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By Kit Pancoast Nagamura
(The Internationalist Fall 2015 Vol. 55)
For his interview, Yumitaro Watanabe ('89), a production/planner in Dentsu's Sports Division, kindly invites me to visit his private home. His abode just happens to be located directly above Azumazeki-beya, the sumo stable opened by his Hawaiian father, ex-Sekiwake Takamiyama Daigoro (Jesse James Wailani Kuhaulua) after retiring from the ring. Watanabe's father was Japan's first foreign rikishi, and the first foreigner to win a sumo championship in Japan. To grow up in the shadow of such a giant national celebrity must have had a profound effect on Yumitaro, I imagine, so the interview location is, as metaphors go, irresistible.
I catch a pungent whiff of binstuke (the perfumed and hardened camellia oil used to coax wrestlers' hair into a topknots) before I even enter the stable. Inside, the dirt practice ring and an enormous portrait of Takamiyama—about three times life-size—loom out of the darkness. Climbing the staircase, a young wrestler and I startle each other. He politely ducks out of the way as I continue upward.
Yumitaro answers the door to his third-floor home, dressed like a cool biz executive. He shows me into an apartment that appears split into two eras. The living room is in the Showa vernacular, with chocolate-colored leather sofas and a lace-covered coffee table, and is decorated with sumo memorabilia. The kitchen, on the other hand, is sleekly stylin', and is Yumitaro's recent addition. "I love to have house parties," the 41-year-old says, pulling a bar stool up to the expansive stainless steel island, "and I've always dreamed of having a kitchen like this."
Impressively tall (192 cms) and an attractive combination of his Hawaiian father and Japanese mother, Yumitaro looks like a man used to following his dreams. Nonetheless, his early years seem to have included a few nightmarish moments.
He first attended nursery school at Aoba-Japan International School, transferring to Nishimachi International School from the start of kindergarten. The switch bought with it an unexpected trauma. "At Nishimachi, it turned out that everyone was wearing jeans," Yumitaro recalls, "and I'd never worn those before. I'd only worn elastic pants, which, when you're a kid, help you do your thing. I got some jeans, to look like everyone else, but jeans have a button and a zipper. I wasn't used to that. So I peed my pants, cause I couldn't undo them in time. Apparently I locked myself into the bathroom for three hours." Yumitaro laughs at the scenario, shaking his head. "My mother remembers all this, but not me," he says.
Despite having what Yumitaro describes as a "Tiger Mom," strict about homework and studies, he recalls almost nothing of his academic endeavors at Nishimachi International School. "I remember one teacher, Mrs. Webb," he says, "and I remember another teacher had a pet rabbit, and there was a sandbox in the playground. And Miss Matsukata, I remember her fondly; she was a nice little lady."
Digging further, I find that Yumitaro's takeaway from Nishimachi International School was a bit more nuanced. First, it provided him with a tight circle of friends whom he still sees today. "All my friends from my NIS days are female," he says, and I nod, rolling my eyes. "Wait," he says, "they weren't girlfriends—I'm not even sure what that means these days—but they were friends. Back then, most of the guys at the school were European," he elaborates, "and so they all went back to their countries, but the girls were mostly Japanese and they stayed." Among his circle, he mentions, are Yuko Y. '90, Yuko M. '89, Yukari T. '89, and Chian Yuan C. '89.
Aside from his social life, Yumitaro is also grateful that Japanese studies were emphasized at Nishimachi International School. "NIS provides you with the basics of Japanese, unlike any other international school," he says. "The study of it is mandatory. You can take Japanese at other international schools, too, but it's just another foreign language choice, and that's not the same. You really need those basic Japanese skills if you happen to come back to Japan. Without them, your employment chances are limited," he adds. What Yumitaro brought to Nishimachi International School was a taste of the sumo world. His father, Takamiyama donated mawashi (sumo loincloths) and the school's P.E. instructor at the time, Takeo Tan, set up classes in the sport. "My father started to visit NIS a lot in those years," Yumitaro says. "I remember we had practice every Friday afternoon, and two university students volunteered to help. We even were given special permission to enter the Wanpaku Sumo National Tournament." When I learn that Yumitaro participated in 1985 special event for youngsters, I ask the results of his bouts. "Oh, I lost in the first match," he says, unperturbed, "but I got to wrestle in the dohyo in Kuramae, before it was moved back to its original location in Ryogoku, where it is now."
