By Shuji Miki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterLet me continue to talk about Ozeki-an, the 64-year-old soba shop located near Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan, sumo’s major arena and center of operations. Mamoru Ozeki, 83, the shop’s second-generation proprietor, has a good command of English and mingles with foreign customers while showing them a copy of this column published in the Sept. 19 issue of The Japan News. Many of his customers are sumo fans.
“This is a good opportunity for them to experience the Japanese traditions of sumo and soba at the same time,” Ozeki said with a smile.
Born in Tsukudajima in Tokyo’s Chuo Ward, Ozeki grew up in a neighborhood where a U.S. military camp was located.
“I was completely Americanized after mingling with friendly U.S. servicemen,” he said.
When he was a second-year middle school student, Ozeki learned about the international pen friend association at Senshu University that helped people find a pen pal for ¥10. Through the service, he exchanged letters with five or six Americans. Even now, he keeps in touch with one of them, a man living in California who is the same age.
At age 24 in 1957, Ozeki was offered a job at a trading company by an old high-school friend because of his English ability. It took a lot of courage for the young Ozeki to leave the soba business that he started with his father after graduating from high school, while also giving up his dream of becoming a teacher.
However, his decision to join the trading company led to him making business trips around the world in the decade that followed.
“It was a time when the yen was fixed at ¥360 per dollar,” Ozeki said. “Dollars were scarce in Japan at that time, so companies that earned dollars through trade were rewarded by the government.”
By using business and conversational English while traveling for work, Ozeki’s language proficiency improved significantly.
“I worked at a small trading firm, so we had to handle all aspects of the business on our own,” Ozeki said. “It was so much fun I really didn’t want to go back to my family business.”
Ozeki eventually returned to Ozeki-an in 1966, two years after Tokyo hosted its first Olympics. His wife Namiko died in January 2014 at 78 when a grand sumo tournament was being held. She was always smiling and served as the face of Ozeki-an.
“I once visited the family of one of my pen pals with my wife, carrying a set of soba-making equipment all the way.” Ozeki said. “Everyone ate [the soba I made] and praised it. It made me feel so happy.”
A photo taken at the time is still displayed in the corner of his shop. Ozeki said the satisfied smile of one of the women in the photo always gives him encouragement.
— Miki is a sumo expert.
To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit http://the-japan-news.com/news/d&d