Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Verena Hopp (Germany)
A woman who works for sumo and a true internship system in Japan
This is the 3rd interview with a German for the MET English version (Actually we’ve interviewed 5 Germans so far!). Verena Hopp, who wears many hats such as a sumo researcher, PR person of a Japanese language school, author and internship non-profit organization founder.
We met Verena at a small international potluck party in Tokyo in 2015. She was very friendly and told us a lot about herself, especially her love for sumo was very impressive. We even felt that she lives for the Japanese full-contact wrestling sport. We’ve interviewed people from abroad who love traditional Japanese things, such as rakugo, Japanese tea, sake, sushi, soba (buckwheat noodles) and geisha and, finally, we met a foreigner who loves Japan’s national sport too.
Currently she is working for a Japanese language school and her own internship organization, but she never forgets sumo and is always looking for ways to connect it with other projects. Her real job is creating new solutions to help people from different nations.
Equality and cooperation
I was born in a small village in former East Germany. I grew up in a family who was affected by “Socialism” as everybody there was. This upbringing made me love gender equality and cooperation, the good parts of it, but my father also taught me that my generation is free to see the world now, unlike his. He insisted that I go and live my dreams abroad.
Having a dream is nice, but realizing it is hard. Knowing that from experience, I have tried to help people who wanted to come to Japan or work in Japan so far and am planning to do that in the future as well. I believe that “The more people you help, the more friends you make”.
My day-job in a Japanese language school consists assisting Japanese learners from abroad, especially newcomers. As NPO “Internship Japan” (非営利型一般社団法人Global Internship Association), my team and I are introducing the system of internships to Japan and help people finding them.
Loved sumo at first sight
When I was about 13 years old, I came across sumo wrestling on TV. It was broadcasted on the France-based international TV station called “Euro Sport”, because Jacques Chirac, former French President, was a big fan of sumo. Konishiki (小錦), the first non-Japanese-born wrestler to reach ozeki (大関), the second highest rank in the sport, was still active at that time. I totally got interested in sumo and began to study about it.
I found the international sumo forum online. People were discussing sumo only in English, so my English skills have improved thanks to it.
Also, I started to learn Japanese a little when I was 16, at the end of middle school in Germany, because I really wanted to work somehow in a sumo-related field later in life. In order to be involved in Sumo, I decided to take “Japanese Studies” as my major at university – but to do that, I first had to graduate from high school too. If I hadn’t had this dream, I would have entered my father’s business and have been a car mechanic today. I did ask him what he suggests I do. I am an only child and there is nobody else to take over the family business.
He looked into my eyes and said that I could do him no greater favor than living my dreams and being happy. Today, we are joking about him selling the business and coming to Japan when he is old. Laughingly, he stated many times that his plan is to sell a German national dish, “Eisbein”, in the Kokugikan (国技館, Sumo arena in Tokyo).
In that way, sumo led me to high school as well as to university.
Being involved in sumo
I always wanted to leave my East German village, which was kind of filled with a depressed atmosphere. That was also one reason I dreamt of going to Japan.
I majored in Japanese Studies (the language is just one part, it is mainly about Japan) at a German university. In the middle of my studies, after two years there, I came to Japan with a working holiday visa in 2006. I stayed in Ryogoku/Kuramae area in Tokyo for 10 months because you find most “sumo beya” (相撲部屋, sumo stables) there. At that time my Japanese skills were still quite poor, but I went to the teams to see their keiko (稽古, training) and talked to people. I was a young blonde girl, so it was easy for them to remember me. It helped me build a wide sumo network.
After that, I went on studying in Germany and explored the language deeper. In order to write my M.A. thesis on sumo, I came to Japan again in 2009 and did research. I stayed in the same area as before, for 2 months, and handed questionnaires to all sumo teams. Almost 70% answered and I could write a well-regarded study about the current situation of sumo. Maybe one day I do a PhD…
An Egyptian man
Still in 2009, right after going home, I happened to find the post from a young Egyptian man in the international sumo forum. He wanted to become a professional sumo wrestler in Japan and had been already winning titles as an amateur. Me and another forum member, the vice president of the European Sumo Union at that time, responded to him and became a team to make it happen.
“I know some sumo people in Japan and they might be able to help you. If it is possible, we will make it happen.” Then I told him everything that I knew about sumo and sent him a book too.
Finally, he came to Japan in 2011 and became a professional sumo wrestler named “Oosunaarashi” (大砂嵐, lit. “Great sandstorm”). This shikona (四股名, fighting name), we had already decided about together like “Sunaarashi” (砂嵐, “Sandstorm”), but Ootake Oyakata (親方, trainer) put the Oo (大, Great) in front of it. I remember very well how he took us three to meet the great Taiho (大鵬), former Oyakata of the team, who had to give his approval for sure. I interpreted into English what he said. “Stick to the basics of sumo!” – He repeated that several times. The message was “Stay humble and work hard!” Very impressive. God bless him in heaven.
