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Teetering: The Truth Lies Podcast Series 6 Omnibus Edition

Japan podcast sumo international relations tv news journalism career geopolitics akebono

All 10 Episodes of our sumo suspense story of How a Hawaiian Beach Bum Held My Career In The Balance

This omnibus edition features all 10 Episodes of his largely entirely true sumo suspense thriller, set in 1993 Japan.

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

Episode 9 – Inside the Stable

Episode 10 – Scoop or Bust

Next: Series 7 | Marcus & Jemima – How I Deal With People At Parties Who Assume I Have Children

(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.

For more visit


Episode 1 – Japan in 1993

1993 was a particularly interesting time to be in Japan.

For 125 million Japanese, it marked the beginning of the end of its Bubble Economy. Though no one knew that at the time.

For my employer, the future was bright. ABC News reigned as America’s top-ranked news network. In the news business, everyone knew that at the time.

For me, aged 28, it was a turning point in my life. No one knew that until now, because I’m about to tell you this story for the first time.

Now for us all – the 125 million Japanese, the international media, me – 1993 revealed new fault lines in Japan’s relationship with foreigners.  

The story I’m about to tell you was a crossroads for me, but … well, I’ll leave you to decide if it bears any deeper significance.

I won’t be the one to claim it exposed the first cracks in Japan’s self-confidence, as its Bubble Economy burst. 

You won’t hear me saying it’s a profound parable of national exceptionalism.

Even though you just did. 

Like all stories, the story you’re about to hear means different things to different people. 

What mattered to 125 million Japanese may not have mattered to American TV news. What mattered to American TV News, may not have been important to me. 

And you may not even believe half of this story, even though it’s entirely true, largely. 


Let’s get on with this pivotal moment in my life, and the role played in it by an affable Hawaiian beach bum called Chad.

For a start, I should explain what this 28-year-old Brit was doing in Japan in 1993.

It had been two years since I’d quit my high-flying executive job in London. I was into my second year as Associate Producer at the ABC News Tokyo Bureau. 

I was starting to feel a bit less of a fraud. When asked what I did, I’d now reply ‘TV news’ without sounding apologetic or surprised.  

It was a steep learning curve. When I got the job, my only qualifications were a degree in classical Chinese poetry and 4 years trading textiles at a Japanese company none of my friends had heard of.

My friends found the textile trading thing particularly amusing. I was, and remain, among the least fashion-conscious people they know.

Becoming a journalist was maybe less of a surprise, but a TV journalist? Well, that was a surprise. 

I’ve always been a word person. At art galleries, I spend more time reading the blurbs than admiring the paintings. I’m more wordsmith than artist.

I fell into journalism as a stopgap. The story I’m about to tell you isn’t just about the moment I teetered between victory and defeat, vindication and humiliation. 

It’s also about a personal moment of truth that took place at the heart of a knife-edge geopolitical crisis.

Two years before, in 1991, I moved to the most expensive city in the world without a job. I soon found myself in a tight spot. 

As Emperor Hirohito described Japan’s wartime progress in December 1945, events had not necessarily developed in my favour. 

A few months before, I announced my own unconditional surrender to the business world. My friends and family barely raised an eyebrow.

I told them I was quitting my sensible job to move to Tokyo to be an environmental consultant for major Japanese corporations.

They nodded and said good luck. Maybe, the moment I left the room, they rolled their eyes and shook their heads at each other. I couldn’t say for sure.  I’d left the room.

But I understood their relaxed attitude. For four years, I’d tried and failed to explain my first post-university job to them.

I didn’t really think I was cut out to be a businessman. Neither did anyone who knew me. Even if I had been, explaining my job would have been a challenge.

My employer, the global trading company C. Itoh, bought and sold everything everywhere. But – no one had ever heard of them.

Nobody believed me when I insisted I worked for the world’s biggest company – bigger than General Motors, Exxon or any other pre-internet giant of the time. Nothing.

They were impressed by my frequent business trips, and familiarity with London’s Japanese restaurants and bars. 

I amused them with tidbits of Japanese corporate culture. I told them I had become a salariman, the Japanese word for ‘businessman’. This only encouraged them to think of my job as no more than an eccentric diversion.

They were right, as it turned out. Had my friends and family known how much I was getting paid, and how rapidly I’d risen through the corporate ranks, they might have suggested giving it a couple more years. They might have subjected my quixotic plan to more scrutiny.

But they didn’t. So it was that I landed in Tokyo in 1991, with a suitcase containing my only suit, good formal office Japanese, and a head full of dreams. 

In Japan, my former employer’s status was stratospheric. Personnel Departments of various top Japanese corporations quickly agreed to meet me. 

But after a few weeks, and a dozen or so meetings ending in mutual embarrassed silence, I realised the job I’d made up for myself didn’t exist.

Plan A was a bust. My savings were evaporating at an alarming rate. If I wasn’t to slink home, tail between my legs, I needed a job quick.

A writer friend wangled me temporary membership of the Tokyo Foreign Correspondents Club, as an impressive place to have meetings.

One day, a hand-written note appeared on its notice board. The Tokyo Bureau of ABC News was looking for a ‘temporary researcher’. 

I called their office manager in my best formal Japanese, and landed an interview with the Bureau Chief. I mentioned I had an Australian passport, via my Sydney-born mother, in case that might grease the wheels.

It was only as I knocked on their bureau door, and saw the logo, I clocked it was the American ABC News, not the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.  That was one potential embarrassment dodged.

Well, I blagged my way into the temporary job. After a few weeks I was offered, and gratefully accepted, a full-time position as a local- hire Associate Producer

I had no idea what an ‘Associate Producer’ did, but on the English side of my bilingual name card, I was amused to abbreviate it to Ass Prod

That’s how I came to be in Tokyo in 1993, a year and a bit into an entry-level job in the completely new world of TV News, for which I had no training and barely any experience. 

And that’s when a Hawaiian beach bum called Chad had me Teetering between victory and defeat.

In Episode 2, Seduced by Sumo, we start to get to grips with this story.

Teetering was written, narrated and produced by SternWriter

Audio production by Rupert Kirkham

Podcast sting by Samuel Wain, Series sound composition by Simon Elms.

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

Thank you for listening.

Episode 2 – Seduced by Sumo

You can say what you like about the producers of the early James Bond films. But never, ever, accuse them of being oversensitive to, or nit-picking about, cultural stereotypes.

Remember when Sean Connery was in the oriental lair of The Evil Villain to steal The Important Thing? Remember the goon that discovers him in the penthouse suite? A sumo wrestler. Bond renders him unconscious with a piece of sculpture.

Or when Roger Moore was in a different oriental lair of a successor Evil Villain to steal The Other Important Thing? Remember the goon that surprises him in the garden?  A sumo wrestler. Bond wins that one by wedgie.

If you’re objecting that neither the Villains nor even the goons were Japanese, that’s what I mean about oversensitivity and nit-picking.

I’m not talking about the cultural crassness of lumping all Orientals together, but about your entirely reasonable reaction to this cultural crassness.

Sumo is Japanese. It’s not Thai, or Malaysian, or Korean, Chinese, or generically Oriental, but unmistakably, indubitably, quintessentially Japanese. 

The priest-like robes of the referees, the salt-throwing purification of the wrestlers as they enter the ring – all pure Shinto ritual, and Shinto is pure Japanese.

Japan is the only country with a Shinto option on its census form. It’s ticked by 70% of Japanese citizens. 70% also tick the Buddhist box, but let’s park that one for now.

By the time I moved to Tokyo in 1991, I was more than aware of sumo. If you’d told me then that within two years, sumo would provide a make-or-break moment in my fledgling career, well…, you could have knocked me over with a gunbai. 

Gunbai, the wooden fans sumo referees point at the victorious wrestler, was just one of the pieces of sumo jargon bandied about on TV stations around the world during the 80s. 

Overseas broadcasters started airing highlights of Japan’s six annual tournaments. Sumo became a breakout cult sport. In certain households, sumo’s top-ranked wrestlers were household names. 

