Remembering Chiyonofuji, my childhood hero (1955-2016)

Contrary to the perception of many westerners, sumo is a game of speed and strategy, in which wrestlers assess their opponent’s weaknesses — psychological as much as physical — and attempt to outmaneuver quickly in order to get the upper hand. All sumo wrestlers are incredibly strong, but many also bulk up in order to give themselves an advantage in the ring. Not so with Chiyonofuji (千代の富士), who began his career in the early 1970s and retired in 1991 — spanning all the years I spent in Japan as a child. Some of the first foreign wrestlers came to prominence during that same time, Takamiyama (from Hawaii) and Konishiki (a Hawaiian born Samoan), but I always identified more with the little guy in the black mawashi.

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The month before my family left for the States, I watched my last sumo tournament in Japan, during which Konishiki handily defeated Chiyonofuji by shoving him out of the ring with an “oshidashi.”

And it was hard not to root for the American-born Konishiki when he beat the already legendary Yokozuna during their first match in 1984.

But it was all the smart moves he had made during the previous 15 years that left such an impression on me, often employing his much-feared “uwatenage” (literally “upper hand throw”).

As an American kid attending a local Japanese school, I was different from my Japanese classmates in both obvious and less-obvious ways. Children all over the world can be incredibly cruel to anybody who’s different, and I was the frequent victim of schoolyard bullies. Chiyonofuji proved that being bigger and stronger did not always result in victory — outthinking your adversary is far more important.

Sherding for Jomon pottery in Yokohama

In 1983, my family moved from the medieval castle town of Himeji in western Japan to the outskirts of Yokohama. We had also lived in Yokohama for two years after I was born in Tokyo, and my minister father was being transferred back to work at his church’s headquarters in Asahi-ku. We lived in a mouldering compound of American ranch houses built for western missionaries. Constructed 40 years earlier in an era when American missionaries had Japanese maids, the houses even had a small apartment on the other side of the kitchen, behind the garage — a single tiny room with tatami mats and a bathroom with a deep Japanese furo that I sometimes preferred to the American bathtubs elsewhere in the house.

Through the power of satellite photography, I can see my old home, the easternmost house in the row of four toward the center of this screen capture (sent to me by a friend in 2011).

My childhood home, from space

The first thing I learned in Yokohama was to drop my Kansai accent and start talking like the Kanto children around me.

One of the next things I learned was that we lived atop a giant Jōmon midden. A midden is the kitchen scrap-heap of an archaeological site. Like the famous Tells of Middle Eastern archaeology, kitchen middens can grow to enormous proportions over the millennia as humans live near or on top of their growing garbage heap. Shell middens specifically include shellfish remains, but in Japan the term 貝塚 (kaizuka) is used as a general term for various types of archaeological middens, regardless of any evidence of actual shellfish processing at the site.

The Jōmon period (縄文時代) began about 16,000 years ago and lasted until the beginning of the Yayoi period (弥生時代) in about 300 BCE, with the introduction of rice-based agriculture. The Jōmon people made some of the earliest pottery in the world, but despite their sedentary lifestyle in villages and their intensive use of earthenware (土器), they were a predominantly pre-agricultural society of hunter-gatherers. Thus, the Jōmon period is considered transitional between the Paleolithic in Japan (旧石器時代) and the Iron Age Yayoi with their bronze bells, iron swords, and rice paddies.

How did the people of Japan leap from the Paleolithic straight to the Iron Age? The general consensus among archaeologists, geneticists, linguists, physical anthropologists, and historians is that the Jōmon people represent Japan’s aboriginal inhabitants, while the Yayoi people were an immigrant population of East Asians from the mainland, who moved into Japan (probably from Korea, though that is a controversial hypothesis for a variety of reasons) and then pushed out or intermingled with the native population.

Hokkaido, 1976Starting around 2,300 years ago, the Yayoi culture and the later Yamato culture steadily replaced the Jōmon culture, until the Ainu people alive in Hokkaido today remain the last descendants of Japan’s original Jōmon. With the colonization of Hokkaido following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the invasion of the Yamato people across the islands of the Japanese archipelago was finally complete after more than two thousand years.

