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Doreen Simmons: Nottingham's Sumo Wrestling Queen

12 January 21 words: Jayne Muir
illustrations: Liv Auckland

Sumo wrestling commentator, teacher, author, singer, philanthropist, Mastermind contestant, recipient of Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun… Nottingham-born Doreen Simmons lived a life filled with adventure. Having recently, with friend Jane Russell, co-written a play about her life, history enthusiast Jayne Muir explains why Doreen’s is a story well-worth telling…

On the night of 8 May 1941, the air raid sirens sounded across Nottingham as men, women, children, and no doubt a few pets, made their way to the shelters. Among them was an eight-year-old girl named Doreen Clarke who, more-than-likely, had a library book or atlas tucked under her arm, giving herself something useful to occupy what would be another sleepless night. As the all-clear sounded the next morning, the shelters emptied, with hundreds of anxious Nottingham residents spilled back into their city to see what damage the 400 bombs dropped during the raid had caused. Fortunately for Doreen, her family members were all safe, and she still had a home to return to. Living close to the city centre, she must have appreciated just how fortunate she was, although with a father away from home serving in the army she must have worried. Like everyone else, she was expected to carry on as normal and, like all children, go to school and continue learning. And she did, with a mixture of relief and enthusiasm, as she eagerly awaited her ninth birthday.

Later that year, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, and the United States joined the war. Two months after that, in February 1942, British forces surrendered Singapore to Japan. Did these events register with young Doreen? Did she hear about them on the radio, or read about them in the newspaper? Did her family talk about them at the tea table? Maybe, but no-one could have predicted that all of these places would feature in her life at some point in the future.

As the war progressed, Doreen’s focus was on her studies. In 1943 she became a pupil at Nottingham’s Mundella Grammar School. She loved learning and had a particular flair for languages, winning prizes in Latin and French. She sang in the school choir and she became Girls’ School Captain (the equivalent of Head Girl). Contemporaries remember Doreen as an extremely bright and able pupil, her teachers clearly agreed, and probably with the involvement of her Latin master, she decided to apply for a place at Cambridge to study Classics. The only problem was that she needed Greek and it was not a subject normally taught in state schools. Undaunted, Doreen started teaching herself. She got permission to take some time out of other lessons and spent many hours in the school library poring over Greek text books. Her efforts paid off and, in the Autumn of 1950, she went up to Girton College, graduating three years later in Classics and Theology. She followed this with a year at Hughes Hall, Cambridge, gaining a Post Graduate Teaching Certificate and took up her first post as a teacher of Latin at the Herbert Strutt School in Belper shortly afterwards. Teaching could have defined her for the rest of her life. She may well have worked her way up the ladder, becoming Head of a large school, retiring with a suitable pension when the time came. That would have been a notable achievement, something worth celebrating. But Doreen was different.

Getting a job in Singapore must have been very exciting and a perfect fit for Doreen. Teaching the children of forces personnel meant working in the familiar environment of the British classroom, but in a much more exotic setting. She made new friends, socialised, joined a choir and acted in amateur productions, getting a mention in the English language newspaper The Straits Times for her role in She Stoops to Conquer. She also met a man called Bob Simmons and they married in Singapore in 1967.  When their work contracts ended a couple of years later, they travelled. Hong Kong and Cambodia again offered new experiences. Three months in Japan allowed Doreen to indulge her fascination with the culture, and she was particularly taken with the sumo wrestling she saw on TV. Hawaii offered yet another contrast, then across the USA by Greyhound bus and on to Canada. Quite a trip. But the need to work brought the couple back to the UK and Doreen taught Classics at a girls’ school in London for the next five years. One of her former students remembers Doreen during an overseas school trip. She took to the stage in the amphitheatre at Delphi, reciting boldly from a Greek play. In the early seventies the BBC had an idea for a new style of TV quiz programme which they called Mastermind. Doreen took part in the pilot episode and was a contender on the first broadcast series. Unfortunately the recording no longer exists, but for her specialist subject, Doreen chose Greek mythology – no surprise there! Although she didn’t win, she performed well. She also got to know Magnus Magnusson and learned a smattering of Icelandic along the way.

