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Teetering – My Favourite Japan Story: The Truth Lies Podcast S6E4

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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 – a novice Ass Prod is persuaded to tell his favourite Japan story.

In Episode 4, audience demand persuades SternWriter to tell his favourite Japan story which, needless to say, involves sumo.

Like all stories, it’s best to start at the beginning:

Episode 1 – Japan in 1993

Episode 2 – Seduced by Sumo

Episode 3 – Sumo Fan

Next Episode 5 -Can Gaijin Have Hinkaku? (to receive notifications as soon as new episodes are released, subscribe to the See Through News YouTube channel or your preferred podcast platform).

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…

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.

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Episode 4 – My Favourite Japan Story

‘You want to hear my favourite Japan story?, I’d offer.  ‘The one that tells you everything you need to know about this country?’.  

No one ever said no. 

Would you like to hear it?

Oh, all right then, if you insist.

An American is taken to watch sumo by a Japanese friend. 

The American has only recently arrived in Japan, but is already fascinated by all things Japanese.  

The Japanese friend is a lifelong sumo connoisseur. His family has owned a block of ringside tatami seats at the National stadium in Ryogoku for generations.

The American isn’t a big sports fan but soon realises what an honour it is to be invited to share this ringside seat. American and Japanese friends alike are open-mouthed with envy.

The Japanese host suggests they see the entire day’s wrestling, right from the micro-font early-bird apprentices

The American, eager to absorb as much Japanese culture as possible, agrees with gusto.

They take their seats as soon as the doors open. For the apprentice wrestlers, as they race through their early morning bouts, the American and the Japanese host are the only people watching in the whole echoing stadium.

The Japanese host is as patient as he is expert. 

As the day goes on, the scrawny apprentices in the micro-font give way to the next level of wrestlers on the banzuke poster. 

With each division, names become more legible and the bouts more impressive, as the font size of the characters – and the wrestlers whose fighting names they represent – grow bigger.

The American knows better than to do so, but is close enough to the raised clay dohyo to reach out and touch it. Any closer to the action, and they’d be wrestling or refereeing.  

As they sit, cross-legged on the tatami woven straw mats, sipping sake and nibbling senbei rice crackers, the Japanese host explains what the American is seeing.

The basic rules, the basic techniques, the basic procedures. Each explanation provokes an amazed shake of the head, and a new question. Each increment of detail adds another layer of sophistication, a fresh insight into Japanese culture. 

The day progresses, the stadium fills, the pre-match rituals grow lengthier and more complex. The wrestlers get bigger and more skilful, the referees’ black cotton smocks give way to multicoloured silken robes.

The American is totally hooked, not so much by the sporting contest, as by the immersive cultural experience. This sumo beginner keeps asking the sumo expert to reveal yet more sumo secrets.

Finally, the top-ranked wrestlers arrive for what the host explains is called the dohyo-iri, which he translates as ‘ring-entering ceremony’.   

To the American, it feels more like a religious observance. The wrestlers solemnly troop in, delicately circumnavigating the dohyo wearing elaborate embroidered aprons suspended from their mawashi belts.

The spectacle only increases the American’s hunger for every last detail. 

‘Well, take the referee’, says the host. 

‘You mean the gyoji?’, says the American, quick as a flash. 

The Japanese host nods in silent appreciation of his student’s diligence.

‘Have you noticed anything…odd about the gyoji?’.

The American is unsure how to respond. They left ‘odd’ behind the moment they walked in the entrance.

‘Listen carefully, says the Japanese host, ‘to the announcements when the gyoji enter the dohyo.’ 

The American has been too absorbed by the spectacle to pay any close attention to the announcements, which were all in Japanese. 

Shutting eyes to focus on the sound, the American’s ears strain to discern what the host could be referring to, but soon admits defeat. 

For a non-Japanese speaker, it’s impossible to separate the stream of syllables into anything coherent without some clue.

The Japanese greets the American surrender with a graceful nod, as if he were waiting for this acknowledgement.

‘There are two schools of refereeing in sumo, which go back generations’, says the sumo oracle, ‘The Shikimori school, and the Kimura school. 

Shikimori and Kimura gyoji live and train separately. And…’ – he pauses  significantly – ‘at the tournaments, they always referee alternate bouts’.

The American repeats the names, Shikimori, Kimura, until they become fluent. 

The Japanese host gives another nod of approval, before continuing. ‘Like the wrestlers, the gyoji take on fighting names. Gyoji from the Shikimori School always have the surname Shikimori. Gyoji from the Kimura School always have the surname Kimura.’

The American now listens out for these names. Magically, they start to reveal themselves from the flow of Japanese syllables in the announcements.

Like night follows day, a Shikimori gyoji is followed by a Kimura gyoji, who’s followed by a Shikimori , and so on.

It’s a thrilling discovery, one only granted to people with the good fortune and privilege to have such an expert guide to this ancient tradition.

‘That’s incredible’, says the American. ‘But tell me more – what are the differences between these two schools – surely they must apply the same rules’.