A hip demographic grew familiar with such obscure Japanese words as gunbai.  By the 1980s, TV producers were more culturally sensitive than their 1960s and 70s James Bond counterparts. Japan was now the world’s second-biggest economy. Japanese culture now demanded more than mere novelty status.

Western sumo coverage danced between pantomime and opera. 

I imagine the original pitch to the broadcasters from the TV production company must have gone something like ‘Sumo – it’s WWF meets, Catholic ritual meets Proper Wrestling – but without God, baffling rules or homo-erotic overtones. Actually – let’s keep the homo-erotic overtones. Their arse-cheeks are in constant close-up!’.

The wrestlers were larger than life, in the literal sense of being bloody enormous, but so were the stars of Western professional wrestling.

Sumo brought something different, more exotic, nuanced – dare I say ‘inscrutable’.

Sumo had plenty of spectacular bling and colourful razzmatazz, but its wrestlers displayed low-key humility, not pantomime heroes and villains. Unlike Hulk Hogan or Giant Haystacks, their contests were unscripted, with real-world consequences. 

Commentators on Western TV stations treated sumo with respect, sometimes more than it seemed to deserve. They’d earnestly tell us the history of sumo stretched back centuries – the Japanese claim millennia – but the reason we were all watching was that sumo is totally made for TV. 

The cartoonish physiques, the close-ups of the fleshy faces framed by samurai topknots, the slow-burn intensity of anticipatory ceremony, punctuated by flurries of ultra-violence. 

We’d watch it all in transfixed bafflement. The pre-bout ritual goes on for minutes on end, but is utterly captivating – theatrical salt-flinging, ponderous eyeballing, ritual stamping and belly-slapping.

Finally, time slows to a crawl. Two squatting wrestlers, psyched up into some kind of zen synchronicity, simultaneously touch the clay surface of the fighting ring, and become flesh-and-blood Transformers.

In that instant, those cute super-babies, sloth-slow in what looked like nappies, become balletic, fast-forwarded Godzillas.

Their arms blur into flailing, slapping whirlwinds of hostility. This onslaught can end the bout in seconds, as one wrestler forces the other from the ring, or tricks him into plunging forward into thin air and belly-flopping to defeat.

If one of the wrestlers secures a grip of his opponent’s belt – no longer a nappy, but a mawashi – it becomes a different game. The slapping maelstrom now subsides, replaced by a bewitching balance of judo throwing skills and linebacker pushing power.

The fighting area, the reverent commentators inform us, is called a dohyo. Do means earth, the raised clay platform they clamber up to. Hyo means bale, as in the semi-buried straw bundles that form the perimeter of the ring.

The rules are playground-simple. First wrestler to touch inside the ring with anything other than the soles of their feet, or outside the ring with anything at all, loses. 

There are many ways to achieve this – slapping, pushing, shoving, twisting, tripping, throwing, dodging – anything that doesn’t involve a fist. 

Each technique has its own Japanese term, acquiring a poetic mystique with repetition. 

Yorikiri – grabbing your opponent’s belt and marching him out. 

Oshidashi – shoving him in the chest, without a belt grip. 

Tsukidashi – the straight-arm slapping whirlwind. 

But I never heard the name for my favourite manoeuvre.

I called it The Teetering. In a Teetering, both wrestlers have double-handed grips on each others’ belts. Effectively, they’ve become a single solid slab of flesh, with two competing pairs of legs.

In a Teetering, one wrestler manages to shove his opponent right up to the edge of the ring. 

Time slows again in an exquisite zen moment of equilibrium. The slab of flesh stands upright, right on the brink, on tiptoe, every visible muscle, visibly straining. 

The Bulldozer Teeterer, his back to the centre of the dohyo, is in pole position, a millimetre from victory.

The Tiptoe Teeterer, apparently fighting a lost cause, balances on the balls of his feet, toes gripping the woven straw cylinders forming the edge of the ring, a millimetre from defeat.

But – an imperceptible loss of concentration, one momentary relaxation ahead of the decisive last shove, and the tables can be turned.  

Tiptoe Teeterer can pivot on the balls of his feet, fall to one side, and, in a desperate last-gasp, fling Bulldozer Teeterer towards the spectators surrounding the dohyo

His bolt shot, Tiptoe Teeterer now stiffens into a defiant plank, remaining horizontal till the last instant, defying gravity in the hope he can delay hitting the clay until a millisecond after his opponent ends up in the laps of the front row.

Teeterings are rare, in fact most bouts are over in seconds, meaning 95% of the screen time is taken up with all the salt-throwing, belly-slapping, eyeballing ritual of the build-up. 

Sumo in the UK in the 80s wasn’t for everyone, but was exotic catnip for some. Sumo was scheduled after pub-closing time, and catered to the drunk student demographic. But for many – and I was one – every frame of every bout was fascinating.

Centre stage, of course, were the mountainous wrestlers, naked save for their mawashi – the belts, made from folded lengths of colourful silk. The mawashi’s only function, it seemed, was to provide something to grab hold of that wouldn’t make the wrestlers’ – or viewers’ – eyes water.   

Nearly always in shot beside these wobbling but surprisingly bendy behemoths, were the referees. They were absurdly weedy, overdressed in embroidered silk robes, festooned with knots, tassels, clutching mysterious paraphernalia.  

Refereeing sumo seemed less like a job than a vocation. Background video inserts would explain their role and get-up. ‘‘Gyoji’, these referees-cum-priests were called.

A gyoji’s outfit included a secreted knife for ritual self-disembowelment in the event of a wrong decision.

They fussed about, these gyoji, dwarfed by the wrestlers fastidious as oxpeckers on a rhino, intoning ritual chants. 

Those respectful Western commentators solemnly informed us the ping-pong-bat-like …things…they carried were called gunbai.  

Gunbaiya to that, we’d giggle in our beanbags. But the commentators were above such gags. 

Video inserts would interrupt proceedings to explain, po-faced, the religious and cultural origins of all the bling, piling the correct terms on each other until they were speaking more Japanese than English.

Those gunbai were originally a special kind of wooden fan used by samurai generals. The referees – sorry, the gyoji – used the bat – ach, the gunbai, to point to the victorious wrestler – sorry, rikishi.   The rikishi might be ranked as sekiwake, ozeki or the semi-mystical rank of yokozuna, Grand Champion.

This seasoning of Japanese vocabulary was part of sumo’s exotic, niche, appeal. This sumo wasn’t some throwaway James Bond prop. Broadcasters gave due respect to the sport’s religious origins.

These constant reminders of sumo’s cultural significance avoided any suggestion that any elements of the sumo spectacle were, well, a bit silly…  

Those silk-robed gyoji using their wooden gunbai to point to the victorious rikishi, for example.  Was there the remotest chance that even the most casual, non-sports-fan observer might not realise which bloke had won?

The rules were pretty simple after all.

The bloke the ref was pointing to with his ping-pong bat? The squatting, sweating and panting one? That’s the winner.   

The bloke being levered up by the miraculously un-squished spectators in the front row? That’s the loser. 

Did that really require a samurai warrior’s fan?

But sumo was the wrong place for such smart-alecry. It would have been crass, plain rude, out of keeping. Outside of their few seconds of sanctioned violent assault, sumo wrestlers are always, unfailingly, polite. 

No WWF showboating or crowd-baiting here. The loser bows to the victor before heading offstage to the changing rooms.   

The victor, interviewed away from the hallowed and sanctified dohyo fighting ring -pants out mumbled modest platitudes.  

He downplays his own role in his victory. The credit goes to hard work and the support of his trainer and colleagues. 

Cue another vocabulary lesson. Not ‘trainer’, but ‘Oyakata’, translated for some reason as ‘stablemasters’. Not ‘stables’ but sumo-beya – training facilities in a specific area of Tokyo, called Ryogoku.

Another video insert. This one shows y sumo slebs waddling around the narrow neighbourhood streets of Ryogoku, in their off-duty blue and white printed cotton robes, wooden sandals, and anointed top-knots. 

Comparing them to obese cross-dressing geisha, would have been crass. The kind of thing James Bond might have said.

Even this respectful coverage, however, rationed its use of Japanese. The wrestlers’ fighting names, which usually included the Chinese characters for ‘mountain’, ‘big’ and ‘humongous’, were neither easy to remember or to pronounce.

