I met Murray Johnson on an afternoon in May, just before the start of this year’s Natsu honbasho in Tokyo. We walked around the busy neighbourhood of Shibuya before settling down for a coffee and a chat in a cafe out of the way of tourists. Murray is best known to our readers as one of the voices and faces of NHK World Japan’s growing coverage of sumo for English language audiences, and it is here for the next 90 minutes that we will sit and discuss the goings-on in the sport, the growth of the audience, and the challenges of presenting.
As with many of our previous interviews on the site, this will run over several posts owing to the duration of the conversation. It has been edited only for clarity and length. The first part of the conversation covers Murray’s start in sumo broadcasting and his perspectives on presenting live sumo coverage. We hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I enjoyed having it.
Tachiai: First of all, thanks for taking the time to chat with us.
Murray Johnson: Most welcome!
Were you living in Australia when NHK approached you? Is it right that you rejected them a couple times as you had never called sumo before? What was even attractive about that offer when they came, and how did they find you?
Well, I was here (in Japan). I was working in the news. I came here in 1991. Actually, I came here in ’86 and also ’88 for a couple months at a time, so when I finally started work with NHK it was basically news and radio.
(NHK) started in ’92 with the English sumo (coverage), because there was plenty of money around at the time. They had three guys who knew not much about sumo doing the show together for 15 days. So it was quite lucrative for them. Eventually, it expanded in ’94, but when they started in ’92, the director wanted changes to be made. He approached me and asked me if I would be interested. And I said, “I know nothing about it.”
I had a background in sports as well, in Australia, calling various sports. So, I then said, “well look, let me go away and learn a bit about this sport, I don’t want to come on the air as a complete moron.” So I spent about two years just watching sumo, because I hadn’t really got into it at all. I’d seen a few bouts when I came in the ’80s, and I had no interest in it at all, because I knew nothing about it. And as most people find out about sumo, if you get that little taste, especially if you go for the first time, you get hooked.
I realised, “yeah, this could be something that I could do.” The director came back to me in ’94 and said, “are you ready?” I said, “no, now I want to concentrate on learning the techniques, the history and the cultural aspects of sumo.” More about the technique, that’s what I’ve always been into. So, I did that.
Eventually I started (broadcasting sumo) in September of ’96, when we had a full crew of people. We had a guest on (the show) every day with a simultaneous interpreter, a floor director and a main director, so there were 4 or 5 people in the booth in those days. Sometimes now there’s one. I don’t know if I prefer it, but for me, as a rookie, it was a great learning experience: I could do my announcing bit, and concentrate on the bouts and not worry about having to come forth with some gems of historical information that I didn’t have anyway. It was a good learning curve.
That’s amazing. What brought about the broadcasting changes between then and now?
Money. It was just money, nothing else but budget cuts. They realised that they couldn’t afford to run it. It is an expensive operation when you have that many people, on varying degrees of salary as well. So the budget was cut back, it was just past the bubble economy. There was still money around (at that time), but then as time progressed, there wasn’t any.
There’s always a feeling in the sumo community that something like that happens and it’s a reaction to something within sumo. As we at Tachiai have got more ingrained in the community and it continues to grow – especially in the western areas – one thing that has become really clear is how important it is to be connected in the sumo world. Culturally, for you, how big of a challenge or a change was it to make inroads into that world, to understand what’s going on behind the scenes, so that you can explain it?
Quite often the things that go on behind the scenes you don’t explain, because of the way the society works. If you’re too close to someone and you know too much about something, you can’t use it. The more I got involved that way, the less it became a plus on the air – no advantage whatsoever.
In the early days, I used to go to keiko prior to a basho, 3 or 4 times a week for 3 weeks before the tournament started. Especially back then, there were few foreigners going to keiko. Invariably, we went with the director anyway. They wanted to know, “who are you, what are you doing here?” You sit down, shut up and watch. You’re there for three hours, in the lotus position, very uncomfortable. That was the learning curve: “shut up and watch.” That’s all I did, for probably ten years. Then you get to talk a bit with the guys outside. And invariably, I found that pretty useless! Because they’re not actually going to say how their injury is.
