Back From Japan – Thoughts On Sumo


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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

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

7 thoughts on “Back From Japan – Thoughts On Sumo

  1. On the other hand, they already tried streaming, free and on the cheap for over a decade and for-pay with good production values for something like three years. My impression is that they determined that it wasn’t worth the effort and investment. (Of course, the $120 per basho price tag didn’t really help make it popular.)

    The big issue is time zones, IMHO. For most people, the best part of the high-quality streaming we had between 2010 and 2015 wasn’t even the live stream itself (that was just for the diehards), but that it offered people like Kintamayama, araibira and to a lesser degree many others the opportunity to use the archived streams to produce stuff for Youtube that was much more easily digested than the full monty.

    However, that was never really supported by the NSK (and araibira was eventually shut down altogether on copyright grounds), and as you’re saying they would probably need to offer something like that themselves to make it a product worth paying for. That’s a lot of extra work on top of just providing a live stream. And the audience for that is – well, Kinta’s most popular videos are getting to around 20,000 views, and those definitely aren’t all unique viewers.

    And that’s for free, not via subscription. I’d happily pay for sumo what I used to pay for MLB.TV’s subscription service, which was $100-120 per year – but how many others would? Even on a per-basho basis that’s 20 bucks, and that’s well beyond “casual fan” territory. On the flipside: I’m one of the diehards, and I don’t think I’d be paying that money for a product that only covers makuuchi and juryo. So it would be a balancing act; the product they’d need to offer to expand the fandom is probably quite different from what they’d need to offer to attract the people who have been watching and following for the last decade-plus.

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    • The present and future belong to on-demand, time shifted streaming. You see it in Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and the rest. My proposal is that the powers that provide us with sumo consider embracing that path.

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      • But they did embrace exactly that for non-Japanese customers between 2013 and 2016, and apparently the returns weren’t good enough to justify continuing. They even (sort of) allowed downloading for even more customized viewing. I’ve got nearly 30 blu-ray discs full of tournament videos from Aki 2013 to Nagoya 2016 laying around here from that era.

        Anyway, personally I’m not all that interested in time-shifted streaming for something like sumo. I’ll watch it streamed when it’s live, but I literally never used their previous service to stream a full session on delay, simply because streaming is not a terribly convenient method to watch something with as much downtime as sumo. Give me downloads so I have full control over my fast forwarding, or provide edited-down versions or even individual bout clips.

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  2. Good feedback and thoughts. I would submit that they could do a lot more with electronics in the stadium and even an app or something to help attract even younger Japanese fans. After all, young Japanese are just as addicted to their smartphones (or more) as the rest of the world.

    I do think the current NHK coverage in the U.S. is cut way too close to the bone. We don’t even get all the best matches and never see any of the ceremony leading up to the match at all. We used to get that on ESPN, remember?

    NHK could easily make the coverage 1 hour or even 90 minutes. After all, the rest of their U.S. TV broadcasting is endless repeats. So here they have some real live interesting and updated content to show and they don’t take advantage of it.

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    • Live two-hour coverage of sumo is available in the US on TV Japan, NHK’s stateside subscription channel. It’s nearly the same broadcast that NHK does in Japan (plus English commentary on a secondary audio feed), they just tend to cut in a little later.

      NHK World isn’t really intended to offer premium programming such as live sumo, so it only gets the 23-minute digest (which airs overnight in Japan as well).

      The Kyokai does have both an app and some trading card battle type mobile game, by the way. The app is also available in English.

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      • Yep, thanks for bringing that up. Of course a total dweeb like myself are dialed into that stuff already. But TV Japan is really kind of like using a chainsaw to remove a splinter if all you want is sumo. For me to get TV Japan, I would either need to 1) Move to an area where the local cable company provides it 2) Switch DBS provider, and (I have been told) re wire parts of my house. Given that the rest of the world is switching to an IPTV model (streaming), it would seem to be more in line with where the market is headed.

        Bonus of an IPTV solution would the bundler (cable / dbs company) would be removed, and it would probably be salable to anyone around the world who was willing to pony up.

        The app is great, but as my giant rambling post mentioned, chopping the matches down to the tachiai -> kimarite really destroy the whole feel of sumo in my opinion. It’s much better than nothing, so I am suggesting “Hey, you guys can do better”.

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        • What can I say…I’ve been watching sumo for some 20 years now, 15 of those as a “serious” fan, and I really don’t need to see every single minute of the ceremonial stuff anymore. It’s nice that it’s there on the live broadcast (and in the arena of course), but I am just fine with the “just the facts, ma’am” version of the proceedings most of the time. As far as I know from talking to other long-time fans, it’s the same for many of them. And as you noted yourself, for more recent fans the original pace is often an even harder sell in the first place.

          I’m happy to get through makuuchi in 20 minutes. Gives me more time to follow what’s going on in juryo and below, because that’s more newsworthy to me than the umpteenth Hakuho dohyo-iri, no matter how atmospheric the latter might be.

          Anyway, as far as I know even most Japanese “TV fans” are not exactly transfixed on the live broadcasts. Sumo is in the same class as sports like baseball and golf, something with a leisurely pace that promotes paying less than full attention. And of course, the people at the arena are often not exactly clued up – ask anyone who lives there, such as John Gunning, and they’ll tell you that the average Japanese person in the crowd will probably struggle to name all current yokozuna and ozeki, let alone anyone ranked below (other than whoever happens to be part of the current media hype). As in any sport, the big-time, well-informed fans are a small minority. But it’s the many casuals who bring in the money to keep things moving.

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