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International Desk

This article first appeared in issue 38, and was written by Tom Waggener.

Recently I went for a late-night run and came upon a man picking chestnuts from a tree. Chestnuts are plentiful in Kagoshima. They are a common snack, and great with rice. The man gave me a handful of fresh chestnuts and his wife brought out a bag of cooked nuts and they talked --all in Japanese--for a good half hour. Here is what I extrapolated from that conversation:

1) She works somewhere in the town office.
2) Chestnuts are called malon in Japanese
3) There was to be a major event at the Mobiki Community Center, involving sumo wrestling, students, the full moon and probably lots of drinking.

I made a mental note of the date as I walked along munching on malon and scaring little old ladies (apparently they are not used to seeing 6 foot tall, hairy white guys walking late at night).

In the weeks to come I told all my JET Program teaching friends about this upcoming event, mainly in an attempt to get English-speaking visitors to my tiny town. I finally talked my Canadian friend Juliet into coming.

On the day of the event, we stopped in to see our mechanic, Onosan, to pay our car bills and to chat. Onosan--who speaks no English, but who loves JETs--is one of our favorite people. He chain smokes and laughs a lot and is somehow incredibly easy to understand. We told him about the sumo event, and he seemed to know a lot about it. He laughed at us both while speaking Japanese, and this is what I extrapolated from that conversation:

1) Sumos make loud stomping noises and grunt a lot.
2) People were going to try to involve Juliet and me in everything they could for the sake of their own amusement.
and 3) There would be lots of food and drinking.

We left laughing and confused and I made a mental note to get Ono a nice gift.

We found the Mobiki Community Center aglow with people, lights and laughter. There was a small dirt ring surrounded by parents. Students of all ages were lined up for their turn to wrestle, and a junior high boy belted out encouragements through a megaphone as two 8-year-olds tugged at each others' shirts.

Juliet and I were given rice balls, beer and a front row seat. People came by to tell me that their children were students at one of my schools, ask if Juliet and I were engaged, ask if I liked sho-chu, ask how long I had been in japan, and so forth.

This turned out to be no ordinary sumo match. First of all, the participants were mostly under 12 years old and under 60 pounds. None wore diapers or thongs, and there seemed to be no distinct set of rules. We cheered as two 6-year-olds dragged each other about the ring, and then things got really intense as a 4th-grader held her own with three 6th-graders.

When they pulled Juliet into the ring, I got the video camera ready in hopes that things would get really hysterical. Sadly, there was no sumo. Juliet did some sort of sissy slap fight with a junior-high girl, and lost. Other girls that night had done full-on sumo and I assumed they were taking things easy on the gaijin.

Next, they pulled me into the ring, and I found myself face to face with a 140-pound, glasses-wearing 15-year-old. I saw the fear in his eyes, and squared away--this kid was going down.

The referee said "go," and the kid was all over me, pulling at parts of my body and struggling to get me off the ground. I got tickled and started to laugh. I tried to pick him up and fling him from the ring, but I was laughing too hard and he was incredibly wiry. In the end, I lost balance and was pushed from the ring. I bowed gracefully as the crowd cheered and roared with laughter at my lack of skills.

I was then showered with gifts of rice balls, beer, sho-chu, unwarranted praise, and a tray with crackers and little wieners (oddly enough, wieners are quite popular here).

Later, I wrestled four elementary kids at one time, and lost, twice. At the end of the night, I wrestled my neighbor. He was a little more than intoxicated at this point, shirtless, and making some bull noises as we prepared to wrestle. I outweigh the guy by about 60 pounds, and I was sure I could get him out of the ring. Apparently alcohol creates lots of adrenaline because Tomatsu had me off my feet and out of the ring in no time.

After the match, we were invited to an iinkai at the community center, but we decided not to press our luck. We said our good-byes to Yurika and my students and met up with two other JETs on their way to Kanoya.



This story was posted on 2001-12-15 12:01:01
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