A lot of guys have “white light fever:” in practise they’re terrible, and when it gets to the actual basho they turn it on. These days, maybe Mitakeumi is the best example of that. Back in those days it was Takamisakari who was always useless in practise.
I got to know quite a few of the rikishi personally, and went out to regular dinners with a few of them back in the day. Now, I don’t do that at all now. The last five years, I went to keiko probably twice a year. Most of the rikishi don’t know who I am, and I like it that way. I like to be objective.
John Gunning knows a lot of them, and he can’t use (those stories) either! He will come out openly and say “there’s certain things in sumo I can’t tell you, because A) it won’t be good for the sport and B) it’s just ‘he said he said.'”
Yaocho is a classic example. (People say), “I know that was a fix.” Well, you don’t know! You can assume it was. Even some classic matches that were and everyone knew they were, you have to prove. And even in all these days gone by, until they catch someone saying or texting that it did happen – say, betting on sumo – until they catch them in the act, it’s just an opinion.
I think an informed opinion in sumo, or any sport for that matter, is important. What I try to do now, is if I have an opinion on something, it’s based on what I know, and not what I think. Anyone can go online and read people’s opinions, and a lot of it is not informed at all. Now, I don’t mind that! I think it’s good for the sport. But sometimes you look at something and you go, “where did that come from?! It came out of left field.” You know it’s totally wrong, but there’s no point jumping in, getting online with people and having a bit of a stoush with them over an “I know more than you” attitude, because I don’t want to come across as arrogant. I think I’ve learnt enough to know when to shut up and when not to.
Let’s go off on a tangent about the people that have come into the sport online, opinions, and so on and so forth: How have you seen a transformation in the English language audience since you arrived? Are there certain milestones or points where the audiences for your sumo work increased, and you’ve thought, “wow, we’ve got something here?” Obviously if we’re talking the Harumafuji scandal, or Kisenosato – there are those milestones, but you’ve been in sumo a lot longer.
I think prior to that, it’s (the emergence of) people like the Sumo Database. I had been doing sumo for five years and didn’t even know it existed. Someone said to me, “your facts are not right,” and I’d go to the Sumo Forum and check that out. I’d find people slagging me for things that I’d said that they thought were wrong, and I probably was.
I was using NHK’s basic data that I would go through, read the Japanese, translate it with my wife into English, and use all that on the air. Then, I found out about the Database. I don’t use that all the time, because NHK has its own resources and I tend to use those more, but the database is a great cross reference.
NHK is well aware of the people (who post videos). I keep out of that. I think it’s kind of wrong, because people are getting it for free. If people are charging for it, I’d be surprised if they aren’t trying to get it for free. But (the NSK/NHK) need to look at the overall global situation and perhaps make it affordable for everybody. You could get 10 years of the NFL for what the Sumo Kyokai is trying to charge for a basho!
The Kyokai probably doesn’t really want the foreign involvement. NHK does, because it’s more of a global [entity]. But NHK is a non-profit organisation, it’s a quasi-government operation. They’re trying to pay for their costs. I’m probably digressing here, but what they do is, they come on board with the sumo highlight show, and now three days of live sumo for the tournament. No doubt you probably want to know whether that’s going to expand. I would say in the short term, no.
There’s not the time frame for it, to show Juryo plus the top division for 4 hours a day, while they’re running the very expensive shows that they’ve gone out and mass produced: Cultural programs, which have a huge appeal. I don’t see in the short term, it being expanded by NHK. But, I know that my immediate bosses in global media who run the sumo highlights program are more attuned to try and achieve that.
I’ve had conversations with them about what I think they should do. They do allow our input – not just mine – and suggestions about how we should improve things to make sure that the overseas audiences are coming. As you know, there are more people coming to Japan to go to the sumo, because they know what a buzz it is. So… I don’t think the foreign audience is a priority, but they’re certainly welcoming the fact that more people are coming on board.
It’s working with (NHK’s) Facebook page, I think. I try to answer people on Facebook. If people pose a question and no one answers, I’ll jump in. People go, “oh wow, the guy on air does this?” Which is a little unusual.
Some people try and become my permanent friend on Facebook, and I have to deny all that. I’ve realised I don’t really want to know about their dog and cat, but I’m interested to talk sumo!