As I learned myself while attending Japanese elementary school in Yokohama, every Japanese child learns key archaeological details about the Jōmon period. Crafted without a wheel using coiled clay and fired in an open bonfire at fairly low temperatures, Jōmon potters often applied designs to their earthenware by pressing or rolling twine onto the wet clay. This is where the archaeological period gets its name: “Jōmon” means “rope-marked”.

Archaeological sites are so common in the densely populated country that some go unexcavated. Near my home in Yokohama, modern machines with their ever-deeper plowing turned up more and more Jōmon potsherds in each furrow. Nearly every weekend for three years, I scoured the fields for these potsherds, hauling home plastic shopping bags full of broken pieces pressed with the classic, rope-marked pattern of pottery from the Early Jōmon phase (between 6,000 and 4,500 years ago).

A few years after we moved away from Yokohama, on a day when I must have felt particularly bored or lonely, I went through one of my boxes of sherds and managed to assemble a larger section from 6 different pieces. The hours I spent trying to fit potsherds together indicate just how seriously I took my future as an archaeologist.

Jomon potsherds (1)

Every so often in Yokohama, I would find a more substantial potsherd, usually from a thicker vessel with the kinds of beautifully embossed patterns more typical of the Middle and Late Jōmon phases. Given their beauty, these were rare and exciting finds, even if the farmers didn’t seem to think so — they were usually tossed to the edge of the field like troublesome stones.

Jomon potsherd (7)

The vast carrot fields atop the hill to the north of our little American neighborhood yielded the most pottery — from small fragments to large sherds with ornate, swirling patterns.

Jomon potsherd (3)

In the years since a former neighbor emailed me a screenshot of our old houses on Google Maps, a new imaging pass has revealed that our four American-style oddities have been torn down, replaced by a modern neighborhood of over thirty proper Japanese houses. Similarly, the carrot fields to the north of the missionary compound have been replaced by the Wakabadai apartment complex — a convenient, one-hour train ride straight into downtown Tokyo.

Yokohama, 1975I can take a virtual walk along the Tomei Expressway to my old elementary school, and I can even see the shadow of the Japanese lantern where I had my picture taken when I was a baby. As I peruse photos taken from space of the Japanese streets I knew so well, while connected from my living room in Seattle to a global network of computers, it becomes clear how much has changed in just 30 years. Our satellites also look outward, finding unseen planets and revealing a universe of limitless wonder.

Yet, as I hold a 5,000-year-old Jōmon potsherd in my hand, I wonder what we’ve lost beneath all those apartment buildings, the bank, the ramen shop, and the train station with its express service to Shinjuku. What do we destroy when we pave over ten thousand years of history for another hamburger joint?

And how will future archaeologists assess these first layers as they scrape away our present and reveal the past we share with them?

Of mammoths past and mammoths future

In the entrance hall of the Historical Museum of Hokkaido stand two enormous skeletons — a mammoth and a Naumann’s elephant, another type of woolly, Pleistocene proboscidean native to Japan. By the time I visited the museum at age three or four, I had seen living elephants at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo and the Maruyama Zoo in Sapporo. The enormous curved tusks arched over my head, and I knew instantly that I was in the presence of something altogether different and wonderful.

Historical Museum of Hokkaido ticket

An artifact: My mother saved the entrance ticket to the museum

We walked past cases of Jomon pottery and through the dark halls of ethnographic dioramas depicting Ainu lifeways. The museum opened just a few years earlier, in 1971, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Western-style colonization of Hokkaido by ethnic Japanese people following the Meiji Restoration. Hokkaido today is full of beautiful Victorian buildings that would be at home in any of the nicer neighborhoods of San Francisco, Chicago, or Seattle. As is typical the world over, the process of colonization did not go well for the aboriginal peoples. But I’ll save a discussion of the complexities of modern Japan as a multiethnic society for another day…

I got scared of the strange, dimly lit mannequins with their beards and furs, so my mother took me outside to walk around on the museum grounds, where we encountered a rock wall of hand stencils like the ones I’d see when I grew older, a motif that ties together Paleolithic cultures the world over.

