Our podcast The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News, Series 6, Teetering – how a Hawaiian beach bum held my career in the balance, delves deeper into the quintessentially Japanese world of sumo wrestling.
In Episode 3, our novice Ass Prod delves deeper into the quintessentially Japanese world of sumo, as it adapts to Japan’s rising global status in the early 1990s.
Like all stories, it’s best to start at the beginning:
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…
- Series 1: The Story of Ganbaatar – the only qualified deep-sea navigator in Mongolia
- Series 2: Betrayed – A Tale of Christmas Spiritual Pollution
- Series 3: Life on the Edge – Taiwan, China, America and the Moment I Realised Mrs. Wang Was Mostly Guessing What Her Husband Said
- Series 4: The Quiet Revolutionary – the heroic role played in a plot to assassinate the King by someone you’ve all heard of
- Series 5: A Classical Chinese Dirty Joke, Told Thrice
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 seethroughnews.org
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.