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Teetering – Seduced by Sumo: The Truth Lies Podcast S6E2

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Series 6 of our podcast The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News, Teetering – how a Hawaiian beach bum held my career in the balance, continues with a dive into 1990s sumo wormhole.

In Episode 2, we get to grips with this story, diving into the wormhole of 1990s sumo wrestling, as this hitherto obscure Japanese tradition transitioned from quaint cultural relic, to global sport.

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

Episode 1 – Japan in 1993


Episode 3: Sumo Fan (to receive notifications as soon as new episodes are released, subscribe to the See Through News YouTube channel or your preferred podcast platform)

Written, narrated and produced by SternWriter

Audio production by Rupert Kirkham

Podcast sting by Samuel Wain

Series sound composition by Simon Elms

If you enjoyed this series, why not try these ones…

The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories is a See Through News production.

See Through News is a non-profit social media network with the Goal of Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active.

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Episode 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.