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Teetering – Teetering: Sumo Scoop or Bust? The Truth Lies Podcast S6E10

Japan podcast sumo international relations tv news journalism career geopolitics akebono

Our podcast The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News, Series 6, Teetering – how a Hawaiian beach bum held my career in the balance, reaches its excruciating climax.

In Episode 10, our novice Ass Prod learns his career fate – will it be a sumo scoop or a journalism career bust? Sumo do, sumo don’t…

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

(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:

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 10 – Teetering: Sumo 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.

The Truth Lies covers more than just sumo. If you enjoyed this sumo yarn, why not try our other series?