Why Can’t It Be A Global Hit?
As many of our readers know, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to travel to Japan for the first week of the Natsu basho this year. It was my first time back in Japan for 30 years, and it was quite a wonderful trip to make. I have promised Andy and others a recount of my adventures there, with tips for other sumo fans wishing to go. That should be posted soon.
But the first thing that hits me is the Japanese nature of sumo, and how it interlocks with the Japanese culture. Those of us who are not in Japan can get our sumo through both official and unofficial means. Official being the 25 minute daily highlight show on NHK World and the unofficial being the wonderful content on youtube.com from Jason’s All Sumo Channel, Kintamayama and One and Only.
Why is it the rest of the world only gets a subset of the bouts in Makuuchi? A hint came to me watching sumo live in the Kokugikan. The pacing is a tough sell to world sports fans that insist on rapid, continuous action. Most people who follow sports find things like baseball too slow, where nothing much might happen for minutes at a time. When the NFL recently started inserting more commercials into football broadcasts, it helped induce their catastrophic drop in ratings. When fans watch football (soccer) in Europe or rugby, the periods are non stop, no commercial festival of people running crazy on a big grassy field. Even then fans sometimes think it’s too slow and awkward – just give us the part where they try for a goal.
Sumo is a few seconds of combat surrounded by minutes of ceremony. Fans like those who read this blog are into the entire package, we dig the ceremony, we dig the build up to battle. We like that each day the intensity and stakes of the matches increase until we end our day watching the top men of sumo slugging it out for the championship.
Sitting in the Kokugikan, there were no announcers in Japanese or English. There is just you and sumo. No overlay graphics showing history, winning moves or the kanji if each rikishi’s shikona at giant size. This is what I would call “Actual” or “Organic” Sumo. Even watching the telecast on NHk with either english or japanese audio subtracts quite a bit from the organic experience.
I submit that this experience, either live or broadcast, does not translate well, and does not offer much appeal to average human beings or even average sports fans. If you “get” the ceremony, and feel the connection it has to the sport, you can and usually do become a sumo fan, and you chafe that these elements are removed from what is packaged and fed to us. It would be as if a great Western had cut out the story behind the gunfight, and just showed two men drawing their weapons in the middle of the street.
It is clear that sumo, as it is constituted right now, is made in Japan for Japanese people living in Japan. It’s not really exported in a form that would make it a world product. In fact, when discussing this with Japanese fans at the Kokugikan, they are completely baffled why foreigners want to watch sumo at all.
It was clear from the stands at the Kokugikan that Sumo has a global appeal, as the second floor chair seats were well populated with fans of European, African and Indian ancestry. But the men who run and control both sumo and the media spectacle that is packaged around sumo are only now starting to realize that there is a significant income and licensing stream possible outside of Japan.
Japan as a culture is very slow to change any traditional institution, and sumo is a very traditional institution. But the time has come for the NSK and the NHK to embrace sumo for the world. I would suggest the following steps
- The NSK should appoint/hire foreign language/culture liaisons. These people would ensure that education, outreach and licensing for sumo and sumo merchandise are set up in foreign countries. This could and should open the door for fandom to grow and flourish outside of Japan
- The NHK needs to package and make available an expanded sumo feed. I would suggest everything from the Juryo dohyo-iri to the end of Makuuchi. As NHK is now turning more to streaming for global content delivery, this could and should be a value add subscription delivered over streaming content systems. This would allow both NHK and NSK to judge if there is a market for sumo, and it would also make Jason and Kintamayama’s hard work to bring us expanded sumo coverage redundant. And let’s be clear, both NHK and NSK are working to find ways to limit and eliminate Jason and Kintamayama.
- I urge them to take a page from the American playbook. If someone is beating you at what should be your own game, put them on the payroll, and let them teach you how to improve your product. Those world sumo liaisons? Jason is already in Japan, Kintamayama is fairly fluent in Japanese, and would be a great resource for advocating broader following of sumo world wide.
Are we likely to see any of this come to pass? Only if us fans urge NHK and NSK to start thinking bigger.