Success in making a man a sumo wrestler
After finishing grad school in December 2010, I was about to move to Japan. But the Great East Japan earthquake occurred and my flight to Japan was supposed to be a week after the disaster. I had already packed my luggage, been ready to go.
In Germany, the employment situation was bad and I was not happy with staying there, especially as an M.A. in Japanese studies. Moreover, I had a mission! Helping an Egyptian youngster who wanted to become a professional sumo wrestler in Japan! It all had been scheduled already, the sumo teams had been contacted! 3 had shown interest!
But sho ga nai, my current boss told me in a mail not to come, since many of the students had left Japan and there was nothing for me to do.
I had no choice but to find another job, got one in Thailand, which is much closer to Japan than Germany. I worked there, but I didn’t forget to help the Egyptian youngster. I told the company that I would have to be in Japan in September for 2 weeks. They said OK, I went and our 3-people-task force met in Tokyo and put him into a sumo stable. Then I went back to Thailand.
While I was in Japan, I went to two interviews with the Japanese language school in Tokyo I already had been in contact with. I wanted to be in a Japanese language environment and teach Japanese learners about sumo.
Our success concerning the young Egyptian was covered by several Japanese newspapers already and I took those papers to the interviews. They loved my story and decided to hire me. That’s how I joined this school.
My work is mainly advertisement and PR as well as taking care of students, and visa related work like translations into Japanese and – my favorite part – about 4 times a year I teach sumo! My sumo class is part of the curriculum for mid-level students. Afterwards I take them to Ootake Beya (大嶽部屋), the stable which Oosunaarashi belongs to, and we watch their training. After that, the students write essays in Japanese. Those are sent to the wrestlers, so they can learn how foreigners feel about sumo or sumo training. Our students are usually pretty impressed and, usually, they decide to study harder from now on.
Helping more people who are just like me
I started “Internship Japan” in November 2012 as a LinkedIn group, found a great team and we became an official NPO (非営利型一般社団法人Global Internship Association) in 2014.
In my case, I had many obstacles when I came here. Firstly, no one helped me when I was still in Germany. Then I stayed at a shared house in Tokyo in 2006 and people who’d lived there longer than I helped me a lot, like telling me where the cheapest supermarkets were or how to find a job so I wanted to “give back” once I was able to.
Before that, a friend that I just knew online had offered me his sofa to stay at for the first 2 weeks in Japan. Wow. Guess how many house guests I had so far, including another one of your interviewees here. 😉
But why “Internship Japan”?
When I was looking for a job in Japan, I had already finished grad school in Germany. I was planning to work at a Japanese company as an intern because that’s the way to get a real job in Western countries. But companies I applied for an internship told me: “We only accept current students for visa-related reasons”. I didn’t know that so I was totally puzzled. Most internship seekers need to intern before they graduate from school. I wanted to intern, showing what I am capable of doing and getting a job that way – but there was no system in place for THAT!
We want to help everybody who wants to intern in Japan, that means we need to build a proper system first. That is our mission.
And I want to help Japan
In Japan, many students do job hunting and enter companies at the entry level. But what about people who want to change jobs? What about women who want to get back into the workforce after giving birth? There are some obstacles in front of them, but we believe that everybody can intern and start or re-start from mid-level. That shows how an internship is effective not only for young people but everybody else also.
We are planning to provide scholarships, too. For example, startups or NPOs cannot afford to pay / compensate interns. If an intern is in need, we will help cover the costs of interning in Japan.
How the internship system could help even sumo wrestlers
The internship system works for sumo wrestlers too.
As I told you before, I wrote M.A. thesis about sumo. The topic was basically the question “Why is sumo dying out?” and I wanted to suggest solutions too since I do not want that to happen for sure. The number of boys who want to become sumo wrestlers has decreased. I concluded that you have to give them better opportunities to launch their second career once they retire from the active sport. That would be a safety net for them. Many of them enter the sumo world at the age 15 or 16, so they have no academic qualifications. If they leave the ring without ever having earned money, they would have no future.
So I believe that the internship system will work for them. They can show companies their abilities through internships and don’t need to start from the bottom or enter a high school at 35…
That idea is the reason why our mascot character is a sumo wrestler. We want to say that anybody from any country can be a professional through the internship system here in Japan.
*You can find out more about Internship Japan at; www.internshipjapan.org
Someone will help you
As the CEO of Internship Japan, I want to hire volunteers and help all internship seekers both from abroad and Japan. In order to do that, we have to make many things clear, such as the definition of “intern”, visa status, insurance, payrolls etc. We also need help from lawmakers, lawyers, tax offices and immigration offices. We need sponsors and companies taking interns too.
To foreigners who want to intern in Japan; learn Japanese as much as you can. Keep “AAA (Always Active Approach)” in your mind and don’t hesitate to ask for help. I believe people will give a hand to you. If a person is busy, ask another person. Someone will help you.
What is Tokyo to you?
Tokyo was my dream destination. I had always wanted to live here. When I visit Germany, it takes only 3 or 4 days until I want to go back to my beloved Sumida.
So to me, Tokyo is in one word; Home.
NOTE) She went to work in another company in early 2017.