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Teetering – Inside The Sumo Stable: The Truth Lies Podcast S6E9

Japan podcast sumo international relations tv news journalism career geopolitics akebono

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, with the world focused on Japan, our Ass Prod penetrates sumo’s inner sanctum.

In Episode 9, with the world’s eyes on Japan, our half-naive, half-knowledgable novice Ass Prod slips into sumo’s nerve centre to try to land a TV scoop…

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

Episode 4 – My Favourite Japan Story

Episode 5 – Can Gaijin Have Hinkaku?

Episode 6 – How Chad Became Akebono

Episode 7 – Watching the TV Wide Shows

Episode 8 – A Winter Jacket

Next Episode 10 – Teetering: Scoop or Bust? (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 9 – Inside the Stable

Living in Japan does strange things to foreigners.

Japan’s rigid rules, fixed hierarchies and respect for values like cohesion, consensus and harmony, can be quite disorienting.

Some find Japan’s arcane rules a source of fascination, others of frustration.

If you seek solidity and predictability, Japan’s ruts and routines can be comforting.

For thrill-seekers or lovers of spontaneity, Japan’s risk-aversion and predictability can cloud your judgement of what constitutes social acceptability. It can blur your boundaries of rudeness, even risky behaviour.

Like all entrances in Japan, Jesse’s sumo stable side door leads to a genkan, a little area for transforming yourself into an indoor person.

As with all genkan, there’s a low wooden rack, containing neat rows of outdoor shoes. 

I add mine, smiling at the novelty of my size 10s being the smallest on display.

From the neighbouring low rack, I select the smallest pair of guest slippers. Bit big, but I’ll manage.

Now transformed into an indoor person, I step up onto the tatami straw matting, set back my shoulders, and stride into the stable’s dim interior.

For a foreigner, the consequences of dissent are much less severe than for a Japanese person.

As Yoko knows, Japanese society expects Japanese people not only to know its rules, but to abide by them.  

For Japanese natives, conformity is binary. Non-conformists are granted no credit for dissenting just a little bit. 

This means that if you’re Japanese and not inclined to conform, you may as well go the whole hog. Such outliers are rare, but account for much of Japan’s dynamism. 99% are craftsmen, 1% creatives.

When it comes to rule-breaking, foreigners have a much easier ride, I think as I pad deeper into the stable. 

In contrast to the hubbub outside, inside it’s quiet and serene. Deserted, in fact. Maybe they’re all somewhere else, training. 

If no one expects foreigners to even be capable of learning the rules, we can hardly be expected to play by them. 

This drives proper Japan Experts nuts. You live in Japan for decades, read and write better Japanese than everyone on your street, reduce pensioners to tears with your renditions of Japanese folk songs at karaoke, be able to name the entire Cabinet and recite to the last decimal place the current RBI averages in both the Pacific and Central baseball Leagues – and STILL you’ll be complimented on how well you use chopsticks.

In the stable, still no sign of life. I press on, deeper into the warren. The winter sunshine is now gone, replaced by low-wattage bulbs. The electric cords from which they hang are much shorter than normal.   

Being such a safe and orderly society makes Japan’s margins for ‘acceptable’ or ‘normal’ behaviour very narrow. 

For foreigners, this leads to a lack of genuine jeopardy, which in turn risks diminishing your sense of what’s acceptable behaviour.

I turn a corner. Someone appears from the gloom. Must be a teenage apprentice, he has a plain cotton kimono and a buzz-cut. 

Seeing me, he reverses into a doorway. As I pass, he dips his head in embarrassed greeting. Straight-faced, I dip my head in return, and without breaking stride, proceed. A smile starts to play on my lips.

Did he even see I was a foreigner? But maybe seeing foreigners in Jesse’s stable isn’t all that rare an occurrence…  

Encouraged, I press on. So far so good. Let’s see how far I can get.

I hear some distant laughing and hubbub. Time to take offensive action, get on the front foot. No more skulking around, inviting a challenge. I head towards the noise.

It’s coming from a large, well-lit room. I pop my head in. Two senior wrestlers, who I recognise from TV, are laying long lengths of snow-white rope on the tatami floor. They look up, dip their heads in greeting, apparently only mildly curious at my appearance.

‘Ah, yokozuna dohyo-iri no junbi deshou ka na?’ , I say with a smile ‘ Ah, you’re getting ready for the yokozuna ring-entering ceremony then’. 

They break into broad grins and nod confirmation. They resume their activity, neatly arranging the strands along the length of the room..

All my slow-news-day telly-watching sessions just paid off. I told you there’s no such thing as goofing off in TV News. 

I’d clocked they were getting ready for one of the quasi-religious rituals of yokozuna promotion I’d seen a couple of days before on one of the wide shows.

The word yokozuna literally means ‘horizontal rope’.yoko tsuna. The term comes from the special ceremonial rope they were now preparing.

