Consider today’s column my personal testimony that the sport of sumo can be a very useful aid for learning the Japanese language.
I suppose most of us first encounter sumo on NHK TV’s daily broadcasts of the six annual 本場所 (honbasho, main tournaments). It’s not difficult to pick up new vocabulary just by listening to the commentary and interviews. By reading the テロップ (teroppu, subtitles or captions) flashed on the screen, you can also easily acquire new kanji, starting with the 四股名 (shiko-na, professional names) of the competitors and their win-loss record.
Along with the sports newspapers, sumo is also covered in depth by several bimonthly periodicals. Spend some time reading these, and before you know it you’ll be able to recognize the wrestlers’ personalities and appreciate their various techniques.
Back in the mid-1960s, when I first started watching, in addition to 横綱 (yokozuna, grand champions) Taiho and Kashiwado, my favorites included a tall, lanky competitor from Hokkaido named Myobudani. His specialty was to grasp an opponent’s belt and lift him out of the ring in a two-handed carry known as 吊り出し (tsuridashi). There was also a comparatively small but extremely muscular 力士 (rikishi, sumo wrestler) from Ibaraki Prefecture named Wakanami who would allow much larger, heavier opponents to push him toward the 土俵 (dohyō, straw ring), upon which he would dig in his heels at the edge, twist to the side and flip them out before falling out himself — a heart-stopping technique called うっちゃり (utchari).
Aside from the TV announcer and 解説者 (kaisetsusha, commentator), the only person heard speaking during the course of a match is the 行司 (gyōji, referee), who doesn’t have much to say. He first introduces the competitors, and during the 仕切り (shikiri, warm-up period), orders the rikishi to 見合わせて (mi-awasete, face-off).
After a fixed amount of time (length is determined by the rank), the attendant in the corner tells the rikishi: 制限時間いっぱい になりました (Seigen jikan ippai ni narimashita, “Time’s up”). The gyōji assumes an open-legged stance facing the TV camera and holds up his 軍配 (gunbai, war fan) and the match begins with a 立ち合い (tachiai, initial charge). Should the action lag, he may encourage them by shouting ハッケヨイ(Hakkeyoi, get going). 残った (nokotta), which often follows, means “You’re still in the ring, don’t stop.”
I soon became familiar with the repertoire of winning techniques, popularly referred to as 四十八手 (shijūhatte, literally “48 hands”) although the actual number is somewhat higher. These include a variety of 投げ (nage, throwing), 押し (oshi, pushing) and 突き (tsuki, thrusting).
Through an introduction by my home-stay family, I went to the old 二子山部屋 (Futagoyama-beya, the Futagoyama stable) in Suginami Ward to watch 稽古 (keiko, practice). After presenting a bottle of scotch whiskey to its 親方 (oyakata, stablemaster), former yokozuna Wakanohana I — who in his prime had been nicknamed 土俵の鬼 (Dohyō no Oni, Demon of the Straw Ring) — I was invited to stick around after practice and join the rikishi in a free meal of ちゃんこ鍋 (chanko-nabe, wrestlers’ stew). What an experience!
Most of the 幕下力士 (makushita rikishi, wrestlers in the third highest division) at the stable were close to my own age. Many of them were from the Tohoku region and spoke with a strong 地方訛り（chihō namari, regional accent) called ズーズー弁 (zūzū-ben), which in my second year in Japan, I found 分かりにくい (wakarinikui, difficult to comprehend). I struck up a long-lasting friendship with Osaka native Yoshimi Maeda, who can boast the singular distinction of having wrestled against 007, played by Roger Moore, in the 1974 James Bond movie “The Man with the Golden Gun.” (Moore won by cheating.)
A few years later, I was exceptionally fortunate to become friends with the late Andy Adams, The Japan Times’ sumo columnist of some four decades. Adams’ columns were popular and his knowledge of the sport was encyclopedic; he fully deserved the nickname 万能博士 (Banno Hakase, Dr. Know-it-all).
Andy’s conversational Japanese, however, was rather limited, and on several occasions I would interpret for him when we went to sumo stables for interviews. Once, when yokozuna Kitanoumi walked right past us, I had no idea about the proper way to get his attention.
“Say ‘Yokozuna,'” Andy said. I did, and it worked like a charm. After a polite self-introduction we set up an interview with him at 三保ヶ関部屋 (Mihogaseki-beya, the Mihogaseki stable).
Now, 秘密を教えてあげよう(Himitsu o oshiete ageyō, I’ll let you in on a secret). If you’re male, young and have a robust physique, there’s an almost certain way to achieve fluency in the Japanese language. The only problems are that 体重が増える (taijū ga fueru, you’ll gain weight), wind up with 餃子耳 (gyoza-mimi, cauliflower ears) and 相撲力士のようにしゃべる (sumo rikishi no yō ni shaberu, talk like a sumo wrestler).
I found this out from a book titled 外国人の力士はなぜ日本語がうまいのか (Gaikokujin Rikishi wa Naze Nihongo ga Umai no ka, “Why is the Japanese of Foreign Sumo Wrestlers so Good?”), published in 2001 by Satoshi Miyazaki, a professor at the Graduate School of Japanese Applied Linguistics at Waseda University.
Highly impressed by foreign rikishis’ Japanese fluency, Miyazaki researched this topic by befriending the young wrestlers and also talking to their oyakata, the oyakata‘s おかみさん (okamisan, stablemasters’ wives) and people in the local neighborhood. From his field work, he identified nine salient characteristics that explain how foreign rikishi are able to achieve Japanese proficiency. These include having no prior Japanese study experience before coming to Japan; experiencing total immersion; having a strong motivation to learn; being highly adaptable; and not looking up words in the dictionary.
“To learn the language, they don’t need a teacher or a dictionary,” Miyazaki told me in an interview at Waseda in 2006. “They just learn through osmosis. Foreign rikishi are not here to learn Japanese, but to learn sumo. But by learning sumo they have to learn Japanese.”
Or in other words, 必要は発明の母 (Hitsuyō wa hatsumei no haha, “Necessity is the mother of invention”).