Tachiai Interviews Murray Johnson, Part 1: “If You Get That Little Taste of Sumo, You Get Hooked”

Murray Johnson
Photo courtesy of Murray Johnson

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.

Come back to Tachiai for the next parts of our conversation with Murray over the coming days and weeks! [edit: click here to continue reading Part 2]

35 thoughts on “Tachiai Interviews Murray Johnson, Part 1: “If You Get That Little Taste of Sumo, You Get Hooked”

  1. Really interesting interview. I do like listening to Murray as he’s not frightened to say what he thinks, i.e. calling a bad decision as such which is something not all the commentators even on the English broadcast do.

    Very interesting to hear his take on some of the guest commentators as well – I do wonder where they find some of them as some of them don’t seem to know a great deal about sumo. Main exception is John and always a pleasure to hear the two of them bantering.

    Has anyone living in the UK got NHK Premium? I tried to look into it but couldn’t figure out how to get it easily. Although there were some Georgian live broadcasts last basho which were quite helpful for watching Juryo

    • Yeah, it seems Murray is referring to NHK Premium as a viable option available to anybody who wants to legally consume sumo. It isn’t. It’s not readily available in large parts of the world. I looked into it as well, and even tried to convince my satellite provider at the time to add it as a paid channel, but to no avail.

  2. Fascinating so far! It’s interesting to see how much of an afterthought the foreign audience is to the NHK and the Kyokai (and now Abema). You don’t have to be rich like Paul McCartney to want to support a wrestler or support the sport or the NHK. People who follow our site would love to support their favorite heya, buy kensho kin or ad space/subscriptions for expanded coverage (even an unmanned web camera for low division bouts). I know I’d love to. Even if the banner is only seen by those lucky enough to be sitting in Kokugikan. I think they’ll get there but as we’ve seen with the trickle of English language stuff on heya sites, it will take time.

    The NHK videos online are fantastic and I want to highlight those as great content they’re putting out there. The next one of those needs to be a Sumo 201 level video on how to join a fan club or buy kensho.

    • I think there’s a very clear difference between the takes of NHK and NSK. It is very much NOT the focus for the Kyokai as a whole (this may eventually change but it will take a generational shift IMHO), but to some of the above points, I think NHK have made great strides in terms of ramping up the social media presence and features to try and cater for this audience (as well as making shows with better production value and/or features). The problem, to Murray’s point, is they run up against scheduling crunches, but it’s interesting to hear that the sumo viewing figures are so great that it is pushing the issue. I’ll be curious to see what they do next.

      • Good point. I do tend to muddle that distinction a lot. But as for a lot of the cultural content on NHK World, it is great the first time you watch it but then it’s repeated so much.

        As for full blown NHK on TV Japan, I wish there was an option for those of us who want to stream it alone without adding a cable tier because we cut the cable cord ages ago and are not going back. There was just so much we were paying for but not watching. We pay to stream PBS and others. We’d GLADLY pay to stream NHK or Abema (and other Japanese TV stations) on their own. I just object to rewarding the owners of Fox News, MSNBC, 30 ESPNs, and all the other garbage we were not watching just because HBO had great content. Especially since I think the so-called “news” networks are an outright lie.

        If it is possible to stream NHK, BS1 & 2 and I’m just missing something, I hope someone can point it to me because sometimes I can be thick. We clearly like both products, sumo (NSK) and NHK coverage, and want to support both. Just don’t make me pay Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner and other fools whose existence I object to. (That’s harsh but I am prone to use hyperbole for comedic effect. I object to the hyperbole on cable as it is to chaotic effect.)

        • Haha. I don’t entirely disagree, I also cut the cord (and didn’t need the sensationalism in my life). I think at the end of the day, whatever your take on the media, it’s attractive to be able to pay for the things that you want, and that’s why the old cable model of bundling is not really attractive anymore in a world where technology has made more things possible on demand.

          I totally agree that it would be much more compelling to be able to simply access this content through a smart TV app – NHK has done a good job of producing these apps so far (radio, tv, NHK World, etc) so it would be a great next step – especially considering the cost – for them to go to the next step and sell the subscription service themselves. If they don’t have to cut a cable provider into the monthly fee they can probably sell it at a lower cost anyway. I hope they have the desire to keep innovating. I do wish we could actually get an idea of their viewership numbers and could speculate with more knowledge on the scope of the opportunity.

        • Some of the cultural content on NHK world is fascinating, but some it is awful. The phony voiceovers and music choices make my ears bleed. There is one show about things to see in various cities that comes to mind. The one with the hideous synthesized repetitive music, with some lame voice saying “Girl!!!” about every 30 seconds. Torture, even though the content interests me.

          • There’s one where a dude walks around and strikes up random conversations with people. Creepy. cringeworthy.