The only concession foreign telly made to crassness was the superhero-style nicknames they gave the big stars.  

‘Dump Truck’. ‘Meat Bomb’. Undignified, yes, but undeniably easier to remember than ‘Konishiki’. ‘The Wolf’ – much catchier than ‘Chiyonofuji’ .

These manga-like monikers exemplified the appeal of sumo – its constant tension between the sublime and the cartoonish. Are we watching a religious ritual, or a pantomime?  

Why choose? Why not both?

While working as a salariman in London, I’d watch the sumo on British telly. When they announced Britain’s first official Japan Week would include an exhibition tournament, I queued for tickets at the Royal Albert Hall. Like all Japan Week events, it sold out, testament to Japan’s rising international status, and sumo’s peculiar appeal. 

My employers paid for regular Japanese lessons, and I was an enthusiastic student. The fact that I’d studied Chinese provided a big leg-up. Japanese is about as structurally different from Chinese as it can be, but when they came to write their indigenous tongue, Japan was so in thrall to Chinese culture, they decided to adapt Chinese characters, even though the result was a horrendously – and quite unnecessarily – complicated combination of two different syllabaries plus Chinese characters.

As my Japanese improved, sumo’s specialist vocabulary may have tripped off my tongue a bit more fluently than most, but in truth I was just another foreign sumo fan. I didn’t really get it. 

But that was about to change.

In 1991, as I packed for my new life in Tokyo,  a London-based Chinese restaurateur was planning to launch a chain of Japanese noodle bars, called Wagamama. Like British customers ever since, I was consuming the ersatz version of sumo, modified for the foreign palate.

After I moved to Tokyo, I got a taste for the real thing. 

When I folded my only suit into my suitcase, I had no idea that in a few weeks I’d be starting a job in TV news.

If you’d told me then that within two years, sumo would provide a make-or-break moment in that fledgling career, well…, you could have knocked me over with a gunbai. 

In Episode 3 – Sumo Fan, we go deep into the sumo wormhole.

Episode 3 – Sumo Fan

Not long after arriving in Japan, I started paying serious attention to sumo. 

This was partly because of the interest kindled by the TV coverage I’d seen in the UK, but was also a consequence of my new job.

In 1991, before 24-hour news and constant demand for online content, working in a TV news bureau was a very different job. There was way more down-time.

Quite often, not much happened, at least so far as making the evening news on American TV was concerned.  

As I learned the ropes of TV news, I was learning as much about America as about Japan. Getting a coveted spot on World News Tonight With Peter Jennings, the USA’s Number-One-rated news show, watched by 60 million Americans every evening, was hard. 

Seen from New York, Japan was important, but almost never urgent. It wasn’t the Middle East, where things happened spectacularly on a daily basis. It wasn’t a near neighbour, like Canada, Mexico and Central America. It wasn’t Europe,with all its cultural familiarity.

Of course our New York editors knew Japan was a Big Story – after the end of the Cold War, Japan formed America’s most important bilateral relationship bar none. It was the biggest trading partnership on the planet. That’s why the ABC News Tokyo Bureau was so lavishly staffed. Our dozen employees included three Ass Prods, two for daytime and one for overnight.

But in the absence of Hard News –  floods, fire, famine, and terrorism – getting a Japan story on air was tough. This was my introduction to the subtle art of the News Feature. 

News Features are non-urgent stories that require some kind of ‘hook’ to get on air. The visit of a senior cabinet official, some spurious anniversary, the rounder the number the better, anything – some American connection, however tenuous, was a prerequisite for making the news.

Part of the job of an Ass Prod was to know what was happening, to be informed, ready to produce a high-production-value 2-3 minute news report whenever New York wanted. Slow news days in America were as likely to prompt the call from the news desk as anything happening on our side, so you always had to Be Prepared.

In my letters home, I used to explain the job was like being a concert pianist on 24-hour call for some concert broadcast. They might only cut to you for 30 seconds every week, but you’d never know when, and whenever they did, you had to be playing perfectly .

So, a lot of the job turned out to be just practising, doing scales, studying the score. Being Prepared.  

The ABC News Tokyo Bureau had a row of  tellies on 24/7, each tuned to one of the national broadcasters.

Every two months, for two weeks, for two prime-time hours every day, the one tuned to the state broadcaster would show the sumo. 

And I’d watch.

One of the great things about working in TV news is there’s no such thing as goofing off. You can justify almost anything as ‘research’, and I researched the hell out of sumo.

It was good for my Japanese, reading as well as listening, but no one raised an eyebrow at me studying this particular monitor for two hours every day. 

My Japanese colleagues would fill me in on some tabloid gossip the TV commentators were too diplomatic to mention. The more I learned, the more intrigued I became.

This, then, was the start of my journey from casual fan to sumo nut. 

Being in Japan, I wanted to see it live, but in the early 90s, this had never been tougher. Tournaments always sold out, tickets were impossible to buy in advance. I was still too green to think of wangling a press ticket, leaving me in the same position as any other Japanese sumo fan. 

There was, I discovered, one way ordinary punters could hope to see live sumo, but it involved either getting up very early, or not going to bed at all. 

On the morning of each of the two Tokyo tournaments, the Japan Sumo Association releases 200 standing-room-only tickets. First-come, first-served. 

My Japanese colleagues told me I’d need to start queuing at 4am to stand a chance.

So one day, to be sure, I show up at 3am. Even then I only just make it. I’m 199th in the queue. 

I struggle to stay awake in the mid-afternoon lull when the lower-ranked wrestlers are on, but even seeing these no-name apprentices is a thrill.

By the time the top-ranked wrestlers appear – the ones I see on TV, the atmosphere is electric, the noise deafening.

This, I think, is the best day I’ve had in Japan, so when another sumo event comes along shortly afterwards, I jump at the chance.  

Tickets are easier to come by for this one, as it’s the first of its kind – the inaugural World Sumo Championships.

Before the tournament even begins, I’m gripped. And my fascination has nothing to do with sumo.

It must be the most expensive debut world championships ever. This isn’t a few expat ultimate frisbee players concocting a World Championships. This isn’t Octopush enthusiasts staging a World Championships for a giggle, while camping in a muddy field in a provincial backwater.

This is dozens of teams, including coaches, flown in from all around the world. They’re put up in nice hotels in what is still the most expensive city in the world. And it’s taking place at the very venue I queued up at at 3am a few weeks back, in Ryogoku. The home of sumo, the national stadium that hosts two of Japan’s six annual professional tournaments.  

Who, I wonder, is bankrolling this extravaganza? And why?

My research takes me back to the weeks following Japan’s unconditional surrender in 1945. The American Occupation forces quickly arrested and imprisoned the top generals and politicians behind Japan’s war, grading them Class A War Criminals. 

One day the Americans hanged six of them, including General Tojo. The next they released all the others. 

Why, remains a mystery, but one of the beneficiaries of this remarkable reprieve was a certain ultra-nationalist politician who’d flown to Italy in 1943 for a photo-op with Mussolini.

In the post-war years, this suspected war criminal made a killing –  from gambling. 

Somehow – he made up a new sport of powerboat racing. 

Somehow, he convinced Japanese lawmakers to make it one of the three forms of legal gambling in Japan. 

Somehow, he landed himself a monopoly in it. 

The speculation behind all those somehows remains murky even today, but let’s just say in the ‘50s the Americans were much more concerned about Japan falling to communism than they were about creating a pristine democracy. 

For the purposes of answering the Who question of this story, let’s leave it there.

The Why is less mysterious.

In his dotage, this billionaire ex-Mussolini-super-fan has decided to channel his patriotism, and restore his reputation, via different channels. 

Instead of colonising Asia, he’s seeking to bring glory to Japan by making sumo an Olympic sport. 

One Olympic requirement is a history of World Championships. So, at the peak of Japan’s Bubble Economy, this ageing gambling billionaire is throwing money at it, with spectacular results.

That then, is how I spend a surreal weekend watching Tunisia grapple with Bulgaria, Brazil face off against New Zealand, and Latvia take on Thailand.  