‘Naturally’, replies the Japanese. ‘The rules are the same, but…now pay close attention to their garments.’ 

A couple of minutes of intense American inspection, another unconditional surrender.

The hosts hints, cryptically, ’Do you see the tassels hanging from their silk belts?’

The American looks again. They couldn’t have been any nearer to the dohyo, but the difference is so subtle it takes three or four Shikimori/Kimura changeovers before it clicks.

‘I think I see it now’, exclaims the American. ‘The tassels of the Shikimori gyoji are purple and white, but the tassels of the Kimura gyoji’ are all purple’. 

‘Indeed’. The Japanese host nods, approvingly. ‘ Now you know how to tell the difference between the Shikimori School of gyoji, and the Kimura School of gyoji’.

A long pause. 

The American, trying to sound as neutral as possible, asks, ‘Is there any other difference between these two venerable schools of sumo referees, stretching back generations to time immemorial, besides a barely detectable variation in tassel colour?’.

‘Oh yes’, replies the sumo oracle. ‘When they announce the winner, watch their hands’.

A few more bouts of rapt concentration. Eyes locked on the gyoji, without thinking, the American suddenly reaches out to touch the Japanese host’s arm, registering the slight frown of disapproval too late. 

The American, when being instructed on how to bow when being introduced to a stranger, had been told Japanese do not welcome body contact.

An instant apology, then back to business. The American hesitantly ventures ‘I think I see it now…is it something to do with how they hold their – what did you call the ping pong bats?

A brief pursing of the Japanese host’s lips. ‘Gunbai,  the wooden samurai fan is called a gunbai.’

Now a smile. 

‘But you’re quite correct. When pointing at the winner, gyoji from the Shikimori school hold their gunbai palm downwards.

When indicating the victor, gyoji from the Kimura school hold their gunbai palm up’. 

Now the pause is longer.

‘And…that’s it?’ , says the American. ‘The only differences between these two eminent and ancient schools of sumo refereeing are, an accent colour on their tassels, and whether, in a specific scenario, they hold their gunbai palm down, or palm up?

‘Indeed’, comes the serene answer.

The American stares, speechless, and starts to focus entirely on this one tiny detail. The tournament is now approaching its climax, the final bouts involving the top-ranked sekiwake, ozeki and yokozuna. The sell-out crowd is captivated, but one audience member is captivated by something different from all the others.

The American, within touching distance of this clash of the Titans, only has eyes for the gunbai orientation of the gyoji when they indicate the winning wrestler..  

By now, at the business end of the day’s wrestling, the wrestlers are seriously enormous.

In a bar the night before, a compatriot had everyone in stitches when they quoted a foreign journalist who described the sound of the initial impact of two sumo wrestlers as being ‘like two waterbeds mating’. 

For most of the day, the American had waited for the right moment to pass on this witticism to the Japanese host.

But with every detail, every privileged incremental induction into the world of sumo, the notion of passing on this crude remark shrank from this American’s expanding mind. Such crass observations are made by  the ingénue, for the uninitiated.  

This American now truly understands the honour granted by the Japanese host, to access this hidden parallel universe.  

The day’s induction has elevated this American above the gauche crudity of likening rikishi at the tachi-ai to mating waterbeds. 

This American now treasures a precious golden ticket – in both hands, respectfully, like the Japanese receive name cards.

Sumo, it transpires, is the VIP gateway to an exclusive, esoteric world. Thanks to sumo, this American is now… A Japan Expert.

The tournament has by now approached its climax. Only the final bout, always reserved for the top-ranked Grand Champion, remains. The yokozuna sends the crowd wild with a rare, but perfectly-executed uwatenage outer arm throw.

But as the gyoji officiating points to the winner, a moment of shock. 

The American, eyes locked on the brief tableau a few feet away from them on the dohyo and being beamed around Japan and the world, forgets all etiquette. Instinctively grabbing the sumo expert’s arm, the American exclaims ‘Look! Isn’t that a Kimura gyoji?

No frown this time, but a nod of approval. Even for this fastidious Japanese host, the American’s passion trumps their violation of body contact formalities. 

‘But…but this Kimura gyoji is holding his gunbai palm down!’, cries the American Japan Expert. ‘That’s the Shikimori way!’.

‘Ah yes,’ replies the Japanese host, features settling into oracle mode.  ‘That gyoji is an individualist’.

So that’s my favourite Japan story, that you sidetracked me into telling you. For me, the perfect encapsulation of Western Orientalism, Japanese exceptionalism, the limits of knowledge, and how Japan Expertise is always just out of reach.

We’ve gone quite deep enough into the sumo wormhole. It’s time to move this story along. I need to explain how sumo lead to my career  teetering between glory and disaster, and the pivotal role played by a Hawaiian beach bum.  

If you’re still with me, you’re now ready to hear how, in 1993, this quintessence of Japanese culture, immutable over centuries, faced its greatest ever threat.

In Part 5  – Can Gaijin Have Hinkaku?, we reveal – just as Japan is about to take over the world – an incident that shook its national identity to its very foundations.