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Teetering – Watching the Wide Shows: The Truth Lies Podcast S6E7

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, sumo reveals a critical verdict.

In Episode 7, Japan is glued to its TV screens, as sumo’s Yokozuna Deliberation Committee delivers its hinkaku-pondering verdict, as Akebono’s career hangs in the balance…

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

Next Episode 8 – A Winter Jacket (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 7 – Watching the TV Wide Shows

The morning after Akebono, known to his Hawaiian beach buddies as Chad Rowan, won his second consecutive grand sumo tournament as ozeki, all of Japan’s national broadcasters carried the same live event.

The mid-morning press conference of the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee.

Everyone in Japan who wasn’t operating heavy machinery, giving birth or performing emergency surgery tuned in. 

This included the entire ABC News Tokyo Bureau staff. We’d just pulled an all-nighter, rewarded by our report on Akebono’s victory leading America’s top-rated evening news broadcast.

But that was just the set-up. Now comes the punchline.  

We’re all there, in front of the array of TV screens in the ABC News Tokyo Bureau. 

Our seating and standing arrangement reflects our status, as precisely as that seen in the yokozuna ring–entering ceremony, where the Grand Champion is surrounded by various junior acolytes and functionaires. 

Centre stage, seated, the two American ex-pats, The Bureau Chief, his brick-sized mobile phone in his lap – this was 1993, remember. The Correspondent, with his wilting network hair.  

Seated beside them, seniority declines as we radiate from the Americans. First the Japanese camera crew – veteran cameraman, younger sound man, younger lighting guy-cum-driver. 

Standing behind them are me and the Bureau’s Japanese female production staff.  My fellow local-hire Associate Producer Yoko, night-shift Ass Prod Ms. Katoh, and our fastidious office manager. 

Even the office cleaning lady, not technically staff, but a constant bowing, bent and wrinkled spectral presence, stopped to watch with us, her mop before her grasped like a microphone stand.

Behind us, a row of telex machines chunter out the wire service news – Reuters, AP, AFP, Kyodo. Before us, a row of seven TV monitors.  

They all show a row of big men in black robes, ex-sumo wrestlers, now members of the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee.

They sit cross-legged on a tatami mat. Level with their barrel chests, a low table bristles with microphones bearing broadcaster logos.

Each screen in the bureau is tuned to a different national TV station, but they’re all broadcasting the same scene, from slightly different angles. 

This was actually a common sight, mid-morning. Between the breakfast news and lunchtime news, all TV stations aired what they called the ‘wide shows’.  Wide shows are daytime TV panel shows that fill air time on the cheap, with celebrity gossip, silly games, or silly games about celebrity gossip.

They’d often cover the same live press conference, as they were this morning.

Usually it was a sobbing singer or soap opera star apologising for something or other. On slow news days – most days in Japan were slow news days – I’d amuse myself with a game of Guess-the-Broadcaster From the Camera Angle.

Like everything in Japan, the TV stations’ tripods were arranged according to an unvarying and strict hierarchy.  

NHK, the state broadcaster, always had the best spot, dead centre. It had two channels, NHK 1 for the boring stuff, NHK 2 for the stuff that was too boring for NHK 1. 

Plucky stragglers TV Tokyo are always banished to the end of the line. Their celebrities always appear in profile. The tripods bearing the cameras of the others – TV Asahi, Nippon TV, Fuji TV, TBS – are placed in between. Their proximity to dead centre is determined by their market heft and tie-in deals with the particular celebrity involved.

Seeing all the broadcasters airing almost exactly the same press conference, at exactly the same time, prompts my usual reflection on Japanese values.

Japan’s sense of solidarity is often appealing. American individualism was often indistinguishable from screw-you selfishness, when set against Japanese common purpose, and shared values.

But the wide shows always struck me as an example of the downside of this reluctance to be different, to take a risk, to stand out from the crowd. ‘Deru kugi wa utareru’ – ‘the nail that sticks out will be hammered down’, is  the oft-quoted Japanese version of ‘tall poppy syndrome’. 

