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Monday, May 14, 2018

Gaijin Godmother Of Sumo: Dead At 85

When I arrived in Japan back in 1990, I more or less attempted to immerse myself in all-things Japanese.

I was dragged out luctantly (is that the opposite of reluctantly? :)) and partook of the Oban festival of the dead in early August in my new hometown of Ohtawara-shi, Tochigi-ken.

Then, after learning some 500 different kanji (those Chinese-looking alphabets) in a few weeks, I looked for other avenues, such as sports, because the one thing I've learned is that when you, as a guy, want to communicate with other guys, knowing a bit about the local sport is paramount.

I had been watching Major League Baseball since 1970 when my favorite team was the Pittsburgh Pirates, and then added my local team the Toronto Blue Jays when they joined in 1977. I coach two teams nowadays... a house league team for Bloordale Baseball where Cincinnati Reds all-star Joey Votto graduated from, as well as a Select Team.

And then... a month later in September of 1990... then came sumo.

I watched sumo wrestling knowing it was Japan's national sport. Back then all of the broadcasts were in Japanese, watching the only gaijin (foreigner) sumo wrestler Konishiki win matches, before other foreigners such as Akebono and my personal favorite Musashimaru came around... the later two both eventually elevating themselves to select company as Yokozuna, a rank where one is elected to after showing sport dominance.

I had a bilingual television... a TV that allowed me to watch an event in English, or in Japanese, or a mess of a combination of both.

Because sumo was ONLY available in Japanese, I did not even think to switch to an English stream in 1992 when apparently Doreen Simmons came aboard to help broadcast matches in English for the NHK station.

I simply had no idea... else I would have heard my by-then beloved sumo matches called out in English.

Sadly... it was yesterday that I only learned that Simmons had been broadcasting sumo in English from 1992-on.

That's when I learned that Doreen Simmons had passed away at the age of 85 back on April 23, 2018 in Tokyo, after last working on a sumo match in March.

She was recognized in Japan as a true sumo expert, and in 2017 was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, on of Japan's highest honors. 

Born in Nottingham, England, on May 29, 1932, Simmons was in Singapore in 1967 teaching at a British army school when she read a newspaper article about a 13-year-old Japanese boy being recruited by a professional sumo stable.

Intrigued, she began to learn as much as she could about sumo, eventually moving to Japan to teach English at a language center.

She says she was intrigued by sumo and how a sport so popular "now" could have maintained its popularity from such ancient roots.

After meeting and learning more about sumo from some rabid fans--as well as meeting and talking to some middle-rank wrestlers, she became even more interested in learning about this sport and began attending weekend matches to further her own education and love of sumo.

Some 10 years later, she was writing about sumo for Kansai Time Out, an English-language magazine, and then Sumo World.

As such, when NHK began thinking about ding English-language broadcasts of the six major yearly sumo events, they hired Simmons to work as a color commentator along side three foreign-born men.

It may have been a sexist thing... in that Simmons was more knowledgeable, and the men were simply guys like me who had a love of the sport and a basic understanding of it, but soon, sex be damned, NHK realized that Simmons was the true star of the show with her insightful commentary.  

Banzai, Doreen Simmons... I wish I had heard your calls.
Andrew Joseph
PS: Thanks to Vinnie for the heads up on this, and sending me the original obituary from the NY Times: HERE.
PPS: Image is via BPM media, and was taken in 2017.

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