If you’re a sumo fan in the English speaking world, then it’s very likely that at some point after discovering the sport you also discovered the work of Jason Harris. He’s the man behind Jason’s All Sumo Channel on YouTube, and has built an incredible community wherein he watches each day of every tournament’s biggest matches and provides commentary for fans online. As he says in our interview, watching a video on his channel can be like watching sumo with a buddy, and over the years he’s become the sumo buddy for tens of thousands of fans all over the world.
In a world where sumo content can be difficult to come by for English speakers, we wanted to talk to Jason about his experiences, successes, and what gets him excited about sumo. The first half of the interview, below, has been edited for clarity and length.
Tachiai: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. For those folks that don’t know you or maybe haven’t been around since the channel began, can you tell us a little bit about how and why you started the channel?
Jason Harris: Sure. A question I get asked a lot is: “why are you so interested in sumo?” The simple reason is, when I moved to Japan in 2004, to become a teacher – pre-Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, even – I lived in a very, very rural part of Japan called Shimane-ken, and there wasn’t a lot to do after school as far as entertainment.
You could turn on the TV, and everything was in Japanese, which is no surprise! My Japanese wasn’t so great, but a friend said “hey, if you watch sumo, you can watch in English by hitting a button on your remote control at 4pm every day.” My first basho was in September 2004, which Kaio won, believe it or not. I thought, “Oh! This is interesting.” The next January, it was so cold outside, I ended up watching the whole basho sitting under my kotatsu. Asashoryu won, which started his year when he won all six basho in a calendar year – and that’s never been done by anyone, including Hakuho!
When I started doing videos on my main YouTube channel, and I talked about living and working in Japan, part of my life was watching sumo. So, I would turn my camera around from time to time, and point it at my pretty small TV, and just say “hey, this is the sumo on today.” I’d show maybe 1 or 2 matches every other day. And [the videos] got some hits, people were sort of interested, but it wasn’t quite the same audience overlap.
I moved back to the States in 2010 after I finished my stint on the JET program, and [by then] some videos had gotten really good hits – big Asashoryu matches, etc – and a big thing on YouTube was doing reaction and reply videos. And, I thought, “maybe I’ll just do an all-sumo channel because I love it, and I know there’s at least a thousand other people who probably want to watch in English and then talk about it.”
I really didn’t think it would go much beyond that, and that started in 2011 when I moved back to Japan. Unfortunately, that was the year of the great tsunami and earthquake, and the yaocho scandal in sumo, when they cancelled a basho. I was having a hard time getting sumo in my house, because NHK then switched it from BS1 over to the NHK G channel and curtailed the [broadcast] hours, so it really started in earnest in 2012.
And it’s just grown. It’s been pretty amazing, especially recently as more and more people turn to YouTube for information on sports and everything they’re interested in. I just found a niche. There’s a few of us: me, Kintamayama, and a couple other guys that do good sumo coverage on YouTube. A lot of people just reshow the NHK broadcast, but time and time again I get messages – as many comments as I get about how I should shut up and stop talking – that a lot of people enjoy my talking, and I think it’s like watching sumo with a buddy.
I don’t think I come over as overly informed about sumo! I enjoy it, and I know of course more than the average person, but I’m not super encyclopedic about it. There are people in my YouTube comments who know way more about sumo than me, and that’s awesome because they add a richness to the community that’s now formed around the channel.
Tachiai: We have had a similar experience on Tachiai with a rich community that is developing in the comments, so I can relate to that. In the English speaking world, we are so limited for content. A lot of people’s first exposure to sumo when they look it up online brings them to your videos. Especially in the days before NHK started stepping up their coverage – which is pretty recent in the English speaking world – it has really been a lifeline and stepping stone for so many fans. What has it meant to you to be able to participate as you have in the growth of sumo to the English speaking community?
JH: Oh, that’s very flattering! I hope that’s what the channel has been able to do.
It’s just a hobby. But at the same time, in the past 2 or 3 years particularly, it’s kind of taken on more of a duty. I feel like I have a duty to the community to provide the coverage, and I take it pretty seriously. I try to have fun with it. My commentary is mostly light, I don’t go into serious topics very often, and I throw in a lot about what’s going on in my day, and stuff like that.
But at the same time, I get so many emails from people about how they start their day with sumo, or how they look forward to every lunch break where they can tune in for half an hour. The way you build playlists in YouTube, if I put up 6 videos from Day 7, people can just play them in a row like they’re watching a little sitcom or half hour TV show. It’s incredibly satisfying that people are that dedicated.
A lot of people that saw the viral video [of Tochinoshin winning the yusho] I’m sure thought: “What is this? Why did I get taken here, why did I hit this link?” Then, they look at it and they’re like “oh, this is interesting.” Then, if you click on the channel, there’s so much there to watch. That’s the good thing about YouTube: people can say “oh, I want to watch a little bit more of this,” or “who’s this Tochinoshin guy? Let me see what else he’s done.” I just hope I don’t get lost in the shuffle as different players come into the game. It seems to me that NHK is stepping up their game and offering more content now, but they’re still a little out of touch with what people want and need.
Tachiai: That Tochinoshin video from January where he wins the tournament has over a million views now, which is amazing. What does it even feel like to reach the point where that many people are watching?
JH: If you go on my channel, my next highest viewed video has 280,000 views, and that’s an insane number of people when you think about it. That’s like, soccer stadiums full of people. How can you rationalize that in your brain?
