[sumo] Just About Everything You Wanted to Know About Doreen

Jeffrey Anderson jpaitv at gmail.com
Sat May 19 15:26:43 EDT 2018

A new story about Doreen's life, much of which has not been in the news
before. This is from The Times in London. You need a subscription, which I
picked up a couple years ago for a sumo story. I will therefore copy and


Often to be found seated in a restaurant in the heart of Tokyo’s old sumo
wrestling quarter, Doreen Simmons appeared an unlikely regular customer. A
small, silver-haired lady with a trace of a Nottinghamshire accent, she was
in fact one of the greatest experts on the ancient sport and its history.

Dubbed the sumo “godmother”, Simmons was the English language commentator
for matches broadcast on a popular Japanese TV network. “The thing about
sumo is that it’s so simple,” she once said. “The first time you see it,
you know what’s going on. But when you start learning about it, there are
so many extra things, so many details.”

First mentioned in the year 712 in the Kojiki (*Record of Ancient Matters*),
Japan’s oldest surviving work of literature, sumo rules decree that the
loser is the first to be pushed out of the ring or touch the ground with
any part of his body other than the soles of his feet.

However, the more Simmons researched the sport the more she came to
believe: “It’s a whole world of its own.” She came to know everything down
to the way that wrestlers tied the simple *mawashi*, a satin belt several
metres long around the waist and nether regions. She also researched life
in sumo “stables” where apprentices lived and trained in spartan conditions.

Young wrestlers often began their apprenticeship by working in kitchens and
cleaning up after senior wrestlers. “Sumo wrestlers need a certain mindset
to stick it out,” she explained. “They’re going to have pain and exhaustion
and they have to find that inner strength that most people never find.” If
a sumo wrestler wants to marry, he must first ask the permission of the
stable master. “It is a total way of life,” she said.

Simmons chose to live among the old stables of Ryogoku. Every morning she
passed apprentices praying to the statues of greats who had gone before
them. Despite her small size, she relished the wrestlers’ *chanko-nabe*, a
Japanese stew that contains 17 ingredients, including seafood, chicken,
tofu and beef to help weight-gain. “It’s very good. It makes you strong and
gives you a lot of protein and vegetables.”

However, she insisted that despite wrestlers reaching more than 40st and
consuming a daily diet of 20,000 calories “they are not lumbering giants at
all”. In her English commentaries for NHK — similar to the BBC in Japan —
she described the intricacies of various sumo holds and moves, such as the*
kainahineri*(an arm twist) or the* tsuridashi*, when a wrestler grabs an
opponent’s belt and tosses him out of the ring. “Unless you’ve seen sumo,
you have no idea how fast it is,” she added.

Among sumo fans, Simmons became a cult name in Japan. “It’s one of these
crazy things,” she said nonchalantly. “I mean, sometimes I’m talking and a
total stranger on the train will say, ‘Oh, you’re Doreen Simmons, aren’t
you?’ ‘Yep.’ I keep my mouth shut more often.”

Modestly, she maintained that the sport was never more than her hobby. She
held down numerous other “day jobs” in Tokyo and was a colourful figure in
the expatriate community. As the star-turn of various parties, she would —
said friends — dance, imbibe and play the bodhrán (Irish drum) around the
city’s Irish pubs. In her seventies, her enthusiasm for new pursuits
undimmed, she took up the *djembe*, a west African drum, after finding a
shop that gave lessons.

Doreen Sylvia Clarke was born in Nottingham in 1932. Her father, George,
was a civil servant, and her mother, Elsie, was a store manager who
promoted stationery to women by making paper flowers. She recalled of her
upbringing: “In the war, my father was away in the army and we had to move
to what were sort of railway cottages at the back of the Victoria Station.”
She went to Mundella Grammar School in the city and frequented the local
library. “I’d get books on stars, planets, myths, legends, pyramids and
dinosaurs,” she said.

She also sang in the choir and at the weekend enjoyed going to cricket
matches at Trent Bridge with a home-made scorecard and notebook. “When I
came to Tokyo many years later I tackled sumo in much the same way.”

After graduating from Girton College, Cambridge, Simmons trained as a
teacher of Latin and Greek at Hughes Hall. She was briefly married to Bob
Simmons, but it ended in divorce and she rarely spoke about him to friends.

In the early 1960s she was given a job in Singapore in a British Army
school and went on a trip to Japan. She found herself on a farm where she
saw her first sumo match on television — it was also the first time she
watched a programme in colour. After a spell back in England teaching
classics, during which time she was a contestant on the BBC’s first series
of *Mastermind*, she said she could not forget Japan.

In 1973 Simmons returned to Tokyo with a teaching post at the International
Language Centre in Jinbocho. She later joined the staff of Tokyo’s Foreign
Press Centre, editing translations of Japanese government press releases.

She began going to sumo matches at the weekend. “I’ve been going every
Saturday, Sunday and public holiday since.” At first she simply enjoyed the
ancients rituals such as the throwing of salt, which she recognised
straight away as a purification. “My original interest was in its survival
from the past, but after a while I got to know some of the middle-ranking
wrestlers, along with some extremely knowledgeable Japanese fans, who
fuelled my interest,” she said. She started to write for *Kansai Time Out*
magazine, which was in English, and then for *Sumo World*. In 1992, NHK
hired her for its English-language sumo broadcasts. She said she loved the
“good rapport” with the other commentators, who are known as “play-by-play

After the hazing- related death of a 17-year-old wrestler in 2007, she
described an instance she had seen of a sumo elder training a recruit as
his father looked on. “He was giving him a real going-over, urging him to
charge at his chest, again and again; the kid ended up on the ground,
panting and his mentor kicked him and shouted, ‘Get up! You’re not in
primary school! What are you made of?’ From somewhere inside, the youngster
found extra strength, picked himself up, and eyes blazing, charged again
and again and again.”

Simmons was multilingual and had a gift for voiceovers — “raucous male
impersonations, ultra-sweet, throbby animal voices”. She provided the voice
for Miss Marple on an Agatha Christie tape, while other roles over the
years included a soccer hooligan, a dying rhinoceros and a transvestite

Her travels took her to the Antarctic, the Middle East, Iceland and
Australia, where she went bungee jumping at the age of 68. She celebrated
her 71st birthday digging foundations for homes in Mongolia and also “fell
in love with Mongolian tattoos”. She had a “neat little upper left arm job”
done in a parlour in Ulan Bator.

Last year, aged 84, Simmons received the Order of the Rising Sun, one of
the Japanese government’s highest honours.

*Doreen Simmons, sumo commentator, was born on May 29, 1932. She died of
pulmonary causes on April 23, 2018, aged 85*

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