One interesting thing that I’ve always thought about, coming from my own background in music and entertainment: there was a disruption that happened in those areas in terms of rights and ownership over however many years. It seems that sumo is getting to a point with a greater international audience, that – to your point about what NHK charges for the Premium service – there is money to be made, but the remit is Japan, and that’s the audience that they obviously have to serve first.
I don’t know if you are aware, but in the early days, or at least up until about seven years ago, we were on Broadcast Satellite 1 or 2, but then we switched to GTV, so our audience went from this to this [raises hands to demonstrate huge growth].
There are millions of Japanese people who watch the sumo in English! They want to improve their English, and they want to hear English. Or, maybe they’ve lived overseas and they want to hear it. All of a sudden our audience (had) a massive jump. But we didn’t change our delivery, we didn’t change our broadcast. We just knew that they were there.
We’ve seen such a change in the last few years at NHK as you’ve mentioned, with the highlights show, the addition of Grand Sumo Live, the Preview show and now the activity on social media that you referenced. What’s the next thing that you’d like to see happen to better serve the English language community?
I would like to see a full two hours (live broadcast), not just 40 minutes, but that is not possible at the moment because of the news on NHK World. They do start earlier on Senshuraku, but the sumo finishes earlier!
I know a lot of people want to see the prize giving ceremony, they want to see a macaron presented on the dohyo. Unfortunately, that is governed by NHK Japan, [Grand Sumo Live] is an extension of that program with our own delivery. We’re not a carbon copy of the Japanese in terms of what we say – certainly not anymore. We probably were a little bit back in the day, because they were a little more strict about what we could say and announcers were not freely allowed to express their opinion. They would just call it as it is and let the guest do that.
Now, because we have less guests, when I’m on my own, I’m basically asking myself a question: “What do you think Murray?” I can express my opinion. Some of the old guard guests don’t like that, because it’s very hard to differentiate. You’ve got to realise when you’re on the air and you’re with another person who’s been doing it for 20 years. All of the sudden (if) I say “well no, I don’t think that’s true, because this happened” – that was not the way in the old day. But now, with me, it certainly is. So I don’t tend to work with too many people anymore!
I think it’s probably better for the listener to get that honest assessment of, “here’s what’s going on, here’s what I think.”
Yeah, but getting back to what I said earlier, it should be based on fact, or based on information that you have. The opinion is built on knowledge that you have prior to the tournament or that you’ve built up – technique wise or how the guy fights. Not just: “aw, that was sloppy sumo!” Anyone can say that. That’s how it’s changed.
Getting back to your question in relation to how I’d like to see it expand, now, that’s what I see happening in the short term – but to what degree, I have no say in that. (NHK) are going to cater for an audience that wants more, they’re going to give it to them. And they’ve got a bit of power. Because last year, it was the most watched program at NHK World.
The highlights show?
All of it. By a street. So the guys that run the show go: “OK, we had better take notice of this.” They’re expanding the amount of people that work in the program. I’m not going to tell you how much it is to make the Preview show, but it’s a 30 minute show in Edo Noren restaurant near the Kokugikan – it costs a fortune! I think it’s to do with the crew, it’s certainly not the on air crew! Those sort of things have expanded for the newbie to sumo. I don’t go on the air thinking just about newbies, but it’s a waste of time trying to talk (only) to the veteran (fans) because A) most of them have already formed their opinions and B) most of them watch the Japanese show anyway, and think they’re going to get more information out of the Japanese show than watching in English.
I’ve often seen people write, “I don’t watch the English show at all. It’s crap.” Or, “I don’t learn anything.” In a lot of cases though on the Japanese show, the guest or oyakata who’s on is dead wood. And we have had those sort of people on the air as well! I’m not going to say which ones I think they are – they’ll never talk to me again!
There are certain situations where I think we have equal or a lot better product on certain days. As a viewer, you can choose what you watch if you live in Japan. And if you take the NHK Premium TV package, which is not just sumo, it’s the whole cultural experience of NHK, you get that. Some of the people who started watching sumo watching us (on the English feed) bought that, when Hawaii was the home of sumo, because of Akebono and Musashimaru and Konishiki and all those guys. When they were around, a lot of people had the Premium package in Hawaii, but not anymore, because there are no Hawaiians.