wants, but only one will get.
The first interview with Akebono. The sumo scoop.
I retreat to the periphery of the press crowd, now numbering a couple of hundred chattering colleagues, from Japan, America and around the world. There’s only one Japan story today, so the entire foreign press corps is here.
We’re all chatting away, but we’ve all positioned ourselves so we have an eyeline to the main door of Jesse’s stable.
At some point, we hope in the next hour or two, or it will eat uncomfortably into lunch time, Jesse and Akebono will appear, stooping, in this doorway.
There’ll be a buzz of activity, that familiar card-shuffle rattle of camera shutters. Stooping sound engineers will make last-second adjustments to microphone angles.
The two Hawaiians, Jesse and Akebono, resplendent in their best formal outfits, will loom behind the forest of microphones, and mumble something humble in formal Japanese.
The foreign press will shout out to try to get them to say something in English for their audiences.
Hang on…I‘ve not yet considered this. This will present Jesse and Akebono with an exquisite dilemma. Say anything in English, and they risk alienating the Japanese audience they’ve worked so hard to convince of their bona fides.
Also, sumo wrestlers speaking in public utter only a very limited grab-bag of cliches. This works fine in Japanese, but in English it might come out all wrong, especially if mischievously translated by the tabloids.
Much safer, now I think about it, for Jesse and Akebono to stick to their humble mumblings in Japanese, and duck back inside pronto.
This leaves my plan of approaching them after the press conference looking even more hopeless than before.
In my inside jacket pocket nestles an envelope containing an official, bilingual ABC News invitation letter. Yoko and I spent a good hour composing it this morning.
Once we were happy with both the English and Japanese versions, our office manager inscribed them on thick paper, using a proper calligraphy brush. The Bureau Chief slid open the top drawer of his desk, and, with a satisfying thunk, added the Bureau’s impressive official seal.
Its red wax imprint made our invitation look pretty impressive. Our veteran Japanese cameraman reckoned it would pass muster even with the traditionalist sumo crowd.
This invitation, along with an expensive bottle of whisky secreted in my other inside jacket pocket, are the tools of my trade. My bait to lure Akebono, and his boss Jesse, to pick ABC News for Akebono’s first interview as yokozuna.
In a few hours time, our breakfast show Good Morning America goes on air. My Mission Impossible is to see if ABC News can scoop a world-first exclusive interview with Japan’s first foreign Grand Champion.
I’ve avoided saying too much to our NBC, CBS and CNN rivals. I’m doing my best to hide the whisky bottle and big white envelope containing our invitation letter in my winter jacket.. They’re probably doing the same.
But if Jesse and Akebono just turn tail as soon as they complete their humble mumbles, we’re all screwed. The more I think about it, the more unlikely my mission is. Impossible, really.
I mooch around. Assess my options. Seek inspiration.
Ryogoku, home to Japan’s national sumo stadium, and two of its six annual tournaments, is much like any other Tokyo neighbourhood.
Ignore the serried ranks of cameras and journalists, and the peripheral crowd of casual onlookers, and I’m standing on a perfectly normal shopping street.
Slow-moving traffic rumbles past a jumble of shopfronts, businesses and residential entrances.
Overhead snakes a cat’s cradle of power cables, easy to access in case of earthquakes.
Every so often, the alternating windows and doorways are punctuated by a waist-high red or blue curtain, with welcoming characters, marking a restaurant or bar.
Housewives on bicycles drift serenely past. Delivery drivers in pressed uniforms shuttle back and forth from the mobile loaves of bread that pass for their vans. Salesmen in sober suits carry briefcases to their next clients.
Were it not for those cotton-kimono-clad sumo wrestlers coming in and out of that little side entrance, it could be my own neighbourhood.
Hang on a minute. Those sumo wrestlers. That side entrance. Could that be another way into Jesse’s stable?
One of the sumo journalists I’ve just been chatting to had compared the traditional sumo stables to rabbit warrens, connecting several different buildings.
No one has entered or exited the front door on which all our cameras are trained since I arrived. There has to be at least one more entrance.
I keep my eyes on this side entrance. Sure enough, every couple of minutes, sumo wrestlers come and go. Not the celebrity professionals, who appear on TV, but the lower-ranked juniors.
Their hair is still short and un-oiled. They wear simple cotton yukata. These are the grunts whose apprentice duties extend to housekeeping chores, cleaning, shopping and cooking.
But is this a side entrance to Jesse’s stable? I catch a glimpse of a more senior wrestler, from the second-highest division, another Hawaiian I know is another Jesse recruit.
So, this must be another entrance to Akebono’s stable. So what?
What difference does knowing there’s another entrance make? We still all have to wait until they emerge. We’re still all prevented from entering the stable by… that invisible forcefield of …. of what?
I remember the tactical tricks Yoko and I have used to break similar force fields before. Similar invisible barriers.
I wait for the junior sumo wrestlers to disappear, then count to 10.
I glance to my left and right, checking if anyone is around to challenge me. All my journalist colleagues are looking the other way.
Gripping the whisky bottle against my stomach, as my press colleagues continue their vigil behind the metal fence, keeping an eye out on the front entrance, I stroll up to the side entrance.
Without hesitating, I step in, and slide the door closed behind me.
In Episode 9, Inside The Stable, we’ll find out how far our rookie Ass Prod gets.