A few of the competing countries have similar wrestling traditions with similar rules and techniques: Mongolia has it’s bohk., Russia its sambo, Turkey its Yağlı güreş, [yaali gooresh], Korea its Ssireum

As they warm up, it’s clear that wrestlers from these countries look like they know one side of a doyho from the other.

Most, though, don’t have a clue. They’re clearly here for the freebie junket. Once I ask myself how I would go about inviting participants to the first ever World Sumo Championships, it starts to make sense.

The organisers appear to have contacted the national associations of better-travelled Japanese martial arts, like judo and karate. Put together a sumo team, they must have said, and the free tickets, hotel accommodation and per diems are all yours.

Once the World Sumo Championships get under way, it soon becomes clear not everyone has taken their invitations equally seriously. 

The next bout involves Kenya. A pot-bellied, knock-kneed, karate administrator, who must have been closer to 60 than 50 climbs stiffly onto the dohyo. A minute later, he’s scuttling backwards from it so fast, his opponent barely has time to touch him. It looks more like a game of tag than a sumo bout. An injury, presumably, would ruin his shopping trip to buy all those Sony Walkmans to take home.

Back-peddling white-haired Kenyan administrators are just one of the delights on view. I barely dare risk a toilet break in case I miss something.

I consult my comprehensive, beautifully printed programme. Announcements in Japanese and English keep us abreast of developments. 

Helpfully, you can tell each wrestler’s nationality at a glance. Each of their mawashi – or belts – bears a three-letter country identifier. 

The appearance of one of the American team generates gasps among the audience. Team USA captain Manny Yarbrough briefly occludes the entrance to the changing rooms before everyone’s head turns towards him as he enters the ring. 

Half the audience is transfixed by Manny. The other half’s heads dip to consult the programme. His day job is listed as ‘truck driver’. He’s from New Jersey.  At more than 300 kilos, he’s officially the World’s Heaviest Living Athlete. 

Manny went on to be quite a big Mixed Martial Arts star – he could hardly have avoided it I suppose – but this is his first time on the world stage.

Manny’s Triple XL mawashi bears the letters ‘USA’ on the front. In the first round, he’s matched up with a skinny lad from Madagascar. 

I still have the photo. In the foreground, out of focus, looms Manny’s massive rear.  Centre frame, pin-sharp thanks to my telephoto lens, is the Madagascan, who probably literally weighs less than one of his opponent’s legs. You can see his defiant face, his slim torso, his mawashi bearing the letters M. A. D. 

In a concession to Olympic standards, the World Championships, unlike professional sumo, have two weight divisions, but this was still the biggest chap Madagascar could rustle up. 

There are other compromises, in pursuit of Olympic status. Sumo might be Japan’s traditional sport, but no one expects foreigners – gaijin in Japanese – to go full Shinto.

Sumo physics requires both wrestlers to wear mawashi, but for the World Championships, buttock-baring is optional. 

Some still go full half-moon, but those from more modest cultures wear underpants underneath.

Other concessions to the practicalities of becoming an Olympics sport include no Shinto salt-throwing to purify the ring. There’s less ritual belly-slapping for the warm-up. Not all wrestlers take their defeats with the same scrupulous dignity displayed by the pros.

Still, it’s undeniably the same sport, with the same appeal, as the spectacle I’m accustomed to watching in the ABC News Tokyo Bureau for two hours every two months, six times a year.


I loved introducing recently-arrived foreigners to sumo, vicariously enjoying their creeping interest. Chipping away at any initial scepticism, I’d lure them deeper and deeper to join me down the sumo wormhole. 

‘If you want to understand Japan’, I’d tell them, gnomically, ‘understand sumo’.

I’d show them the banzuke. Banzuke are the posters published in the build-up to each of the 6 tournaments. Functionally, banzuke are simply announcements of the latest official rankings, which was always news to a Japanese audience. 

If a wrestler had been promoted to the second-highest rank of ozeki, ‘champion’, it would make the evening news.

Should anyone be promoted to yokozuna, grand champion, it would lead the news. 

I’d never witnessed such a seismic event, but still, I’d tell my Japan virgins, these banzuke are so much more than just league tables.  

For a start, they are calligraphic works of art. Like everything else in Japan, banzuke follow very precise rules. In fact, I’d tell them, they’re perfect symbols of Japanese society.

See the graduated difference in font size used for listing the fighting names in each division, I’d point out. Star billing on Hollywood posters has nothing on this. Banzuke are a perfect expression of Japanese society’s hierarchical nature. 

Like an elaborate optician’s eye test chart, the banzuke tests not your eyesight, but how deep you’re prepared to dive into the minutiae of Japanese culture.  

At the top, in huge print, are the professional stars, the ones who appear on prime-time TV, the household names.

Below them, four further divisions, each in a smaller font, down to the teenage apprentices who wrestle in front of deserted seats at 9am. To read their names. you literally need a magnifying glass

Most of my Japan newbies would be pretty impressed at this point. Now was the time to play my trump card. 

‘See that narrow central column separating the East and West Divisions?’ I’d casually say.

‘See how it follows exactly the same strict font hierarchy? They’re the names of the gyoji, the referees. The gyoji are promoted according to their own strict rules, and their status is also reflected in the font size. 

At the top, in big characters, are the elite gyoji – the peacock priests who wield their gunbai, those ceremonial samurai fans, as they perform

 their protracted quasi-religious pre-bout purification rituals.

Now look down there at the bottom – in micro-font – I’d say. They’re the names of their teenage apprentice gyoji. These are scrawny spotty kids, sporting simple black smocks, right at the start of their gyoji careers, whose time in the limelight lasts only seconds.

Then, when my Japan virgins start shaking their heads in incredulity, I’d play my joker.

In Part 4, My Favourite Japan Story, I tell my favourite Japan story, which concerns sumo.

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.

Episode 5 – Can Gaijin Have Hinkaku?

Some stories are universal and timeless. Not this one. 

Time and place are critical to our story, which took place in 1993, in Japan.

Even at the time, it felt like a pivotal point in Japan’s modern history. By 1993 we all knew that after decades of breakneck growth, Japan’s Bubble Economy was over.

Maybe you’ve not heard the phrase ‘Bubble Economy’. It’s an economists term, but back then had become widely used both in Japan and internationally to describe the country’s asset inflation. ‘Baburu keizai’ was part of everyday conversation, not just news bulletins.

Not everyone could explain the technicalities of a ‘sudden end to a period of inflated asset prices created by cheap money’. But we could all get the imagery – for Japan in 1993, things were changing instantaneously, irreversibly and for the worse.

The image of a bubble bursting, though powerful, is misleading. A bubble bursts in an instant. We can see its size, its location, any contents. The bursting of Japan’s Bubble Economy, took months, and the answers to those other questions are still revealing themselves decades later. 

As Japan had grown to be the world’s second-biggest economy, and America was Number One, the Tokyo Bureau of ABC News was a great vantage point from which to observe this transition.

I was a Brit viewing Japan through Stars-&-Stripes-tinted goggles. It made for quite a show.

In TV technical terms, which I was gradually acquiring, the knobs for Contrast, Saturation and Hue were all turned up to 11.

After the fall of communism, the US-Japan relationship had become the most important bilateral relationship in the world. Many Americans feared that having won the Politics battle, they were about to lose the Economics war.

Foreign news rarely leads American news, but in the years before I joined, the ABC News Tokyo Bureau had regularly provided the top story on America’s most-watched evening news show.

Today it was Japanese money buying up an American icon like the Rockefeller Centre. Last week they were buying Pebble Beach Golf Course. Increasingly bitter trade disputes provided more and more flashpoints.

Japan, so long America’s Asian bulwark against Communism, now threatened to trample, Godzilla-like, all over the USA.

By 1993, these trade disputes were getting nasty. We did stories on how Washington was trying to force Tokyo to buy more American ski equipment, rice or cars. Few of our reports failed to include the phrase ‘invisible trade barrier’. 

As an outsider with no dog in the fight, this was all fascinating. Importing skis and rice seemed a simple case of Japan’s protectionist foot-dragging, with some pretty funny excuses. ‘Japan has a different kind of snow’, they’d protest, with a straight face. We’d interview Japanese farmers, and Agriculture Ministry officials, who’d earnestly claim a Californian rice weevil could bring Japan to its knees overnight. 

