A Tachiai Conversation with John Gunning – Part 1

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During the Hatsu honbasho we had the chance to catch up with John Gunning – whose work many Tachiai readers and others throughout the sumo world thoroughly enjoy in places like NHK World, The Japan Times and Inside Sport Japan. As it’s quite an exciting time in sumo, we had a number of topics we wanted to discuss with John, and Tachiai readers also responded to our call and came forward with an incredible list of questions.

Owing to limited time we were not able to get to all of our readers’ questions, but we are thrilled to have John as a friend of the site and are looking forward to connecting with him and others in the community in future. Over the course of 45 minutes we covered a lot of ground, and so we will run the interview over three parts. It has been edited only in places for clarity, and we hope you enjoy what will hopefully be the first of many similar features!

Tachiai: Most of our readers come from outside of Japan. As someone who is an immigrant to Japan, what brought you into the world of sumo?

John Gunning: Well, originally, when I moved here, a long time ago, it was pre-broadband internet, pre-good internet and I was basically like most people: your entertainment came from television. I didn’t speak Japanese when I came to Japan, and the only thing I could understand on TV was sumo. Basically, you know, the rest of it was people running around, shouting at each other. I had no idea what was going on. And, like a lot of people, you see sumo at first, and you realise “hey, there is more to it than I thought, this is not just fat guys in diapers shoving each other around!”

And, so, yeah, I had an interest in it – a casual interest in it as a fan. And then, I guess like a lot of people, I went to a live tournament and was just hooked: the smell of the binzuke, and the rikishi walking in, this was just unlike any other sport I’ve ever been involved in. And then I became a bigger fan, and through various connections I got to see keiko and stuff like that, and built up some more connections. At that time, I was living in Osaka, and when I moved to Tokyo I’d been playing soccer. I was 60 kilos when I came to Japan, and my soccer career was coming to an end, I was looking for something to replace it, and I was thinking “sumo looks easy” – the insanity of that! I took it up, I moved to Ryogoku, I got in with a lot of the rikishi and stable-masters. I used to visit keiko every day because I lived right there, I’d see all the guys in the supermarket and stuff like that, so that became my world, the sumo world.

I have a background in media anyway, so it was kind of inevitable that I’d eventually start doing sumo stuff in the media. So, that’s it!

Tachiai: How did you transition into the media work that you do today?

JG: In Japan, who you know is very important. Introductions are very, very important. You know, “he’s a friend of ours, a friend of mine,” like you see in those mafia movies. Generally speaking, in the media world, they don’t advertise positions or openings in Japan, you get introduced through somebody else. I knew some people in the media world here, through my own background, and I’d done bits online, stuff like what Tachiai is doing, and various pieces for a French magazine. The Daily Yomiuri, as it was then, had a columnist that was leaving and he recommended me. They asked me, “can you write something for tomorrow morning?” It was a preview for a tournament.

Tachiai: Wow.

JG: Yeah. It was a Friday, and they wanted it for the Saturday paper. They contacted me at noon and said “can you get this to us for 6pm?” A whole story, with quotes from rikishi! So, it was kind of a test I guess, but I have everyone on the phone so I just called up a lot of rikishi and said “give me comments! I’m writing a piece.”

And then I got them and I wrote it, and I guess they were really impressed that I could get original content. That’s a big thing for Yomiuri: they want original content, they want quotes. And I wrote for them for a few years and had a column and stuff like that. [With] NHK, same thing. They had someone leaving, and somebody there said they liked what I was doing, and they contacted me and asked me if I would come work for them.

I’ve never actually sent a resume, or applied for a job. Somebody knows you, and then there’s that first meeting, which is what I call the “psychopath barrier,” and before you get offered anything, you meet for coffees so they can see if they can actually work with you. That’s the thing in Japan. And then with a lot of companies in Japan, there’s no contracts, right? They say “do you want to come and work for us?” And you see the paycheck then and you go, “oh, ok!” (laughs)

And that’s the way it kind of works in Japan, in the media world. I did a podcast, and someone was asking me “how do you break into the media world in Japan?” I said, “whatever your thing is, whether it’s sumo or some other sport or anime or something like that, come here, and get involved in the world and build relationships and build connections. And you create work, good work. And if your work is good quality, you eventually get it.” It’s all about networking, and building relationships with people. If you can do good stuff, and you have the connections, you’ll get in. You can’t just send a résumé – it’s everything in Japan: getting introduced through somebody else, essentially.