Despite my fear, from that moment on, I became fascinated with humanity’s shared past. I needed to understand those other people who lived in a time when mammoths and aurochs roamed the open steppe. By the time I was 5 had learned that people who studied deep human history were called archaeologists, and the people who dug up mammoths were called paleontologists. As awed as I was by that mammoth, it was the people who intrigued me. Following the invariable fireman phase and a brief flirtation with wanting to be a ballerina (after seeing the Bolshoi Ballet perform Swan Lake), I knew I wanted to become an archaeologist.

When adults asked me, I would inform them of this fact, to which most would say, “So you want to dig up dinosaurs? That sounds like fun!”

“No,” I would reply, “That’s a paleontologist, like Louis Leakey in Africa. I want to become an archaeologist.”

By the mid-80’s, adults would then follow with “Oh, of course, like Indiana Jones!”

I’d sigh and say, “No, not like him. Indiana Jones is just a grave robber. I want to be like Heinrich Schliemann. He discovered Troy.”

Large proportions of my education having consisted of back issues of National Geographic and old sets of Encyclopædia Britannica, I was, in hindsight, rather insufferable.

There really are moments in the course of your life when it shifts to a new direction. In the years since, I’ve collected Jomon potsherds from carrot fields in Yokohama, participated in digs (the Tategahana Paleolithic site at Lake Nojiri and Tall al-`Umayri in Jordan), held Neanderthal tools in my hand, and pondered axial precession under Newgrange.

And yet, nothing will ever compare to my first sight of a mammoth skeleton that day back in Hokkaido. Some day, perhaps I’ll see one in the flesh…

That one time I swam to Myanmar (and back)

One day twenty years ago or so, somebody at my religiously affiliated high school thought it would be an excellent idea to send our choir to a school in the Mae La camp in Thailand to aid in the construction of a new building for Karen refugees, presumably as a demonstration of American largesse and Christian charity.

I could tell you about how I bathed in a river for a week, how I rode a genuine working elephant (not some tourist pachyderm), how two thirds of us got food poisoning, or how the concrete never properly set. I could tell you that we left having accomplished nothing more than two parallel ditches in a patch of red dirt that the local people had already cleared before we arrived.

I could wax political about the sheer, indecent waste of spending thousands of dollars each to send a bunch of American teenagers to do work that could have been done better, faster, and with positive economic impact for the local community. As a missionary kid myself, I could rail against the sheer arrogance and imperialism — that somehow these American children were making a difference or “helping” the local community.

I could remind everyone that the safe, secure, and “free” Yangon that Anthony Bourdain enjoys today is thanks to a successful military campaign to suppress all the ethnic minorities (such as the Karen) fighting in the countryside for self-determination.

But none of that is especially interesting, so I’ll tell you about the time I swam to Myanmar.

One afternoon after the church service, starring a special choir of children flown in all the way from America, we were walking along a riverbank back to the little village that surrounded the school. Our Karen guide — a fellow teenager from the school — pointed across the river and told us the other side was Burma. Unsupervised by adults and newly invigorated from having survived salmonella poisoning in the middle of the jungle, several American children thought it would be an excellent idea to swim the hundred meters or so across the Moei River, just so they could tell their friends and relatives back home that they had been to Burma.

“Just don’t go past the rocks on the shore — there could be mines,” the Karen girl said. Good to know.

Back home, I was the head lifeguard at our school. I didn’t need to be an adult to suggest that this was not, in fact, an excellent idea. Unswayed, several boys and girls waded into the river wearing their cargo shorts, T-shirts, and brand-new Tevas from REI.

I decided I could at least sit on a rock and make sure nobody died in the water.

Halfway across the river, the current caught one of the younger boys.

I called out, “Do you need some help?”

He nodded sheepishly as he drifted north toward the Salween River, thence south on to the Andaman Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean.

I took off my own Tevas (they were really big back in the 90’s) and I waded into the brown water. Once I was clear of the mud sucking at my feet, I dove forward and swam toward the floundering boy. I threw my arm over his shoulder and shoved my hip up under his, pulling him up and nearly out of the water — a move designed simultaneously to control and to calm. It’s also a move that puts the lifeguard mostly underwater.

