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Army of okamisan work behind scenes to keep sumo stables running smoothly

by John Gunning

Tochinoshin was officially promoted to ozeki on May 30.

The burly veteran took part in the formal announcement ceremony given to all who reach either of sumo’s two highest ranks.

As he knelt down to make his acceptance speech, Tochinoshin was flanked by two people also in formal clothing.

On his left was his stablemaster, Kasugano (former sekiwake Tochinowaka), clad in a traditional black montsuki.

On his right, in a lime green kimono, was someone about whom I received many questions over the past week.

Perhaps due to the rapidly expanding worldwide coverage sumo receives these days, and certainly because Tochinoshin has become an instant hero in wrestling-obsessed Georgia, many people saw a promotion ceremony for the first time in their lives. A significant percentage of those wondered the same thing — “who is that woman?”

The answer, of course, is that she is the wife of the stablemaster and the okamisan of the Kasugano stable.

To define exactly what an okamisan is or does is no easy task. Certainly it is no ‘first-lady’ type ceremonial role where the person is shunted off to deal with trivial tasks and required to just smile and wave while the stablemaster takes care of the serious business.

Okamisan are, by turns, managers, teachers, accountants, counselors and bankers as well as 20 other things. Without them, most stables would struggle to function.

Indeed, given the recent controversies about women and sumo, it’s ironic that although the Japan Sumo Association pays salaries to wrestlers, elders, referees, ring announcers and hairdressers (all men), it is the okamisan — with no official position in the JSA — who are arguably its most vital components.

“It’s difficult to keep everyone living happily every day but (being an okamisan) is really enjoyable,” said Ayumi Sato.

Sato is part of the Otake stable and has seen many ups and downs over the past decade. When a wrestler gets in trouble or is kicked out, as Osunaarashi was from her stable, it is tough to deal with.

“As an okamisan you are essentially taking the place of their mother, and as a mother maintaining a (professional) distance from the wrestlers is the hardest thing to do.”

That balancing act is important, as okamisan are usually the people ensuring the smooth running of a stable and the point of contact for people such as myself. Given that most stablemasters finished formal education at age 15 and spent the next two decades of their lives fighting other testosterone-fueled men, it’s hardly surprising that many aren’t the best at dealing with the media or general public.

While many stablemasters’ first response to a request is often a gruff ‘no,’ or indeed no response at all, the same request to an okamisan usually elicits a more positive response. Even if they are unable to accommodate you, alternatives will be suggested.

When helping British Columbia native Brodie Henderson join sumo a few years ago, I discussed the possibility with several stablemasters. One had been active 30 years earlier when John Tenta went 21-0 before suddenly quitting the sport for professional wrestling.

That decision had disgusted the stablemaster and soured him on Canadians in general. As a stablemaster, he wouldn’t even consider the possibility of taking one in.

His okamisan, however, had actually homestayed in Canada when younger, and after having the situation explained, changed her husband’s thinking. Henderson didn’t end up joining that particular stable but at least the door was no longer closed to Canadians.

For young wrestlers (many still essentially children) in the harsh world of a sumo stable, the okamisan is a shoulder to cry on as well as someone who can teach them life skills. Rikishi I talked to listed a whole host of things okamisan do for them. Everything from managing their savings to making birthday cakes to teaching them Japanese.

It’s no surprise that Tochinoshin mentioned his okamisan in a ringside interview after winning the January tournament. For the foreign wrestlers in particular, the okamisan lives up to the image of surrogate mother. Many have spoken about how their okamisan prepared special food from their home country for them to ease their transition into sumo life. If a wrestler receives language lessons they too often come from the okamisan, with the unintended and hilarious consequence that some guys’ Japanese is a mix of rough macho slang picked up from stablemates and effeminate sentence markers.

Without an okamisan, sumo stables find it difficult to function properly. The Magaki stable’s okamisan was described by former wrestler Wakatenro as “really good with helping us young guys deal with stuff.” When she passed away in 2005, the loss of her steadying influence started a downward spiral that saw three oyakata (elders) leave, wrestlers get kicked out for drugs and match-fixing, a violence scandal and the eventual closing of the stable just seven years later.

Coming from diverse backgrounds, okamisan also offer wrestlers windows into worlds that they would otherwise never experience. Of course, some were models or actresses but there are also former professional wrestlers (Asakayama) and active soprano singers (Nishikido) among the ranks.

For those without any prior experience of sumo, Sato explains that there is an okamisan group where more senior members offer advice and suggestions to help with the myriad tasks they are expected to handle.

As to what that advice might be, Sato demurs.

“I’m still just a relatively new okamisan and I’m training myself too every day just like the wrestlers,” she said. “I just hope to grow and improve along with them.”