By sixth grade, Yumitaro's parents moved him to the American School in Japan because they wanted him to participate in team sports. Yumitaro joined both the football and basketball teams, and then his parents switched things up on him again. "For my junior and senior years, I was forced to go to a boarding school, Virginia Episcopal School. I was forced to wear a tie, coat, jacket, and we had to go to church," he says with a grimace that makes him look about 16 again.
I ask Yumitaro if, in his early years, he was ever tempted to follow in his father's footsteps. He shakes his head. "Takanohana was two years my senior and Wakanohana four years, and when I was 17, they were at their peak," he says. "When I came home from college, there were cameramen waiting because they thought I might be the next 'junior' to join the sumo world. But unlike the others, I didn't practice sumo seriously all through elementary and middle school. Plus, you know, media pressure means you're expected to do better than your own father. I grew up in the sumo world, and I know how tough it is, and I didn't always want to be compared with my father. I didn't even want to come back to Japan for a while. I wanted to find a job on my own, without anybody knowing about my family."
Yumitaro enrolled at Boston College, and graduated in 1996. He snagged an excellent job offer from Panasonic Corporation, but turned it aside to take his chances on the sports industry, which he had already identified as his real passion. "I sent out thirty resumes to each Major League baseball team. It was 1996, when Hideo Nomo had just started to play for the Dodgers," he recalls. Upon receiving a response from the Dodgers, a call for an interview, Yumitaro promptly packed all his earthly belongings and relocated from Boston to LA. "I moved there with no guarantee," he says. "I got part time jobs while I went through two rounds of interviews, and then," he says pausing for effect, "I didn't get the job. They said I lacked experience."
While unpretentious and exceptionally polite, there is something about Yumitaro that makes me think he may have learned from his father how to stand his ground. "What I did then is take on more part time jobs," he says, "and I started thinking backwards, asking myself, what do I need to do to get experience?" While in LA, he located an employee at the Japanese-American museum downtown, which was launching a special exhibit on sumo. "They asked me to volunteer, and I did. That led me to a radio gig in LA—once a week I had a 30-minute show about sumo wrestling," he says.
During a short stint with event marketer Advantage International, Yumitaro was offered a chance to work at the Nagano Olympics. While it wasn't a line drive to his life goal of landing a job with the major leagues, it was sports-related work. "I had to ask myself, how many times will the Olympics comes to Japan, and so I took that great opportunity."
Seventh Inning Stretch
After Nagano, he moved to New York, bunking in a tiny apartment with three roommates, gambling yet again on a job within the sports industry. An offer from International Management Group (IMG) seemed just the ticket, but this was in 2001. "When 9/11 happened," Yumitaro says, looking off for a minute before continuing, "I watched it live—I was uptown—but it didn't really hit me until I opened a window, and then I could smell burning."
Yumitaro, like so many at the time, got laid off as the city reeled from the disaster. "It was tough," Yumitaro says. "A lot of people left the city. But I didn't want to go back to Japan. I was reaching for a goal, and I didn't want to return without having really accomplished anything." But for months, employment eluded him. "The sports business? It's basically entertainment, which is the first place to get cut, because it's the last thing you actually really need," he explains demurely.
Finally desperate, Yumitaro was assisted by a friend, Sam Frankfort, whose father happened to be Lewis Frankfort, the CEO of Coach. I make a lame joke about how "coach" sounds like a sports-related job. "You know, it's handbags, right?" Yumitaro asks, trying to be helpful. I nod, smiling. "Well," he continues, "Lew offered me a position in International Sales. I turned it down because I wanted to keep my eye on sports-related jobs. So, instead, he let me work part time in his store. Without that job, I'd never have gotten to where I am now."