“Just lean back and relax,” I said as I bobbed up and exhaled. A breath, one stroke, up again. “I’ve got you.”

Damned if I was going to play flag football or join junior varsity basketball, I had taken lifeguard certification twice for P.E. credit. This would be my first real-world rescue. But if I could subdue an ex-Marine Gulf War vet who outweighed me by a hundred pounds in our pool, I knew hauling a fifteen-year-old to safety in real life would be quite possible.

I looked up and realized we were closer to the far bank. I changed course and hauled him with my right arm as I scissor-kicked us the rest of the way to Burma. My feet touched round river stones and I pulled the boy upright.

“Let’s rest for a minute, and then I’ll haul you back. I think that’ll be easier.”

We sat there in Myanmar for about 10 minutes, tossing stones into the river.

Our return trip was uneventful. He floated on his back and I hauled him back to Thailand by his collar. (I suppose my story’s boring ending proves that it’s true. The most dramatic part of a good, made-up story isn’t in the middle.)

We never told the adults about all this — the choir director and the chaperones, the parents and teachers. We suspected nothing good would come of telling everyone else of this latest adventure.

On the desk in my office, among the trilobites and bifaces, sits an unprepossessing green stone — a souvenir hastily picked up from the banks of the Moei River, a memento of the day I swam to Myanmar and back.

Moei River on Wikipedia

A fairly well-populated section of the Moei River, nothing like the middle of the jungle where I swam across, hauling an embarrassed fifteen-year-old kid

The day I corrected Roger Ebert

The great movie critic Roger Ebert died today after a lengthy battle with cancer. It’s not often I’m personally touched by the passing of a “celebrity,” but Roger Ebert was first and foremost a writer, and someone into whose orbit I was inexorably but briefly pulled one day back in March 2006.

Roger Ebert

A young Roger Ebert in 1970

Seven years ago, Roger Ebert posted a review of V for Vendetta, observing:

Britain is ruled by a man named Sutler, who gives orders to his underlings from a wall-sized TV screen and seems the personification of Big Brother.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of my favorite books, and the movie starring John Hurt is one of my favorite literary adaptations in cinema. So when I saw that John Hurt was playing Sutler, I thought Mr. Ebert had missed something. I hit the Send Feedback link and wrote a brief email:

Dear Roger,

Although you compared John Hurt’s character to Big Brother in your review of “V for Vendetta,” I’m a bit surprised that you didn’t note the irony inherent in the fact that Hurt played Winston Smith in “1984.” I think it was a brilliant piece of stunt casting.

Andrew Becraft
Seattle, WA

I never expected a reply. But a few minutes later, I got this amusing response from Roger Ebert himself:

Ohmigod. You;re right!

A few minutes later, he replied again:

I have now incorporated your insight into the review, for which I thank you.

I went back to the review, and Ebert had added:

And is: Sutler is played by John Hurt, who in fact played Winston Smith in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1984).

I wrote Roger back:

Excellent! We all have our little obsessions, and “1984” is one of mine.

All the best,

-Andrew

Again Roger replied:

I love the whole of Orwell — all his novels, and those four thick volumes gathering his miscellaneous writings.

Best,
RE

I was so tempted to continue talking movies and literature with the world-famous Roger Ebert in more and more of these brief exchanges, but I didn’t want to seem obsessive — even though I was giddily forwarding these little emails to all my friends and doing little dances at the office.

Exactly three months later, Roger underwent the first surgery that removed his ability to speak. The ultimate writer (the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, back in 1975), he quickly turned to the web, embracing RogerEbert.com more than ever, along with the nascent social media boom. The written word became his voice, and his fan base grew and grew even as he mostly retired from public view.

I hear people today talking about how much he interacted with fans and engaged with them intellectually since his illness, but it’s obvious to me that Roger Ebert was doing exactly that long before Twitter or Facebook.

Roger Ebert loved what he did, and loved to share his passion with like-minded people — movie buffs, writers, and readers of great literature. For one afternoon seven years ago, I found myself sharing my love of George Orwell with the great and wonderful Roger Ebert.

The world of film will be a dimmer place without him.