On other issues, the Americans were just as unreasonable. I particularly enjoyed our regular reports on delegations of irate Detroit car makers arriving in Tokyo to lobby about unfair trade barriers.  

More interested in audiences at home, they’d grandstand about the pitiful levels of American cars exported to Japan. They’d contrast this with the intense competition they faced from Japanese car makers on American soil. 

Compelling, on the face of it, and delivered with gusto and guile, but the best part of these press conferences was when a Japanese journalist would politely enquire when American car makers were planning to sell vehicles with the steering wheel on the correct side.

Other journalists might then point out the many adaptations Japanese car makers had designed for their export models. The more daring might specifically cite larger seats to accommodate fatter American buttocks.  Oh, and putting the steering wheel on the correct side.

By 1993, things were turning particularly nasty. As the stakes, and tempers, rose, racism became more explicit, on both sides. A congressman from some midwestern farming state staged an eye-catching photo shoot. To drive home his enthusiasm for Americans buying American, he swung away at a Japanese tractor with a massive sledgehammer.

Good TV, maybe even good politics, but as the New York Times pointed out and many Japanese newspapers reprinted, economic nonsense. The Japanese tractor the Congressman was trashing, it turned out, had a higher percentage of American-made parts than the one with the American brand on it he was so keen to promote.

But this is my point. Like early Bond moves, 1993 was not a time for nuance, mutual understanding and sensitive cross-cultural exchange.

So what a time for American exports to be taking over the sumo market.

When I say Americans, specifically, it was Hawaiians. 

The origins of this Pacific infiltration go back to the 60s. 

A beefy Hawaiian from Maui called Jesse Kuhaulua abandoned his dream of joining the NFL. He moved to Japan to try his hand at becoming a professional sumo wrestler. 

Standing 1.9 metres in his flip flops, weighing more than 200 kilos, Jesse had certain physical advantages. He was given the fighting name Takamiyama, which included the characters for ‘Tall’ and ‘Mountain’. 

But Jesse was also a hard worker, a fast learner, and a keen student of Japanese culture, qualities admired in Japan. Jesse soon became a sumo fan favourite, and then Japan’s most popular resident foreigner.

Jesse was no novelty act. He rose to the rank of sekiwake – behind only ozeki – Champion – and yokozuna – Grand Champion. In the early 70s, he even won a tournament.

But that turned out to be the peak, for this Hawaiian man-mountain. After a record-breaking 20-year-long professional career, Jesse retired. Like many distinguished sumo wrestlers, he became an oyakata – a stablemaster, running his own training centre. He was the first foreigner to become an oyakata.

Jesse wondered if other Hawaiians might be ready to follow the path he’d trailblazed. The beefcake showcases that were Hawaiian beaches were a good place, he thought, to spot potential recruits. 

Jesse knew better than anyone that bulk alone wasn’t enough. Candidates also had to be hungry, tough and determined. He was on the lookout for beach bums with attitude – a humble attitude. They had to be prepared to train hard, overcome homesickness, learn a new language, and adapt to Japanese culture.

Jesse’s Hawaiian beach patrols soon paid off.  He found one gem, and others followed.  

First was Saleva’a Fuauli Atisano’e, from Honolulu. His fighting name was Konishiki, a bit of a joke as it meant ‘little piece of brocade’. 

At 287kg, Konishiki was the heaviest sumo wrestler ever. He’s the one foreign TV commentators dubbed The Meat Bomb, or The Dump Truck.

Then there was Fiamalu Penitani, born in American Samoa of a Tongan father and Samoan mother, before they moved to Oahu. Taller than Konishiki, a mere 50kg lighter, he took on the fighting name of Musashimaru. 

Western commentators never came up with a nickname for him, though I always thought they’d missed a trick, as the first two characters of his fighting name meant ‘Ferocious Warehouse’.

By 1993, The Dump Truck and the Ferocious Warehouse were tearing up the rankings, reaching ozeki, the second-highest ranking, one short of the ultimate accolade of Grand Champion – yokozuna.

There’s something you should know about sumo at this point. Unlike boxing or professional wrestling, the top-ranked sumo wrestler does NOT automatically acquire yokozuna status. It’s not the same as being Number One.  Mere winning doesn’t automatically confer this peculiarly Japanese kind of greatness.

There were unwritten conventions governing promotion to yokozuna, such as winning two consecutive tournaments as ozeki. But ultimately this honour is awarded at the discretion of the Japan Sumo Association. In particular, yokozuna promotion is decided by the nine members of its Yokozuna Deliberation Committee.  

All very wishy-washy. All very vague. All very Japanese.

It’s hard to think of a more conservative, traditional, and resistant-to-change outfit than the Japan Sumo Association.

In the early 90s, there were two Japanese yokozuna, but they were often absent due to injury or illness. Lesser yokozuna tended to get injured or ill a lot, and not for the obvious reasons.  

A yokozuna can’t be demoted. To preserve the dignity of the sport – and, one might add, to save the face of the Japan Sumo Association – dodgy yokozuna are expected to – metaphorically – fall on their swords the moment they lose their mojo. A temporary withdrawal is preferable to a losing record, but any hint that a yokozuna is over the hill, and they retire.

By 1993, sumo had never been more popular, but it was in urgent need of a worthy yokozuna.

The retirement of the legendary Chiyonofuji – The Wolf – in 1991, had left a massive void.

Two sons of a former ozeki showed great promise, and were rising fast up the ranks. But though sumo royalty, they were still teenagers.

The only candidates were foreign. Konishiki had been the first non-Japanese to break the ozeki barrier. His fellow-Hawaiian Musashimaru was well on his way.

A few months before, amid all the sledgehammer tractor smashing, and Yellow Peril paranoia about Japan overtaking, and taking over, America, something earth-shaking occurred. 

Konishiki,The Dump Truck, won two consecutive tournaments as ozeki

Usually, a promotion to Grand Champion would have been a formality, but this was just the kind of emergency situation that those wishy-washy, vague formalities were made so discretionary for.

The Yokozuna Deliberation Committee, came up with some invisible trade barriers.

They announced they wanted to make doubly sure that Konishiki was worthy of grand champion status. They darkly hinted that The Meat Bomb might not possess hinkaku. Hinkaku is a vague, untranslatable term meaning something akin to grace, elegance, or refinement. 

A Japanese magazine obligingly published these remarks under the headline, “We Don’t Need a Foreign Yokozuna’. A rival publication claimed Konishiki was explicitly accusing the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee of racial discrimination. 

The New York Times then directly quoted Konishiki saying, “If I were Japanese, I would be yokozuna already.” 

The Japan Sumo Association demanded an apology. At a tearful press conference on live TV, Konishiki apologised and denied saying any such thing. He claimed a Hawaiian apprentice had impersonated him on the telephone.

All this was, as you might imagine, front page news on both sides of the Pacific. Sumo, of all things, was gifting journalists a spectacular TV metaphor for the tension in the world’s most important bilateral relationship.

Like all foreign and Japanese media, the Tokyo Bureau of ABC News, was all over it. And not even the Japanese staff at ABC News Tokyo were as all over it as their greenhorn British Ass Prod.

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better.  At the height of all the bubble-bursting, tractor-smashing and racism-denying firestorms, another Hawaiian was promoted to ozeki. 

And then started winning sumo tournaments.

In Episode 6, How Chad Became Akebono, we learn how this latest foreign import came from a Hawaiian beach to become the tower of muscle that threatened to smash  Japan’s most Invisible Trade Barrier.

Episode 6 – How Chad Become Akebono

Combing the beaches of his native Hawaii for potential sumo wrestlers, Jesse couldn’t believe his eyes.  

Jesse, remember, was the first Hawaiian to break into professional sumo in the 1960s, and was now running his own sumo stable. He was patrolling the beaches of his native islands in search of the next Hawaiian to follow in his size 14 footsteps.

Chad Rowan was far from the only 18-year-old Hawaiian beach bum to have had his Hoop Dreams dashed. Only a tiny number of high school basketball stars ever make the grade as a pro, and Chad wasn’t among them.  