Tachiai: A lot of Tachiai readers first became aware of your work through seeing you on NHK World’s Grand Sumo Previews – what does it mean to you to get to share what’s going on in sumo with fans all around the world? For a lot of people, your work, and things like that preview are the only things in the English speaking world that they see that describes what’s going on, on TV.

JG: The flippant answer is you get paid to give people your opinion, which is great (laughs). It’s the dream job! But, yeah it’s a good point, I hadn’t really thought about it before.

There’s a lot of misinformation, urban myths, there’s also people writing about sumo who don’t know anything about it – journalists and so on. Also, that mystique about Japan and Asia, there’s a lot of that surrounding sumo. A lot of people romanticise the view of what sumo is. So, getting a chance to correct those factual errors and give people a sense of what sumo is – especially young rikishi and people who want to join sumo – I obviously can’t reveal everything that’s going on inside the sumo world, but to give people a truer sense of what it is, that’s an invaluable thing.

Tachiai: For sure. With the increase in the popularity of the sport – obviously the last couple of months have been interesting – but if you look at the last couple of years, tournaments have been selling out, and it’s exciting. Do you think we’ll be able to see an expansion of coverage like that to the English language community?

JG: I can’t say what – but there are plans in place among certain media organisations in Japan to expand – greatly – the coverage of sumo in English.

For a long time, people in the media world in Japan didn’t realise the depth or breadth of sumo fandom across the world. They thought, “there’s a few fans.” But nowadays it’s easy to get the audience feedback and to see who and where and why and what age groups [are paying attention]. It’s much easier to see who your audience is nowadays than it was even 10 years ago. Analytics obviously is a huge thing, but they’re starting to realise how big their audience is, and I think for a lot of organisations, that’s a surprise. Even for those organisations that I work for, the people at the top have been stunned how popular the stuff they’ve been putting out is, and the fact that they do a story, or do a feature on sumo, and it’s the top rated thing on their entire channel or newspaper for that month. So, yeah – there’s going to be a lot more stuff.

Tachiai: Cool. Along those lines, recently you started Inside Sport Japan. Is there anything that you can tell us about that new venture?

JG: OK, so, I work in the media world, and it’s better than it was, but for a long, long time, there have been so many great stories that I wanted to tell, but there has been no outlet to tell them. Either they didn’t fit into a daily newspaper, or there wasn’t an outlet for the feature or the behind the scenes stories, so I’ve always felt that there have been a lot of really great stories that haven’t been told. And I wanted an outlet to tell these stories. So, I created a company basically, to do that. Obviously I want that company to be successful and to be the ESPN of Japan… obviously not a bankrupt ESPN, but a successful ESPN! A place where people can get information.

Sumo is kind of a niche sport, but sumo has a lot of people doing good work, people like yourselves. There’s a lot of people putting out content on sumo, same as baseball and soccer. But there are a lot of great stories. So, we focus on sports particularly that wouldn’t get a lot of English language coverage. Women’s sports, blind soccer. We try to shine a light on great athletes and sports that don’t get a lot of attention. That’s one thing.

There are a couple of streams with Inside Sport Japan. [Another] is that there are a lot of people who are doing good work in Japan who are not getting any attention. Like I said, the media world is kind of closed here. Your site has been really successful and has exploded in growth, but there are some people toiling away for 15-20 years putting out great stuff on baseball or futsal, different sports, but they have tiny audiences. They don’t market themselves, or they don’t know how to market themselves, they’re more just about creating content, and putting it out there. They’re missing that whole “selling” side of themselves. So to be an umbrella organisation for a lot of them was another thing: here’s the content. Then, we give it the audience. That was the second stream.

And the third reason for starting the company was to give people an “in” to the media, and to find new talent – new writers and photographers. That’s been a mixed kind of thing – we’ve got some really great people. Great photographers, people who have no connection to sport or the media world. We’ve trained them up or brought them in and shown them how to do it. I’m willing to give anyone a chance that wants to try it, because other people helped me when I was starting out. And it’s kind of like paying it back, you know? You get a lot of help when you’re young, so you want to help young talent come through.