It would require dozens of their colleagues, as it required considerable beef to hand-twist these strands into a massive white rope, and tie it in a special knot.  

This rope is the centrepiece of the ceremonial garb worn by a yokozuna when, to mark the start of every day’s tournament wrestling, they perform the dohyo-iri,  or ring-entering ceremony. 

The yokozuna solemnly mounts the low, clay mound of the dohyo, accompanied by a procession of po-faced stable-mates, ritual chants and the clacking of special cherry-wood clackers.  

A respectful hush falls, as the yokozuna performs an extensive, elaborate series of arm extensions and foot-shuffles, to invoke the blessings of various Gods.

As this is Japan, there are, naturally, two rival schools of yokozuna ring-entering choreography. 

And as this was sumo, these included two subtly different patterns of yokozuna rope knot-tieing.

Unless, of course, you happen to be an individualist…

The two wrestlers glance at each other, as if ready to say something to me. 

Time to take the initiative, I think. So, metaphorically, I go for a belt grip.

‘Do you know where Akebono is?’, I enquire, carelessly, in the manner of someone who pops by every day for a chat.

‘He’s bathing’ one replies, nodding in the direction I’m heading.

I bow in appreciation, and press on, The moment I’m out of sight, I grin like a loon.  

Amazing how far a casually confident manner can get you, I think. Step through the invisible force field of convention, and everyone just kinda assumes you’re supposed to be there.

I turn a corner. The light from the low-watt bulbs is now diffused by steam.  It’s suddenly very warm. 

A few steps more and my glasses start to steam up too. Now a door opens, and someone switches off the light.

No, the light’s still on. It’s just been occluded by Akebono, who’s now standing in front of me, clad in a small towel, gently steaming, and, so far as I can discern, bearing a look of mild surprise to find a foreigner blocking his way from the bathroom..

I suddenly realise I have no idea what to do. 

Do I address him formally in Japanese? Or do I shoot the breeze, foreigner to foreigner?  

Do I talk to Akebono, or to Chad?

Do I bow, or shake hands?

Not having prepared for this scenario, I wing it big time.

Removing the large white envelope from my jacket pocket with my left hand, I hold out my right hand, saying ‘Hey Chad, congratulations, man! Amazing achievement, we’re all so proud of you’.

I may, I admit, be adopting an American accent at this point.

Akebono – or is it Chad? – shakes my hand. 

Is he smiling, or frowning? With all the steam, my glasses, and a quarter of a tonne of freshly-bathed flesh blocking a low-watt bulb, I have no idea, but I’m committed now.

‘I’m Robert from ABC News. We’re all big fans and would love to interview you this evening on Good Morning America’.

As he takes and opens the envelope, Chad says ‘Sure, I love Bryant Gumbel, that would be great.’

Bryant Gumbel is a black sportscaster who hosts America’s most popular breakfast show. 

Now didn’t seem to be the right moment to point out that Bryant Gumbel is host of The Today Show on NBC News, not ABC’s Good Morning America, so I let that one go.

‘That’s great!’, I say, trying to play it cool. Inside, I was leaping about like a six-year-old. I added, ‘We’ll send a car round to pick you up at 7 this evening, then, OK?’.

The invitation he was scanning contained the details – the ABC News bureau was about half an hour away, and we were proposing a live interview at peak viewing time, 7am in New York, 9pm Tokyo time.

‘Thanks, man, that’d be cool’, said Japan’s newly-promoted 64th yokozuna. I was glad I’d gone with Chad, rather than Akebono. I went to shake his massive hand again, to seal the deal.

But he withdrew it. ‘Better run it by the boss first though’.

Ah, dammnit, Of course.  Akebono couldn’t do anything without the approval of his stablemaster, Jesse.

My heart sank. This was by no means a done deal. Though also Hawaiian, Jesse had become as Japanese as any fuddy-duddy member of the Japan Sumo Association. They would never have let him run his own stable if they didn’t completely trust him to do the Right Thing.

But would Jesse think that letting his wunderkind protege make his first appearance as yokozuna on American TV was the Right Thing?

As I followed Chad down a tatami corridor to seek Jesse’s OK, I wasn’t so sure it was.

During our procession from the bathroom to the stablemaster’s quarters, everyone bows at Akebono as he passes. 

Tagging along in his wake, I feel like a suckerfish following a Great White Shark.

When the Great White Shark slides open the paper door to his stablemaster, he turns into a kitten.

Jesse sits crossed-legged, behind a low table laden with gifts, surrounded by several of his wrestlers, all with bigger piles of gifts in front of them.

Jesse is dressed in the formal robes of an oyakata. Maybe he’s just done that press conference outside, with all my journalist colleagues. The ABC New crew must be wondering where the hell I am, I think, briefly.