But Chad was also well over 2 metres tall, and well on the way to weighing 200 kilos.

Jesse talked Chad into giving sumo a go, and once Chad started training at his Tokyo sumo stable, Jesse couldn’t believe his luck.

Years before, on a previous Hawaiian beach reccie, Jesse had bumped into another beach bum, by the name of Saleva’a.

Saleva’a, you may recall, became Konishiki, known to foreign sumo fans as The Dump Truck, to Japanese as the first non-Japanese to ascend to the second-highest sumo rank of ozeki, and the ABC News audience as the American denied promotion to the highest rank of yokozuna.

The moment Jesse saw Chad training, he knew his beach recruitment policy had paid off again. Lightning had struck twice. He had another winner on his hands.

Jesse gave Chad the fighting name Akebono, meaning ‘New Dawn’. He trained him up, then let him loose on Japanese professional sumo.  Akebono tore through the ranks, slapping, swatting and squishing all in his way.

As Akebono progressed, Jesse taught him how to enhance his gargantuan physique with canny technique. Chad was a willing student and a quick study. He rose to the top professional division in record time.

There, Akebono, as everyone now knew Chad, came up against his role model – Hawaiian sumo pioneer and the only colleague who could keep him elevated on a see-saw. Konishiki, the Dump Truck.

It was a historic match up in many ways. 

Spectacular, as the two heaviest wrestlers of all time came face to face in the dohyo

But as we journalists were all were quick to point out in our news reports around the world, it was also the first ever professional match-up between two foreign sumo wrestlers.

Akebono beat his fellow-Hawaiian, and soon joined Konishiki as the second non-Japanese to be promoted to ozeki, Champion status.

And then Akebono only went and won two consecutive tournaments, the last one of 1992, and the first of 1993.  

The moment he lifted the Emperor’s Cup, handling the massive silver trophy the way most of us would lift a pewter tankard, everyone knew the clock was ticking.

The pressure was on. The eyes, not only of the whole of Japan, but all of America and beyond, were trained on the nine men of the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee. What would they announce at their news conference tomorrow morning?  

Their previous decision to deny Konishiki his promotion to Grand Champion, a massive story at the time, was now revealed to have been no more than a warm-up event.

Would they promote a foreigner to yokozuna this time?  

Might they divine that Akebono possessed that mythical virtue of hinkaku, that had eluded The Dump Truck?

Japan was divided. Its 125 million citizens, so famously homogenous in their outlook and obsessed with consensus, were divided, caught between Japan’s past and future. 

‘Get with the times! Accept change! Move on!’, the Modernists urged the Traditionalists.

‘Don’t let foreign influence pollute, dissolve or obliterate our unique culture’, the Traditionalists told the Modernists.

On and off, Japan had been having this argument with itself since 1853. The appearance of an iron-clad American warship in Tokyo Bay shocked Japan’s sword-wielding samurai into realising their centuries of isolation were over. 

Having banned firearms to keep the samurai sword tradition alive for centuries, Japan had left itself utterly outgunned. Modernising reformers embraced this new reality, and the rest is history, but what about this time?

By 1993, this was no longer just a Japanese internal matter. The impending decision of the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee on Akebono’s promotion meant the rest of the world now joined the argument.

We journalists couldn’t believe our luck. Japan news, always important, was suddenly urgent too.

For Tokyo-based journalists, it was always a struggle to grab the attention of editors, be they in New York, London, Paris, Brasilia, Wellington, Bangkok or Abu Dhabi. 

If we couldn’t offer up a natural disaster, or a terrorist attack, well –  there was a lot of competition on any given day. As I’d learned over the past year or so, coming up with imaginative hooks, spurious excuses and contrived anniversaries was any Japan-based foreign journalist’s  stock-in-trade.  

Finally, we had a single event that would prove Japan today was radically different from Japan yesterday.

Not only that, but a visually spectacular event to symbolise the tension in the world’s most important bilateral relationship. Despite the efforts of grandstanding congressmen with sledgehammers, current account deficits and non-tariff barriers were tough propositions to illustrate in a tight 2-minute news package.

Suddenly, were were spoiled for choice. Now, we were all black belts in Mixed Martial Metaphors. Japan was tying itself up in knots, while giving itself a black eye, painting itself into a corner and shooting itself in the foot.

The Japan Sumo Association had handed the foreign media this story on a plate. We had spectacular pictures, the chance to repeat old gags like the ’two waterbeds mating’ line, and a cracking metaphor for the biggest trade war between the world’s two biggest economies. In trade terms, it was King Kong versus Godzilla.

Of all the foreign media, America has the biggest dog in this fight. And of all American media, we at the top-ranked ABC News – the yokozuna of the networks, if you will – were top dog. 

After Akebono’s victory, the ABC News Tokyo Bureau, like our network rivals at NBC, CBS and CNN, pulled an all-nighter. Sunday is usually a slow news day, but no one ever expected a sumo story to lead the US news.

Following his second consecutive tournament win, we did an extended report on Chad Rowan’s transformation into Akebono. His epic journey from Hawaiian beach bum to potential Grand Champion.

Just as I’ve done for you, we explained sumo’s arcane traditions to an American audience.  Akebono had fulfilled the unofficial criteria of two consecutive tournament victories, we said, and in some style, losing only 3 out of 30 bouts, we added.

We covered the sporting angle, sagely observing that the last yokozuna had retired months before, leaving sumo without a single active Grand Champion. This wasn’t the first time in sumo history there’d been a vacuum at the top, we said, but it didn’t happen often, and sumo had never been bigger not just in Japan, but around the world.

Moreover, Akebono’s diligent attitude and modest demeanour had been exemplary. Being in the TV game, we showed a montage of him bowing, lowering his eyes and generally trying to look as small and humble as was feasible for a 6 foot 8 bloke who weighed a quarter of a ton.

We raked over the embers of Konishiki’s tearful apology.  We explained hinkaku, the invisible trade barrier of grace and refinement the sumo elders had claimed prevented Konishiki from being elevated to the top rank.

Look at him, we implied – how could anyone seriously argue Akebono lacked hinkaku?

As evidence, there was an absence of any footage of him doing anything other than practise diligently, covered in sweat and sand, under the hard-but-fair scrutiny of his stablemaster, and Hawaiian pioneer, Jesse.

Akebono’s sound bites were all models of sumo post-match interviewees. Akebono mumbled, eyes demurely lowered, attributing any success to hard work and the support of his stablemaster and stablemates.

Our Sunday report ended on a cliffhanger, guaranteeing another slot on tomorrow’s news bulletin. 

Tomorrow morning, the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee would meet, deliberate, and hold a historic press conference.

Would they announce that for the first time, a foreigner had ascended to the most elevated position in this iconic Japanese sport?

In the two years since I’d fallen into TV news, I’d picked up the basics of the business. Neither my American bosses nor my senior Japanese colleagues were the types to shower praise. I was in a cut-throat business in a culture of tough love. But I felt I was starting to be seen as a reasonably competent TV news producer.

But for this story, all the details and nuance I’d acquired from my personal sumo hobby were paying off in spades.  

The American bureau chief and correspondent, not easily impressed, were amazed by my command of every recondite detail of this story.

Even my Japanese colleagues raised eyebrows, tilted heads and sucked air, when I demonstrated the nerdy depths of my sumo know-how.

As I rattled off Akebono’s career stats without hesitation or recourse to any newspaper cuttings, I felt, maybe for the first time, like a proper journalist. 

But none of this mattered.  This was nothing, compared to what happened a few hours later, after that Yokozuna Deliberation Committee press conference.

In Part 7, Watching the Wide Shows , we’ll hear the verdict of the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee.

Episode 7 – Watching the 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.

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 I get.

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. 


Episode 10 – Teetering: Scoop or Bust? 

I emerge into the winter sunshine to find the workmen in white helmets and hi-viz jackets dismantling the platforms. The area in front of Jesse and Akebono’s stable is deserted.

Apart from one grumpy, hungry ABC News camera crew.

Our bureau’s veteran cameraman is looking particularly grumpy. 

