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The Stablemates and I

I went directly from the Oyakata's office back to the stable. There was more I wanted to talk to the wrestlers about.

It was obvious to me what motivated them to progress through the ranks: like I wrote before, promotion means an exponential improvement in the quality of their lives. But what motivated them to join the stable in the first place has was a mystery to me. I asked them, of course, but never got a satisfying answer. They generally said something along the lines of, "I got recruited," and left it at that.

Despite the warmth and openness with which the wrestlers treated me, I wasn't able to get too far below the surface to see what makes them tick. One reason, of course, was the language barrier that mucked up our communications. These guys speak a pastiche of youth culture slang, regional dialect and sumo patois that left me clueless to what they said to each other and sometimes even to what they said directly to me.

There were also the dissimilarities between them and myself. Sure, there was the physical aspect, which often made me feel like a guppy swimming among catfish, especially when I put on a mawashi and got into the dohyo with them. And there were the general cultural differences, with me being American and they - except the one Mongolian - all being Japanese.

There are class differences too. The Oyakata insisted when I dropped by his office that the wrestlers come from all different social and educational levels. Indeed, Kitamura joined the stable after doing college sumo at a fairly prestigious, pricey university. But most of the guys I talked to do come from working-class families, which is a lot different from me and the bookish middle-middle-class family that I come from.

These guys are also devoted athletes and, in some cases, accomplished ones. I, meanwhile, didn't play a single sport between Cub Scout softball and the intramural soccer team I played on until my teammates—tired of me dragging them down—stopped telling me when the games were. And they are working through commitments of a decade or more that they made to themselves and the stable, while I have trouble committing to an entrée when I'm ordering dinner.

Of course, being at the stable to write about the wrestlers, their sport and their lives, I had a responsibility to overcome these differences and find a way to understand them a little bit. I thought by spending a lot of time with them and allowing a level of trust to grow between us, I could do this, and I was somewhat successful. But in a way, it was also counterproductive.

A reporter's standard routine is to drop into people's lives with a notebook for a brief snatch of time and ask them questions. If you don't like the answer you get, you ask harder, more probing questions. In fact, you keep asking questions until you get a satisfying answer and if that alienates the person you're talking to, well, that's too bad. After all, you're looking for quotes and insights, not new friends.

But in the stable, while I always had my notebook and was constantly writing in it, I didn't report in the same way as if I'd dropped by for the afternoon. My information gathering was done during chats over dinner or during commercials. They were friendly conversations more than formal interviews. And if I asked a guy over dinner why he became a sumo wrestler in the first place, and he says, "I got recruited," I wasn't comfortable saying, "No, come on, really, why? Why'd you let yourself get recruited?" It wouldn't have been friendly.

The best way to deal with this, I decided was to wait until I left the stable, then come back on a brief visit for the sole purpose of interviewing the wrestlers about how they got into sumo and what they thought of the lifestyle. So after meeting with the Oyakata, I went back to the stable to sit down with some of the guys. That's where much of the information in the "Stablemates" interludes comes from.

NEXT: Brutality