In 2017 she was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Japan’s highest civilian honour, for her services to the promotion of Japanese culture

When her marriage ended a few years later, Doreen needed a fresh start. Off she went to Japan. Of course there wasn’t much call for Latin or Greek in Japan, so Doreen taught English to Japanese students, later becoming Director of Studies at the International Language Centre in Tokyo. During her school years she had been a keen cricket fan, enjoying her visits to Trent Bridge and keeping track of the games on her homemade scorecards. In Tokyo, her attention turned to all things sumo. She watched the new recruits as they trained at the stables (as the training centres are called) and got to know them. She went to live sumo events and read as much as she could about the sport. She was particularly fascinated by the links to the Shinto religion and the rituals involved: the costumes, the hair preparation, the throwing of the salt. Of course, most of the reference information was in Japanese, but this was no barrier to Doreen. She was keen to learn the language and succeeded, to the extent that she was eventually proficient enough to work as an editor and translator for the Japanese government. She was always interested in educating others about Japanese culture and wrote a series of booklets on various Japanese crafts and traditions - among them were Kinzo the Potter, Bon Odori Summer Dancing and Fine Feathers in Sumo. They are a delight to read, too.

As Doreen’s sumo knowledge and expertise continued to grow, she was asked to write a column on the sport for an English language magazine. In 1992 she was approached by the Japanese broadcaster NHK. Would she be interested in doing some sumo commentary on their new English language service? Always up for a challenge, Doreen agreed, took to it well and never looked back. A middle-aged English woman commentating on sumo wrestling in Japan was something of a novelty and Doreen did face a degree of scepticism from some of her male colleagues. Undaunted and probably by virtue of her personality, vast knowledge and ability to communicate, she eventually won them over and continued her broadcasting work for many years.

Doreen’s ability to hold an audience extended beyond the world of sumo. Since moving to Japan, she had continued her singing and was a member of the British Embassy Choir. She was a frequent soloist with a strong soprano voice and a love of classical music. But she was equally at home on the karaoke microphone in a bar or playing the Irish bodhran drum with a jug band. She was also a member of the Tokyo International Players, and earned a positive review in a local newspaper when she took on the role of Madame Arcati in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit and “stole the show”.

Doreen’s faith was an important aspect of her life. She was an active member of the Anglican church in Tokyo and had many friends there. She also found time for voluntary work. The organisation Habitat for Humanity is a Christian charity that works in the UK and abroad to help people access safe and decent homes. This was a cause close to Doreen’s heart and she signed up for a trip to Mongolia where she helped build houses. Quite a contrast from her normal day-to-day activities in Japan, but she enjoyed it so much that she did two further stints, returning from one visit complete with Mongolian tattoo.

There is much more that could be said about Doreen Simmons. She said that she never intended to get so busy, it just happened. But she enjoyed being busy, loved the variety of work that she undertook and loved meeting people. She was inquisitive throughout her life and never lost her love of learning. She must have been great company and a fascinating conversationalist. When Doreen died in 2018 at the age of 85, her death was reported in newspapers and on websites around the world. The main focus was on her sumo wrestling commentary and she was described as the “sumo granny” and “godmother of sumo”. There are striking images online showing her (tiny) standing between two sumo wrestlers (huge). She understood the appeal of such images to the press and public but said of her sumo work “it’s just one of the things I do”. 

True; it is clear that her interests were wide and varied and she was many things to many different people. But the sumo work meant that she was in the public eye. In 2017 she was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Japan’s highest civilian honour, for her services to the promotion of Japanese culture. She was surprised and delighted and accepted the award with gratitude. What an amazing achievement for a girl who started her travels with an atlas in the air raid shelters of Nottingham.

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