By February of 2003, Yumitaro was commuting to Coach from a friend's place outside of the city. On the day of the Great Blizzard that year, which dumped record-breaking layers of snow across the Northeastern states, he found himself unable to get into work at Coach. Stuck at home, an idle search on the New York Yankees website turned up a job opening for a bilingual person. "It was an old posting, so I wasn't hopeful, but I emailed my resume immediately, and they called me within an hour. Without that snow storm, I would have missed the posting."
It's refreshing to meet a man who, though tenaciously proactive in guiding his own life toward a goal, acknowledges that a mixture of kismet, snowfalls, and the kindness of others have played parts in his career. "What I got at the Yankees was my dream job," Yumitaro says. "It was the one I'd been looking for, those eight years after graduating from college. I went to see Lew in person, to thank him, and I promised to continue to work part time at Coach on my days off."
Yumitaro spent five years with the New York Yankees, which had just signed slugger Hideki Matsui. He grew close with the team, traveling with them, and in his last year, serving as a translator for leftie pitcher Kei Igawa. "I'm not really a translator," Yumitaro admits, "but I did it for a year, which was tough—you're pretty much a personal manager for the person, helping them do everything—but eventually I realized I needed to go back to school."
Yumitaro applied to and was accepted by Columbia University in 2008, where he studied with sports management expert Vince Gennaro. Throughout his studies, he kept in close touch with his Yankee buddies, and even continued to work at Coach in his free time. Finally with his Master's degree in hand, he went scrolling through the work-sourcing site Monster.com, and landed what was advertised merely as "a 4-month posting at an advertisement agency." The job turned out to be with Dentsu America. "It drew on my advertising experience," Yumitaro says, "and I worked with Canon, which became the sponsor of the Copa America, one of the largest soccer competitions in South America. I managed their sponsor activations, approvals, and made premiums, etc., all for the event in Argentina." The position was extended to 8 months, and then Yumitaro was offered a fulltime position.
Once again, despite the coveted job offer, Yumitaro thought it just wasn't his ideal, so he turned it down. Shortly after, he met another Dentsu connection, from the Japan headquarters, and she convinced him to interview for the position he has held for three years now.
Since March 2012, Yumitaro has been part of the International Football department of the Sports Division at Dentsu. "Our clients are FIFA and international clubs outside of Asia," he explains. "We have a big event coming up December 10-20th —FIFA Club World Cup, which is a tournament determining the best soccer club in the world. We are hosting the champions from Europe (FC Barcelona, Spain), the champions of South America (River Plate, Argentina), the champions of North & Central America (Club America, Mexico) and from Oceania (Auckland City FC, New Zealand), and three teams which are yet to be decided from Asia, Africa, and the J-League host team. The final will be at Yokohama Stadium on Dec. 20th."
Yumitaro liaises with the football teams, clients, Japanese companies, and all aspects of sports industry. "People think it's a big industry," he says, "but it's not really. Still, there is a lot to set up. We do the décor, the prep, handle the marketing, get local sponsors, do the promotion, security, ticket sales, and VIP set-up. There are so many things we have to prepare, but the good thing about this job is that there's always an end to each event."
Glancing around the apartment at various momentos from Takamiyama's sumo career, it occurs to me to ask if Yumitaro has any such souvenirs from his life so far. "I have a lot of signed baseballs," he says, "but of all of them, the one I most treasure is one signed by Hideo Nomo. When I finally got that job with the Yankees, Nomo was at the time with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He came to the Yankee stadium, and we were in the basement corridor. He was walking to the gym, and I noticed him. When he came back, I handed him a ball, and he signed it. That ball was a symbol of how I was able to accomplish the goal that I set up after I graduated—to work with a baseball team and to meet Hideo Nomo. I cherish that ball to this day."
If You Build It...
When I ask Yumitaro about his current goals, he hesitates. "I'm living the dream," he says, adding "Not many jobs are as exciting as the one I have now. But, you know, I'd really like to tell people to set up their dreams and really go for them—life is not all about the money." As we wind things up, Yumitaro discusses his plans to try to modernize the stadium experience for sumo wrestling—"they need better seating and TV screens for replays"—and mentions a desire to get married and raise a family. "That's one reason why I built this kitchen," he says, laughing.