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TV sports broadcasts as a language-learning tool

by Mark Schreiber

Special To The Japan Times

Another exciting grand sumo tournament ended yesterday, and brought back memories of my first encounter with sumo, in Okinawa back in September 1965.

Within a couple of weeks after my arrival there, I was enrolled in Basic Japanese classes at the University of Maryland’s Far East Division and making my first awkward efforts to learn the language. In addition to my beginner’s textbook and a newly purchased 和英辞典 (waei jiten, Japanese-English dictionary), I had two supplementary learning materials: The Okinawa Morning Star, the local daily English newspaper; and our old monochrome TV set.

By November, I made it a habit to watch the daily NHK broadcasts of the 九州場所 (Kyushu basho, Kyushu tournament) of the 相撲 (sumō wrestling), and was learning to synch the 本日の取り組み表 (honjitsu no torikumi-hyō, today’s scheduled matches) from the newspaper with faces of the 力士 (rikishi, sumo wrestlers) on the TV screen.

The next step was to memorize the names from the English paper in kanji as they were flashed on the TV screen. About 10 months and four tournaments later, by the time I transferred to a university in Tokyo, I had already acquired a fairly impressive working sumo vocabulary, thanks in no small part to these TV lessons.

In Tokyo I’d arranged for a subscription to The Japan Times, which during sumo tournaments ran daily reports by the late columnist Andy Adams, a fine writer who was also a walking encyclopedia of the sport. Naturally I would watch the 生中継 (nama chūkei, live broadcast) of each day’s matches from the 国技館 (Kokugikan arena).

I gradually learned that the 四股名 (shikona, professional names) of the rikishi conform to several patterns. Some are more or less generic, and meant to convey the image of power, majesty and splendor, containing 富士 (Fuji, Mount Fuji), 海 (umi, ocean), 山 (yama, mountain), 川 (kawa, river), 錦 (nishiki, brocade) and also imposing mythical creatures such as 竜 or in its traditional version 龍 (ryū, dragon), 麒麟 (kirin, a mythical unicorn-like creature, and also the brewery of the same name) and 鵬 (, a giant mythical bird).

Another fairly common naming technique uses the premodern names of the wrestler’s home prefecture, the old 藩 (han, the ancient provinces) that from the 明治時代 (Meiji jidai, Meiji Era) became the 都道府県 (todōfuken, as the 47 prefectures are now referred to collectively). Examples would be 土佐 (Tosa) for 高知 (Kochi Prefecture), 陸奥 (Mutsu) for 青森 (Aomori), 安芸 (Aki) for 広島 (Hiroshima), 出羽 (Dewa) for 秋田 (Akita), 伊勢 (Ise) for 三重 (Mie), 加賀 (Kaga) for 石川 (Ishikawa), 肥後 (Higo) for 熊本 (Kumamoto), 琉球 Ryukyu for 沖縄 (Okinawa) and so on.

Other rikishi names, I was to learn, identify the 部屋 (heya, stable — but in this case always pronounced beya) with which they are affiliated. For instance, names incorporating 千代 chiyo (thousand generations) invariably belong to 九重部屋 (Kokonoe-beya), deriving from its founder, the late grand champion 千代の山 (Chiyonoyama). Names that begin with 琴 (koto, a Japanese stringed instrument) are attached to 佐渡ケ嶽部屋 (Sadogatake-beya). And 栃 (tochi, chestnut tree) is linked to 出羽の海部屋 (Dewanoumi-beya).

Yet another method is to adopt hereditary names associated with senior members of the stable. For example, 朝潮 (Asashio), meaning “morning tide,” has been the name of several generations of former grand champions from the 高砂 (Takasago) stable, and so on. The first character of Asashio was also applied to 朝青龍 (Asashōryū), the retired 横綱 (yokozuna, grand champion) from Mongolia.

During the 仕切り (shikiri, warm-up in the ring), the TV subtitles also display the wrestlers’ ranks. In addition to yokozuna, those in the 幕の内 (makunouchi, top division) include 大関 (ōzeki, champion), 関脇 (sekiwake, junior champion), 小結 (komusubi, fourth highest rank), 前頭 (maegashira, rank-and-file) and 十両 (jūryo, belonging to the second division from the top).

Just by memorizing the above you can easily acquire several dozen kanji right there, enjoy sports excitement and pick up snatches of Japanese geography and history too.

But there’s still more: The names of the winning techniques, the most common of which are 寄り切り (yorikiri) and 押し出し (oshidashi), both of which involve forcing one’s opponent outside the 土俵 (dohyō, straw ring), in the former’s case by a grip on the 廻し (mawashi, belly band) and the latter by use of a vigorous shove to the body.

I have touched mainly on the names and other terms flashed on the TV screen during the bouts, but needless to say, you can pick up additional sumo vocabulary by listening to the announcer’s 解説 (kaisetsu, commentary). And if you don’t find sumo to your liking, then baseball — or judo, or any other pastime — will work just as well. My point is that anyone can learn a language faster if he or she finds a practical and enjoyable way to acquire new vocabulary.