Ed­u­ca­tor was an ex­pert on sumo wrestling

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­post.com

Doreen Sim­mons, a Bri­tish­born teacher of Latin and Greek who set­tled in Ja­pan in the 1970s and be­came a renowned author­ity on sumo wrestling and an English-language com­men­ta­tor on Ja­panese tele­vi­sion, died April 23 in Tokyo. She was 85.

Her death was an­nounced by the or­ga­ni­za­tion For Em­pow­er­ing Women in Ja­pan. The cause could not be learned.

Ms. Sim­mons taught in Eng­land and Sin­ga­pore be­fore mov­ing to Ja­pan in 1973 to work as an English teacher. From the be­gin­ning, she was drawn to the rit­ual qual­i­ties of sumo wrestling, the Ja­panese na­tional sport with a his­tory dat­ing back 1,500 years.

She learned the Ja­panese language and later be­came an editor of English-language press re­leases and doc­u­ments for Ja­pan’s for­eign min­istry and other branches of the gov­ern­ment.

All the while, Ms. Sim­mons deep­ened her devo­tion to sumo, in which two enor­mous men in loin­cloths at­tempt to push each other to the ground or be­yond a pre­scribed cir­cle. She at­tended tour­na­ments and be­came one of the few women al­lowed in the male pre­serve of the heya, or sta­ble — the tra­di­tional train­ing fa­cil­i­ties and liv­ing quar­ters of sumo wrestlers.

She learned that the rit­ual cer­e­monies of sumo, such as the toss­ing of salt in the ring be­fore a bout, are in­ter­twined with an­cient Shinto reli­gious rites.

“My first at­trac­tion was things like the throw­ing of salt, which I rec­og­nized straight away as a pu­rifi­ca­tion,” she told an Aus­tralian news­pa­per in 2007. “I also en­joyed, right from the be­gin­ning, the col­or­ful gy­oji [ref­er­ees] and their rit­u­al­ized calls and poses, and the calm Bud­dha-like faces of the men wait­ing their turn.”

Ms. Sim­mons moved to Tokyo’s Ryo­goku district, the heart of the sumo world, and in the 1980s be­gan to write about the sport for English-language publi­ca­tions in Ja­pan, in­clud­ing Sumo World. She came to be seen as one of the few out­siders with a firm grasp of the sport’s tra­di­tions and sub­tleties.

She wrote au­thor­i­ta­tive ar­ti­cles about sumo ref­er­ees, who are cos­tumed in elab­o­rate silk robes and have al­most a priestly role in main­tain­ing or­der. She wrote about sumo hairdressers, who spend years learn­ing how to use combs and oils to cre­ate the wrestlers’ dis­tinc­tive top­knots.

Ms. Sim­mons also ex­am­ined the so­cial hi­er­ar­chy of sumo, in which young wrestlers be­gin their ap­pren­tice­ship by work­ing in kitchens, clean­ing and car­ing for the per­sonal needs of more ad­vanced wrestlers. (The sumo world has had sev­eral scan­dals, in­clud­ing the haz­ing-re­lated death of a 17-year-old wrestler in 2007 and later ac­cu­sa­tions of match-fix­ing.)

Sumo wrestlers con­sume huge quan­ti­ties of rice and beer to main­tain their for­mi­da­ble weight, which of­ten ex­ceeds 400 pounds. De­spite their bulk, Ms. Sim­mons of­ten ex­plained, the wrestlers were su­perbly trained ath­letes who pos­sessed re­mark­able quick­ness, agility and strength.

“Un­less you’ve ac­tu­ally seen sumo, you have no idea how fast it is,” she told CBS’s “Sun­day Morn­ing” in 2009. “They are not lum­ber­ing giants at all.”

In 1992, Ms. Sim­mons be­gan to pro­vide English-language sumo com­men­tary for Ja­pan’s NHK tele­vi­sion net­work.

“At the be­gin­ning there were three play-by-play men who had ex­pe­ri­ence of broad­cast­ing games like base­ball, but their knowl­edge of ba­sic sumo was newly ac­quired and pretty lim­ited,” she told Bri­tain’s Ex­press news­pa­per in 2017. “They wanted the color pro­vided by com­men­ta­tors like me who were hired be­cause we were al­ready knowl­edge­able about some as­pect of sumo, and had gained our spe­cial­ist knowl­edge in our own time and, mostly, at our own ex­pense.”

In time, Ms. Sim­mons be­came the reg­u­lar play-by-play an­nouncer her­self, us­ing her un­der­stated Bri­tish ac­cent to de­scribe var­i­ous sumo holds and moves, such as the kainahineri (a two-handed arm twist) or the tsuri­dashi, when a wrestler grabs an op­po­nent’s mawashi, or belt, and tosses him out of the ring.

Doreen Sim­mons was born May 29, 1932, in Nottingham, Eng­land. Her fa­ther served in the Bri­tish army.

She stud­ied clas­sics and the­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge, grad­u­at­ing in 1954. She was a teacher of Latin and Greek for sev­eral years be­fore mov­ing to Sin­ga­pore, where she taught at a Bri­tish army school in the 1960s.

She re­port­edly was mar­ried at least once, but in­for­ma­tion about sur­vivors could not be con­firmed.

Ms. Sim­mons held a va­ri­ety of edi­to­rial and trans­la­tion jobs, and con­tin­ued her work for the Ja­panese for­eign min­istry un­til shortly be­fore her death. She was a well­known pres­ence in Tokyo’s com­mu­nity, at­tend­ing Angli­can church ser­vices, act­ing in plays and mu­si­cals, and singing in the Bri­tish Em­bassy’s choir.

She also learned to play Ir­ish and African drums and called her­self “a nov­elty per­cus­sion­ist” who fre­quently per­formed at Ir­ish pubs in Tokyo.

She trav­eled widely, of­ten while vol­un­teer­ing for Habi­tat for Hu­man­ity. While build­ing houses in Mon­go­lia, she “fell in love with Mon­go­lian tat­toos” and cel­e­brated her 71st birthday with her first tat­too.

Last year, Ms. Sim­mons re­ceived the Or­der of the Ris­ing Sun, one of the Ja­panese gov­ern­ment’s high­est hon­ors, for her con­tri­bu­tions to the coun­try’s cul­ture.

“The at­trac­tion of sumo to the per­son look­ing at it for the first time is that you can un­der­stand pretty much what is go­ing on,” she told Toronto’s Globe and Mail news­pa­per in 1997. “But there is so much else that . . . I can hon­estly say I haven’t stopped learn­ing.”


Doreen Sim­mons taught in Eng­land and Sin­ga­pore be­fore mov­ing to Ja­pan, where she wrote ex­ten­sively about sumo wrestling.

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