Such wall-to-wall coverage is more the rule than the exception, but I doubt if any morning press conference before or since has had higher ratings than the one we’re gathering to watch this fine winter Monday morning.

Anyone unfamiliar with the Akebono drama would be astonished at the degree of attention being bestowed upon an announcement by the chairman of a 9-man sub-committee of the Japan Sumo Association.  

But in 1993, no one is unfamiliar with the Akebono drama. 

All Japan is watching. We, the foreign media, are watching for the rest of the world. Whatever the outcome, it will be a massive story.  

If Japan’s sumo establishment snubs another American wrestler, it could literally cause a diplomatic incident.  

If, on the other hand, the Committee agrees to elevate this former Hawaiian beach bum to the semi-mystical rank of Grand Champion, it would be as symbolic a moment as when Commodore Perry sailed his gunboat into Tokyo Harbour in 1853, and shocked the samurai out of centuries of isolation.

Agog, with the rest of Japan, we hang on the words of the burly ex-wrestler, cross legged on tatami mat in his black robes. Reading from a sheet of paper, mumbling in low tones, he announces – Chad has done it.

Akebono ozeki is now Akebono yokozuna.

The 64th wrestler to receive the honour since the first recorded yokozuna more than three centuries before, was not from Fukuoka, Nagano, Hokkaido or Chiba, but Waimānalo,Hawaii.

While the rest of Japan celebrates, or despairs, the ABC News Tokyo Bureau clicks into action, slick as a commando unit.  

We’ve discussed options, and now swiftly execute Plan A.  

The Bureau Chief gets on the phone to New York, and starts negotiating slots.

The correspondent preps his hair to network standard, preparing for his live shot from the little room at the back of the bureau that serves as our studio.   

The office manager returns to her ring binders and ledgers.

The cleaning lady reverses her grip of her microphone stand, bows to no one in particular, and resumes her mopping.

My fellow Ass Prod Yoko grabs a box of blank tapes. I grab a heavy camera tripod. We set off down the stairs together, going over the plan one last time.

Yoko’s destination is the short walk to our towering neighbour, the state broadcaster. As well as being the sumo TV rights-holder, they have a footage-exchange agreement with ABC News.

In New York, their Yoko-equivalent has the right to scavenge ABC News Head office for the best morsels of our coverage and archive footage. We get to do the same on the other side of the Pacific.

This is definitely a Yoko job. I’d had a go, just to learn the ropes, but she’s a black belt at this kind of thing. An attractive, young, female native speaker, repeated experiments have proved, always returns with better morsels than me.

Yoko and I have the same job title, but even within the broad remit of Associate Production, we’ve developed our specialisms.

The role of the Associate Producer, or Ass Prod as I insist on abbreviating it on my name card to no one’s amusement but my own, is very broad. 

On some stories we’re effectively the Producer, coming up with the idea, key contacts or access, even doing all the interviews and directing the filming.

At other times we’re worker ants, dispatched by the American Bureau Chief or Correspondent on specific missions. The kind of tasks that were either below their pay grade, or beyond their chat-up line Japanese.

The first thing Yoko and I do on receiving such a mission is to decide which of us should make the phone call, or knock on the door. 

By now my Japanese is  pretty good. My years working for a Japanese trading company have made my formal telephone Japanese particularly good for a foreigner.

But Yoko is a native speaker. She’s also a she, and an attractive young she at that. 

These were key factors in our debates about determining which of us should make the critical first contact.

I reckon these internal tactical debates taught me more about Japanese society than anything else I’ve ever done.

You see, a native speaker isn’t always the best person. 

As a Japanese, and a Japanese woman in particular, Yoko is obliged to conform to certain rigid social rules. A persuasive manner, sharp brain and coquettish charm form a powerful arsenal, especially with older Japanese men in positions of power.  

But, like a geisha tottering on wooden clogs, the fact that they know Yoko is Japanese limits her range of movement.

As a foreigner, not only am I not expected to know such rules, but most Japanese have no idea how to deal with a Japanese-speaking foreigner who breaks them. Especially one that knows he’s breaking them, but doesn’t let on.