Bowing deeply, Chad introduces me. Or rather, Akebono does, as he does it in Japanese, bowing slightly.  

This honoured guest is from ABC News – his voice is respectfully low, but still audible to everyone in the room.  

He’s requesting a live interview with his humble self that evening on Good Morning America – would the honourable stablemaster be agreeable to this proposition?

Jesse nods at me – but clearly in greeting, not in approval.  

The crowded room, already hushed at the entry of their new yokozuna, now falls completely silent.

Jesse continues to ponder, inscrutable, his demeanour neither encouraging nor discouraging.

While I wait for his response, I glance around the room. There are presents everywhere, huge bouquets, straw-bound barrels of sake, one open, all adorned with congratulatory calligraphy. I recognise the logos of some broadcasters, big Japanese brands, yakuza front companies and other sponsors.

Suddenly, all this evidence of Japanese etiquette makes me panic, and despair. My proposition, delivered with such assurance only minutes before, now seems utterly ludicrous.  

How could Jesse possibly agree to let his star yokozuna waste the privilege of his first exclusive interview, on American TV? 

With one word of assent, at the peak of his stablemaster career, Jesse could blow all the good faith and trust he’d painstakingly accumulated over three decades in Japan, now visible in all the piles of gifts..

Still no reply. I search Jesse’s face for a clue. He closes his eyes.

Is Jesse making the same calculations that I am?  

Is there anything I could say now to nudge him into saying yes?

I consider my options. 

I could hint that given the current state of bilateral relations, the Foreign Ministry might be very happy at this cost-free gesture of goodwill.

I could suggest that giving American TV the first interview might be an elegant solution to not having to choose between all those competing Japanese broadcasters, whose ostentatious gifts his colleagues are now opening.

These Japan Expert insights into Japanese culture impress me. I almost start to convince myself. 

But wait a minute – if I were to say these things out loud in front of everyone, like a typical gauche gaijin foreigner – wouldn’t that make Jesse lose face, and force him into a No?

The silence lengthens. Jesse’s eyes remain closed.

I feel I should say or do something, but don’t know what.

Reflexes developed over four years as a Japanese corporate salariman kick in. When in doubt, whip out a name card. 

I reach inside my jacket to retrieve my card holder. Maybe a card with the ABC News logo will trigger some respect from Jesse’s distant past as a Hawaiian beach bum, and break whatever ice might be forming. 

But as I reach into my jacket pocket, I remember I’m just as Ass Prod. Sending such a low-ranking delegate is hardly a mark of respect.  But in this musical statues room, my hand is the only thing moving, and all eyes are on it. I feel like a gangster surrounded by armed cops reaching for his concealed weapon.

My arm is in motion, my hand heading for the interior of my jacket.  Akebono is holding the invitation letter – I’m teetering. 

My hand touches something unfamiliar. Of course. 

Styling it out, I remove the bottle of whisky I’d completely forgotten about, and place it gently on the low table, in front of Jesse. 

Akebono gives me a quick glance. My glasses are still a bit steamed up, so I can’t be sure – was that a micro-nod of approval?

I look back at Jesse. He hasn’t moved. His eyes remain closed.

Hang on – is he snoring?

Seconds pass. Another stertorous intake of breath.  No one else in the room seems to be reacting. 

Maybe Jesse’s just a heavy breather.

But with each new breath, doubts fade. Another 30 seconds and Jesse’s sawing logs, snoring like an elephant seal.

No one else in the room moves a muscle, everyone has their eyes studiously lowered. Jesse is clearly totally sparked out.

I glance at Chad for guidance. Discreetly, he darts his eyes towards the exit. We both bow and reverse out of the room.

A final bow, as Akebono closes the door in front of us.

‘Was that a yes?’ I whisper.

Akebono pauses, purses his lips, and tilts his massive head, surmounted by his samurai topknot, to one side.

‘It’s probably fine, man’.  

This was Chad speaking, not Akebono, but what does Chad know? How much confidence should I place on Chad’s casual  judgement? 

The first-ever foreign yokozuna, on the day of his historic elevation, clearly has plenty of other things on his mind. But for this Ass Prod., this scoop could be career-changing 

‘Great!’ I say, with much less assurance than I was feeling.

‘The car will pick you up at 7pm’ I say, perkily. ‘We’re all big fans, and  look forward to seeing you at the Bureau at 7.30, for the live interview at 9pm.’  

The flattery is hardly likely to make a difference, but I hope that by making the arrangement, I’m making it happen. 

I raise my hand to seal the deal with a handshake, and look up at Chad for reassurance.

But loosey-goosey Chad has gone. He’s been replaced by inscrutable Akebono.

Once again I find myself styling it out.  I lower my hand to my side and bow my farewell instead. 

In Episode 10 – Teetering: Scoop or Bust?, we discover Jesse’s verdict.