Tachiai: We have a reader question from Devon P: Is there any conversation within the Kyokai about making sumo more accessible to fans outside the country, and to make it possible for those fans to benefit sumo financially? Such as: merchandise or offering paid streaming services outside Japan?

JG: Not really, no. You’ve got to realise that, even though I said there was a large audience outside of Japan, it’s still minute compared to what’s actually in Japan. The Sumo Association’s remit is to popularise sumo and to keep it popular inside of Japan. That’s the actual remit of the organisation. Their whole raison d’être is to keep sumo alive inside of Japan. So, if they do stuff for foreign fans like jungyo or putting stuff in English, it’s extra, it’s ancillary to what they do. It’s not their purpose.

The unfortunate side effect of sumo being so popular in Japan, is there’s no need of a foreign audience. So, a lot of the stuff that maybe 5 or 10 years ago was put in place, like when they started selling burgers and hot dogs and pizza and stuff in the Kokugikan, because of this “Westerners, that’s what they like,” image – a very cliched image… a lot of that stuff was put in place when sumo was at a low level of popularity, because in those days, foreigners buying tickets made up another audience. It didn’t take much to cater to that, and put stuff in English.

The Kyokai itself is not the monolithic entity that a lot of people think it is. It’s very split up and there’s a lot of individuals. People tend to think of the Kyokai as a solid entity that decides this and that… and it’s not like that. It all depends who has the power and there’s all kinds of schools of thought and people with their own agendas, so a lot of stuff doesn’t happen, because it’s not really organized like that. And there are a lot of people inside the Kyokai who would rather do less for foreigners, because tourists can be troublesome.  You know, showing up without tickets, losing their tickets and showing up at the gate and demanding to be let in… that’s a thing that happens in Japan a lot. It may be an outdated model of thinking, but whenever anything bad happens, or anything happens with foreign tourists, it reinforces the mindset that people have. You know, “it’s just too much effort to deal with foreigners.” So, there’s also that kind of thinking.

Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of our chat, where we discuss rikishi, injuries and more!

12 thoughts on “A Tachiai Conversation with John Gunning – Part 1

  1. First comment ever here: Great stuff! Recently retired and began watching Sumo on NHK here in Texas – hooked. Looking forward to more and also think more TV coverage in English would sell.

  2. I get most of my sumo goods/merchandise from eBay or other online sites, although very limited. I know shop.kokugikan.jp does NOT ship outside of Japan so the best bet is if you know someone in Japan who can get it mailed to them, THEN they send it to you. I also asked Kototsurugi San (who is a sumo cartoonist and he sells merchandise on the kokugikan website) to see if he can ship outside of Japan and unfortunately he said no. I think that once NSK gets a homegrown rikishi (in our case, Wakaichiro 😄), then they may offer jungyo outside of Japan. I know during the akebono & musashimaru days, they would sometimes come to Hawaii, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Til then we will have to keep our fingers crossed and sadly, wait.

    • Good comment, Floria. I know that Gunning’s Inside Sport: Japan group is looking to set up an International storefront for some sumo merchandise. I would be delighted if they could end up being a front for global sales of some Kokugikan / NSK items. Be warned, shipping from Japan is surprisingly expensive.

  3. Great interview so far. Really hoping that some media entity (NHK for example) really considers putting more content out there in English. For instance, if they just streamed the matches with the English commentary, that would be huge. Sure I can catch the shortened versions or highlight reels some post on Youtube, but those all lack the stories and insider info that someone like John Gunning provides in the NHK English broadcast. Sadly, once that live broadcast is done, all that great commentary disappears.

    • So a little “Why of Tachiai” here. Believe it or not, the existence of a site like this does help breed the international sumo following. Please don’t find this boastful, it’s a subject of some serious thought on our part. But giving English language sumo fans a rallying point gives them the means to more closely follow the sport. In doing that, people who might not follow sumo because of the difficulty in finding informaiton and like minded folk, do take it up. Via that vehicle, the sport’s support base grows.

      Frankly, I can’t believe the number of people who come here and read sumo news. I had no idea that there were this many. Further more, the number keeps growing.

      I share your desire for expaned sumo video coverage from the source at NHK. But keep in mind, Sumo is very much a Japanese sport made for Japanese people living in Japan. We are blessed because we get to watch it in English, but we are always going to be a distant adjunct to the primary audience.

      Summary: MORE SUMO PLEASE!

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