When it comes to news deadlines, he’s an uncomplaining professional team player. But if there’s nothing in particular on, he does like his regular lunch. I know from experience he doesn’t like to be kept waiting – especially by his juniors.

He hasn’t risked his life covering the Vietnam war to be kept waiting around by a newbie, know-nothing British Ass Prod, he’s as good as told me.

I avert a repeat of this lecture by explaining where I’ve been. Sniffing action, he perks up immediately. He switches from long lunch mode, to news mode.

He tells me that before my time he’d done a live satellite interview with Konishiki, when the Meat Bomb was promoted to ozeki. 

He rattles off a list of things I should immediately be onto. Technically, this is my job not his, but we both knew I’d never been in this situation before. I start taking notes.

Number One, he says as we jump in the bureau van, Book the Bird. Booking satellite time was by now routine for me: telex the satellite operator, copy to the uplink desk in Tokyo and the downlink desk in New York. Call them both to reconfirm and double-check.

Number Two, he says as we speed back to the office, Book the Car.  He even has a number for the limo firm they’d used to transport  Konishiki to the bureau for his interview. You need a limo, he explains, not just to give face, but also because sumo wrestlers don’t fit into regular size Japanese vehicles.

Number Three, he ticks off as we pull into our parking space, Secure the Milk Crates. He says he’ll attend to this himself. He picked up this pro tip from one of his national broadcaster cameraman friends, who regularly shoots sumo wrestler interviews. 

Japanese office chairs, it turns out, aren’t designed to support a quarter of a tonne. A regular chair can barely fit an average wrestler’s buttock, and Akebono was way bigger than average.

Even a chair for each cheek means a high risk of creaking and squeaking background noise, not to mention the possibility of the interviewee suddenly dropping out of frame, should the chairs collapse under his weight live on air.

Cover two milk crates with a blanket and cushions, on the other hand, and we can all relax.

I run up the stairs to the bureau, start dialling, and set these cogs in motion.

Word spreads. My bureau colleagues shower me with congratulations, high fiving me as I work the phone. 

The Bureau Chief and Correspondent don’t linger too long. They’re competing to inform the head honchos in New York and be the first to claim credit for my scoop.

Yoko, behind the piles of sumo archive tapes teetering on her desk, is agog to hear the details.  

When we talked through our strategy, we reckoned this was a Robert job, but more in hope than expectation. No one, including me, thought it likely we’d even get a nibble. Even if we did, none of us rated the chances of a greenhorn like me landing such a massive fish.

But preparing for unlikely outcomes is a part of the Ass Prod’s job. Once a week, Yoko and I took it in turns to fire up the bureau’s ancient telex terminal, and diligently type out a request to Pyongyang. This venerable antique, otherwise obsolete, was the only way to contact the North Korean Foreign Ministry.  

Our repeated formal enquiries as to whether the Eternal President of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Kim Il Sung might be gracious enough to favour ABC News with an interview never prompts a reply, let alone a rejection. But as I say, being prepared for all contingencies is part of an Ass Prod’s job.

Hence that invitation letter I’d handed over to the gently steaming Akebono outside the bathroom. Hence the calligraphy brush and the red wax seal. Be prepared, just in case.

When I finally get off the phone, Yoko scoots her chair over to my desk and asks what happened. 

Since emerging, blinking, into the winter sunlight from Jesse’s sumo stable, I’ve been swept along by all the excitement of preparing for this big scoop. 

But the whole time, I’ve had this tight feeling in my stomach. A little gingko nut of gnawing concern.  

I set this anxiety aside to get the job done. In 1993, a live interview between Tokyo and New York is routine, but still a considerable logistical operation, involving dozens of people on both sides of the Pacific.

As more and more people get involved, news of my scoop spreads like wildfire. First to the ABC News Foreign Desk in New York, then to our rival US news networks in Tokyo, then to the rest of the foreign news community, and thence to our friends and acquaintances. 

And, of course, the grapevine winds its way up the chain of command at ABC News HQ.

First, colleagues on the New York Foreign Desk call to congratulate me. 

Then, I receive what are known in the trade as ‘herograms’, congratulatory messages from senior management for outstanding achievement.  

I assumed the Bureau Chief and Correspondent have blagged all the credit, but it turns out that anyone who’s worked with them knows they couldn’t possibly have negotiated this scoop themselves.  

I’d been booking satellites, exchanging routine calls with The New York Foreign Desk, and liaising as we pulled all-nighters to get a story to air, for over a year now. By now, the name of the new British Ass Prod in the Tokyo Bureau is familiar to many at the mother ship – but until now, I’ve done nothing to merit a herogram.

But all this adulation is starting to get to me.  Each time I recount the incidents of my adventure, as I’ve just done for you, the gingko nut of concern in the pit of my stomach grows into a sushi piece of anxiety.

Yoko’s Ass Prod spider sense is clearly tingling. She asks me to repeat my conversations word for word. 

The veteran cameraman, pausing as he carries a milk crate to the interview room at the back of the office, puts it down, to hear the whole story. 

Akebono’s parting words fall from my mouth like lead shot.

‘It’s probably fine, man’.  Yoko, repeats, slowly. ‘You’re sure those were his last words?’.

The veteran cameraman says nothing. Their silence is deafening.

After rather too long a pause, Yoko says,  ‘I’m sure it will be fine. No need to worry. No need at all’.

My sushi of anxiety is now an o-nigiri rice-ball of despair.  I’ve said nothing about being worried, out loud at least. Yoko’s reassurance not to worry has the opposite effect.

The only thing I know for sure is there’s nothing I can do.  

It’s 1993. Our Bureau Chief has the only mobile phone in town. There’s no way to call the limo driver to ask if they’re on their way. 

All we can do is get everything ready, and await the arrival of the limousine.

If the traffic’s not too bad, it should pull up downstairs around 7.30. But will it contain Akebono?

We look at our watches. 6.30pm, an hour to go. We’ve had everything ready since 5 o clock, but we all bustle about, seeking something to distract us from the dreadful possibility of an empty limousine.

I overhear the Bureau Chief reconfirm the top-of-the-hour slot with the Good Morning America producer in New York, for 9pm Tokyo time..  

In his office opposite me, The Correspondent mugs up on the research notes I’ve typed up for him, in case he gets on air too.

Our office manager has set up a table by the row of telex machines and monitors. She arranges, and re-arranges the array of snacks deemed suitable, after much debate among the Japanese staff, for a yokozuna. There’s enough to feed a large family for a week.

The phones keep ringing, mostly calls from foreign and Japanese media, asking if it’s really true that we’ve landed Akebono’s first exclusive interview. Yoko fields the calls, saying she can neither confirm nor deny the rumour, and throws me worried glances.

I fax a list of suggested questions to the Foreign Desk to pass on to the Good Morning America hosts.

Breakfast news shows like to keep things light, but I include a series of elegantly crafted references to the broader context of the US-Japan trade dispute, and sumo’s potential to relieve geopolitical tension between the world’s two biggest economies.

7pm. 30 minutes before Akebono shows up – or not…

Another call. Yoko asks if I want to take it. It’s a close friend who’s heard the rumour. I cover the receiver to muffle his whooping. I’m so distracted by drawing up a mental list of face-saving excuses for Akebono’s no-show, I barely realise he’s talked me into inviting not only him, but his plus-one to the bureau.  

‘She’ll go crazy when I tell her’, he says, ‘She’s a sumo nut, and has posters of Akebono in her bedroom – thanks a million, we’ll be there in 20 minutes’.

This can’t be very professional, I think, but that will hardly matter if Akebono fails to show up.  

I needn’t have worried about inviting my friends. It turns out everyone in the Bureau has invited their friends too. As the clock inches closer to 7.30, the bureau fills with people desperate to see Japan’s new foreign yokozuna in the considerable flesh.  

Even the office cleaning woman finds an excuse to keep mopping well into the evening.

My friend arrives with his girlfriend. ‘Do you remember Kiri?’, he asks. 

‘Of course!’ I say. I have a vague recollection of having met her, a striking half-Maori New Zealander, ‘Kiri the Kiwi, right?’.   

