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Japan Returns To Top Spot In Sumo Wrestling

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Japan has a new sumo champion. And the big news is, he's Japanese. Last week, a 30-year-old sumo wrestler named Kisenosato, who weighs in at 385 pounds, was promoted to the rank of yokozuna, or grand champion. For years, one of the country's most famous national sports has been dominated by non-Japanese. We spoke to veteran sumo commentator Doreen Simmons who explained why that's been the case for nearly two decades.

DOREEN SIMMONS: Basically, it was the Mongolians mostly. There have been a few really good people from the old countries of the USSR. But it's really the Mongolians who have mastered it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sumo lost its allure for young Japanese boys, she says, because the financial reward wasn't guaranteed.

SIMMONS: For the poorer Japanese sumo was a less good option. There were other things that they could do that would bring in a safer income.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kisenosato is the first Japanese-born winner since 1998. His victory proved especially sweet coming after a history of crushing defeats in key fights. And he wept after he beat the long dominant, Mongolian-born Hakuho.

Doreen Simmons herself is a bit of a sensation. The British-born announcer has made Japan her home for over 40 years. And at 84, she still calls sumo matches on television.

SIMMONS: It's one of these crazy things. I mean, sometimes I'm talking and a total stranger on the train will say - oh, you're Doreen Simmons, aren't you? (Laughter) Yep. I keep my mouth shut more often. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.