It’s so out of my hands what happens after I post, in terms of where they get shared. [The Tochinoshin video] obviously got shared on some Reddit board or some other place, especially in Georgia. Huge numbers of people from Georgia have subscribed [to the channel], and I get comments in all kinds of languages. My subscriber numbers have gone crazy in the past year. And that’s great, I hope they come and they stick around.
It’s funny, because in that particular video, I get criticised a lot from the casual Joe Internet guy: “Shut up! You’re talking too much!” But, I rewatched it recently, and I said: “I’m actually giving solid information about Tochinoshin’s career.” If you came into this completely blind, you would actually know a little bit before you watched the match, and it was serendipity that I chose that video to recap what was happening.
Then of course, there was the emotion of me being so happy for him, and that comes across all the time in my videos. I’m a fan. I’m watching live most of the time, and I’m getting excited just like anybody watching a live sporting event. I think it turns off some people, but they can watch with the sound down!
It’s great if people find sumo through the channel, that’s a huge part of the reason why I do it. I don’t really plan on changing anything too much, but I do have some announcements coming up in May.
Tachiai: Was there a moment before that Tochinoshin match, or is there ever a moment where you’re filming a particular video and you think, “oh, a lot of folks are going to see this one”?
JH: You like to think you can plan for it, but you certainly can’t plan for something taking off like that.
I know there’s an audience out there that’s very eager to get it right away: as soon as I post it, they want it. Maybe [those people] don’t want it spoiled, they want to watch it that day. And then the views steadily stack up over the basho. I’ll end the basho sometimes with a video that’s got 25,000-30,000 views. But over 100,000 views is certainly an anomaly and no, I never plan for it.
It’s great when one takes off. I certainly know sometimes if there’s a big match, and it’s a match where other people, people who even tangentially know about sumo would say “oh, he’s fighting him? OK, I want to watch that.” There certainly have been moments, like when Harumafuji won to become Yokozuna, where I got really emotional “on camera.” Things like that, you can’t hold back.
Sometimes I pause to think about how important [the match] is. Most of the time it’s like: “Hey! Here’s the next match! Let’s keep going!” That makes me give a lot of respect to the guys on NHK who do it for a solid 2 hours. I only do it for 5 minutes for a time and I can pause. And I choose which videos I put up, but they have to do it non-stop and sometimes they have no one to play off. I don’t either, but I see the value in having a John Gunning sitting next to you, somebody who knows about sumo!
Tachiai: We’re coming up on the Natsu tournament and as you mentioned already online, you’ll be doing your welcome video soon, if you haven’t already.
JH: I’ll be doing it this weekend.
Tachiai: What kind of topics will viewers have to look forward to in that video?
JH: We’re going to talk a little bit about the banzuke, and the fact that the Sumo Association is just stubborn! Why can’t we have 3 Sekiwake, why can’t we have 3 Komusubi? Poor Tamawashi. 9-6 at Maegashira 1 and he doesn’t get to be Komusubi. That’s not cool! (laughs)
It’s so hard, because I try to find out “is Hakuho going to show up? Is Kisenosato ready?” A week out, they’re holding their cards so close to the vest. We don’t know either, and they often don’t announce until a day or two before. Plus your excitement by the idea of things like “oooh, is this going to be the time when we get all 3 healthy Yokozuna [in the same tournament]” is tempered. Tachiai does a great job of translating news on the internet into English, along with some other people on Twitter that I’ve found, but especially when I’m doing a contest, [those late changes] can really throw a monkey wrench in.
We’ll talk about the sad case of Terunofuji and what’s happening with him down in Juryo, and we’ll talk about Endo becoming a san’yaku wrestler for the first time. I get an English version of the Yomiuri Shimbun, and there was an article in today’s paper about the whole thing with women on the dohyo – that was a big issue recently – and why foreign wrestlers can’t become elders without giving up their citizenship. I think sumo needs to gradually make some changes, it’s the 21st century guys! So, we’ll talk about that. I’m going to have a contest in May, and I do have some announcements about changes to the channel, and I’ll put those out there and see what the response is.
Tachiai: Everyone who follows your channel knows how much you loved Harumafuji. It might be too soon for you to have a new favorite with that level of emotional attachment – I know you like Okinoumi – but if you had to pick one guy that you just love to watch right now, who would it be?
JH: Oh wow, good question. I wish we had a stronger Ozeki crop. I like Takayasu, but Goeido I think has had his moment, and it’s never going to come again.
I gotta say, I like Abi. He’s fun! He’s a lot of fun to watch. Tochinoshin is obviously the exciting guy of the moment: “Will he become an Ozeki?”
As far as somebody who’s a little older, who I’ve always enjoyed to watch other than Okinoumi (who I obviously root for as you know), I’m always, always rooting for Ikioi. Every time I’ve seen him on Japanese programs, he’s been such a nice guy. I think he really enjoys the fans, and he’s a talented wrestler. He’s a big guy, and he can never quite seem to get it all together. But I’m always rooting for him, he’s someone I definitely keep an eye out for.
Tachiai: That’s funny, he’s my absolute favorite.
JH: (excitedly) Oh yeah?! That’s cool.
Tachiai: He turned up so insanely injured in Osaka, for his hometown tournament, and he just left it all out there every day, and managed to get results. It was amazing, incredible to watch.
JH: Yeah, yeah it was.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Jason, which will arrive in the next few days before the start of the May tournament. [Edited to add: you can now click here for part 2]