This can’t be the first time she’s heard this, but Kiri is gracious enough to laugh. Like everyone there, she’s a bit giddy with anticipation, her half-Maori eyes wide with excitement.  

I cut short her profuse thanks, as a jolt of nausea rises from my stomach. He’s not coming, is he?

Stifling my rising gorge, I gabble an invitation for them to use my desk. The clock shows 7.30 as I head for the exit.

The Bureau Chief has been waiting for the limo’s arrival outside our office block since ten past. I should, I suppose, join him, and face the music.

At the top of the stairs, a sudden surge of nausea prompts a sudden detour to the toilets.

I lock myself in a cubicle and grasp the top of the cistern with both hands. What a way to end my nascent TV career, I think. There’s no coming back from this.

As my stomach muscles tense and my shoulders hunch, I hear a hubbub from outside.  

Many voices, a bit too loud, laughing. Not the kind of hubbub you usually hear in Japanese office buildings.

My stomach start to settle, my shoulders relax a bit. I release my grip on the cistern lid and peek beyond the bathroom door.

Coming up the stairs is the massive figure of Akebono. To his side, the Bureau Chief , behind them loom a couple of Akebono’s  junior stablemates, and behind them trail a gaggle of open-mouthed workers from the offices downstairs.

‘Hey Rob – thanks for inviting me’, says Akebono, or rather Chad, for he’s now in off-camera Hawaiian mode.

Until then I’d always thought ‘speechless’ was a figure of speech, but I can’t utter a coherent word.

Gibbering, I usher Akebono into the bureau. It doesn’t matter. Everyone else in the room has the same imbecilic grin I’m wearing, as they burst into spontaneous applause at his appearance.

Chad, of course, is the centre of attention, but I’m next. Sod the Bureau Chief, I think, and  start introducing Chad to everyone in the room. Surely the Ass Prod who scooped all the other networks will be forgiven this little breach of etiquette.

Chad is fantastic. I suppose being humble is easy when you’re that huge, but he really comes over as a big kid from Hawaii who’s got lucky, and knows it. Everyone loves him.

Each person I introduce, has a mouth fixed in Perma-grin, camera ready, laughing at nothing. Chad bows to all the Japanese, shakes hands with all the foreigners. He works the whole room like an American president, missing no one, from the American Correspondent to the office cleaning woman, still holding her mop as she bows.

We come to my friend and his girlfriend Kiri the Kiwi. I think I detect something different going on, but can’t quite put my finger on it. No time to ponder, though.  

We move along the receiving line, before our cameraman, anxious to be ready when the satellite goes up, ushers Akebono into the interview room at the back of the bureau.

It’s only big enough for 3-4 normal-sized people, so back in the main office area,  that leaves me as the centre of attention.  

Even Akebono’s stablemate minders, enormous and resplendent in their formal robes, play second banana to the Sumo Scoop Ass Prod, as I was already thinking of introducing myself in future.

It was, I admit, something of a high point in my life. I’m usually happy to observe from the fringes, but at this moment, I can definitely put up with a bit of public adoration.

After backslapping, toasts and nibbles, our attention switches to a big monitor showing  Akebono sitting in the interview room. 

We see the milk crates in the wide shot, but as the satellite goes up, they disappear as the camera zooms in.  

Crowding around, we see the make-up lady hired in for the evening primp and prep. 

The veteran cameraman occasionally appears in frame, adjusting a light. We hear a faint creak as Akebono shifts his weight on the milk crates. 

Some chat between the cameraman, the Bureau Chief and Akebono, now the only people in the room. The Bureau Chief asks Akebono if he’d like something to eat. Akebono politely declines. 

9pm approaches. We can’t hear what’s coming into Akebono’s earpiece from the New York producers, only his responses. 

Akebono falls quiet, presumably during the news headlines at the top of the hour. 

Just past the hour, we hear Akebono’s half of the interview with the morning show anchors. His answers suggest the Good Morning America team has decided not to go with my list of suggested questions.

‘Size 14 wide’, Akebono replies.  A pause for the next question, then he says  ‘Yeah, it took a while, but now I use chopsticks pretty good’.

Then, it’s all over. A final round of farewells, some final photos, and Akebono disappears back into the waiting limo.

Now we can all relax, and there’s quite a party in the Bureau.  

There’s still piles of food, and several crates of beer and bottles of sake. No point in them going to waste.

As I bask in the glory, Kiri the Kiwi comes over to thank me again. I ask her about that thing that had happened when she greeted the great man.

‘You noticed, did you?’ Kiri says with a smile. I smile back modestly, styling it out again, hoping she’ll tell me what I’ve been so perceptive to have noticed, before I have to ask. 

‘It’s a Pacific Islander thing’, Kiri explains. ‘Just a momentary widening of the eyes in greeting whenever one of us sees another. It’s only a microsecond, but we all know what’s really going on. No matter who else is in the room, we’ve acknowledged each other as fellow-islanders’.

As the party continues around me, I take a moment to reflect on this. I’ve been so bound up with the US-Japan narrative, I’d completely missed the Pacific Islander nuance. 

Maybe that was why Chad mentioned Bryant Gumbel outside the bathroom back in the stable. Gumbel is a very accomplished and popular broadcaster, but until then I’ve never considered that Chad Rowan, growing up as a Pacific Islander in Hawaii, might feel some affinity to the only black anchor on network TV.

Pondering this revelation, I join the Ass Prod Appreciation Society. I am, to be completely honest, deeply impressed with myself.

I think back on everything that‘s brought me to this moment of triumph: my sumo expertise, my instinct of when, how and how much to break Japanese etiquette, my deft use of the Japanese language, my knowledge of obscure sumo ritual that won the trust of those rope-preparing wrestlers. The delicacy with which I handled negotiations with Jesse. The subtlety of my empathy for his situation.

I am, I realise with a glow of satisfaction, a Japan Expert.  

I’d teetered on the brink of disaster, but my years of diligent training and hard-won skills had, in an instant, turned defeat into victory.

After all the beer, I also need a pee. I head to the toilets, much more relaxed than last time.

On the way, I bump into the office cleaner, finally putting her mop away in the broom cupboard by the office entrance.

I’ve only ever exchanged pleasantries with her before, but flushed with my new status as Japan Expert, I think it’s time to engage properly with her, get to know her as a person, not  just the Old Woman who Cleans The Office.

I thank her for her hard work, and hope she’s enjoyed the evening.

She returns my platitudes, thanking me for all my hard work. We then start chatting about Akebono, what it was like to meet the most famous and in-demand man in Japan in person.

I start to regret choosing this particular moment to embark on this new relationship. I shift from foot to foot, in an effort to relieve the pressure on my bladder.

Just as I’m about to make my excuses, the old woman glances around and leans forward, as if she’s about to say something in confidence.

In a low voice, she says. ‘I’m born and bred in Ryogoku, and grew up around the sumo stables’, she confides. ‘We people from Ryogoku have a special connection to each other, which outsiders can never understand.’ 

This is delivered in a rather cryptic, teasing manner, inviting interrogation.

Despite my increasing discomfort, the Japan Expert in me wins out and I oblige. ‘What do you mean? How can you tell?’.

The old woman checks no one can overhear, leans further forward, lowers her voice even further. ‘

‘When two people from Ryogoku meet each other’, she confides,’We widen our eyes momentarily in greeting.  It happens so quickly, outsiders don’t even notice it.  When he greeted me, Akebono widened his eyes in our special way’.

A minute later, as I close my eyes at the urinal, I think ‘so much for my Japan Expertise’. 

So much for my deep insight into the human condition, so much for my grasp of the complexities of ethnic community relationships.

People everywhere just see what they want to see. Mostly, they see what they’d like to be true. 

Maybe Akebono widens his eyes to everyone he meets. Maybe only some people notice.  Maybe he wears contact lenses that bother him from time to time.

Or maybe, I think as I flush the urinal, maybe he’s just an individualist.

If you enjoyed Teetering – how a Hawaiian Beach Bum held my career in the balance, why not try Series 5 of The Truth Lies In Bedtime Stories – it’s called Life On The Edge: The Moment I Realised Mrs. Wang Was Mostly Guessing What Her Husband Said.

Thank you for listening.