So we’d strategise, then allocate tasks between us on a case-by-case basis. 

For example, interviewing a rice farmer was definitely a Yoko call. We’d imagine a Japanese rice farmer from Nagano being called in from feeding the chickens by his excited wife, and conclude he’s far more likely to say yes to a young female native speaker than to a foreigner, however punctilious his formal Japanese.

If, on the other hand, we’re tasked with filming at a car factory, that’s almost certainly a Robert call.  

We’d have to request via the PR department. Ignoring all our evasions, they’re perfectly aware we’ll be using the footage for a story on US-Japan trade wars. 

For a Japanese car-maker in 1993, having your factory appear on the top-rated evening news show in America is a double-edged samurai sword – free publicity versus negative association. Being Japanese, they’d instinctively take the risk-averse option of turning us down.

But – and this is a fun bit – being Japanese, they’re not actually capable of saying ‘No’. 

If you think the British are mealy-mouthed and indirect, compared to the Japanese, we’re as blunt as Germans.  

Japanese car maker PR suits are incapable of uttering the words ‘No. Not this time. Go Away. Goodbye’.  

They too are as constrained by their suits and company pins as any geisha is by her wooden sandals, elaborate coiffure, and narrow kimono.  

As Japanese salariman, they have to indirectly convey their refusal via the rich variety of impact-softeners the Japanese language furnishes.  

To which I, as a foreigner, can be cheerfully, obdurately, obtusely, oblivious. 

I loved it when they said ‘chotto muri’. Yoko and I would make these calls with the speakerphone on, making suggestions or encouraging each other via sign language or jotted notes.

Whenever a PR manager says ‘chotto muri’ to me, Yoko starts sniggering behind her hand. ‘Chotto muri’  literally means ‘That’s slightly impossible’. Between Japanese, it’s the equivalent of saying ‘No Way. Forget It. Go Away.’.  

But to an artfully-ignorant foreigner, it’s a gimme. 

In sumo terms, the moment they suck air and said ‘chotto muri’ , they’ve given me a double-handed inside belt grip. 

‘Ah, it’s only slightly impossible then’, I say, smiling at Yoko, grabbing their mawashi with both hands, levering them off their feet and shuffling forward.  ‘Now what can we do in order to make it possible?’.  

At that point, victory was inevitable. Both PR manager and I now know it’s just become easier for them to say Yes, than to keep trying to fend me off with Japanese circumlocution.  

Moments later, I march them out of the ring, their legs flailing in the air. Defeated, they invite us to film at their Nagoya plant next Tuesday.

As a foreigner, I could be impervious to their politesse, and get results no Japanese could. 

Go ahead and draw parallels between the Hawaiian giants bulldozing their way through the Japanese wrestlers – I can’t stop you. I’d only point out that, like Jesse, the Dump Truck, the Ferocious Warehouse and Akebono, I employ a certain degree of technique as well as brute force.

So, the moment that sumo elder announced Chad Rowan’s elevation to Akebono yokozuna, Yoko and I snap into our predetermined specialist roles.

Yoko heads next door to trawl the state broadcaster for prime morsels.

I, the British Ass Prod with two years experience in the game, hail a taxi, pause for the boot to automatically open, heave the tripod in, jump in the back seat and ask the white-gloved driver to take me to Ryogoku.

No need for any more detailed directions. 

The radio is on, and there’s only one story in Japan this morning.

A foreigner with a big camera tripod going from outside the state broadcaster to Ryogoku, the district by the national sumo stadium where all the sumo stables are?

He knows exactly where to take me – right to Jesse’s stable door, now home to Japan’s 64th yokozuna.

What he doesn’t know is that my ambition wasn’t limited to staking pole camera position outside, awaiting the first public utterance.

He can’t see what’s concealed inside my jacket.

There’s no visible clue that I’m attempting to land the first exclusive one-on-one interview with the hottest property in Japan.

In Episode 8, A Winter Jacket, an Invitation and a Bottle of Whisky, we’ll hear how my plan panned out.