            • That show is “Somewhere Street” -I’m guessing the people in the seemingly random conversations are pre-warned but I agree that it can come across strangely to our Western eyes. To my mind that is part of the charm of these NHK shows, they are producing stuff about Japan and the world and putting out there for foreigners’ consumption but it’s all very much from the Japanese mindset. There’s another one called “Gentle Journeys’ which always seems to feature the lives of middle aged and retired people in small agricultural/rural towns, it’s hard to imagine this being a prime-time documentary subject elsewhere – (in the
              UK a fictional soap opera perhaps!). Then there are the “Older-man-is-the-expert-younger-woman-always-agrees-with-him” discussion shows which the rest of us have moved on from but obviously still a common format in Japan.

              If I have one gripe about NHK World it is there insistence on trying to be a news channel as well as a cultural outlet, with news program at the “top of the hour” every hour, extensive weather forecast with outlook for the next 3 days from Riyadh to Sydney to Mexico City as well as a long chat with the meteorologist. Then 60 minutes later, same news, same weather forecasts, all the same stuff unless there has been some big breaking new story in which case they would have flashed it up on the screen anyway. For this reason I can’t imagine anyone watches for more than 90 minutes at a stretch as soon enough you will run into 20-30 minutes of TV that you have just seen an hour ago. If Murray is saying the need to have these endless regular hourly news bulletins is what is getting in the way of longer live Sumo coverage to include Juryo I think the model needs to change – i.e. lobby NHK to stop seeing NHK World as primarily a news channel and accept that in some cases especially the highly watched sumo it is worth sacrificing some of the news slots to give the majority of viewers what they clearly want. News and weather we can get anywhere, but the English language sumo coverage is a unique feature.

              • That is an excellent point. Headline News in the US used to be like that and it seemed to fade as the others focused on talking heads and politics. It did surprise me that the expense of production was an issue. Reality shows and sports dominate in the US and other markets BECAUSE they’re cheap to produce.

              • ICAM. In our house, one cycle and out. They also have a high number of really depressing shows.

            • Yeah…. creepy. My husband and I think Venetia’s show is like the children’s show “Franklin.” Nothing much happens. ;)

        • To this point, as one with a long standing telecom career, little known fact in the US is that cable providers must abide by a regulation of must-carry channels. It’s network stations, PBS, public access and CSPAN. This is NOT the same as what the providers market as their “basic” offering, and is usually available on a request basis only, because they do not make much revenue off it. So you may want to consult a provider and see if one can get just this, and add TV Japan. This must-carry package is usually quite cheap. I did it about ten years ago, and was paying $10-20 a month.

      • Exactly- that was the part that I thought was the most encouraging, that the Grand Sumo Highlights was winning the ratings. In the end, that should make a difference.

        Great interview!

    • I mean, that the Kyokai cares very little about its (potential or actual) foreign audience has been obvious for years. One just needs to look at the fact that there was actually more legal online video coverage available in foreign markets about 8 years ago than there is now. The reason was that they weren’t making any money off the web streams at the time, so they didn’t mind it being available worldwide.

      As soon as they started monetizing it, it became Japanese-only. At first because they tried to charge extortionate prices for fans abroad – 125 dollars per basho! – then because they began to partner with platforms like Sports Navi and Abema that have no interest in serving non-domestic customers.

      • Well, a million people paid $40 ($82 today) pay per view for the Tyson fight in 1988 and it was only 91 seconds. I’m sure an accountant already crunched the numbers, but I wonder if they’d make enough sales at $90 to overtake less sales at $125.

        • You’re not seriously comparing the appeal of a (for better or worse) cultural phenomenon like Tyson with that of a niche sport like sumo? Most other sports in sumo’s international position are more or less happy to give away their stuff for free on the internet because the alternative would be to pay for timeslots on TV, on channels barely anyone has heard of. And that was my point – the international market is so irrelevant to the Kyokai that they cannot even be bothered to give their product away anymore.

          Newer fans like to think that there’s some kind of golden age of international sumo fandom going
          right now, but really, at least here in Europe sumo’s public visibility was a ton higher back when it featured regularly on Eurosport for over a decade. (Until 2007, when ES didn’t renew their contract with the NSK, either because of declining ratings or because the Kyokai was trying to hike up the price for a re-up, depending on who one wanted to believe at the time.)

          Anyway, I’d like to think my willingness to pay for online sumo coverage is higher than that of 99.999%+ of the rest of the world’s population, but even I will balk at anything priced higher than, say, the MLB.tv international subscription I used to have until a few years ago, which ran $120 or so…annually. The $125 per basho price point (or $10 per individual basho day, which was the alternative option) was just ridiculous, and I have little doubt that they misinterpreted people’s utter lack of interest in paying that as “there’s no market for sumo abroad”.

          • Similar opinion here. I pay $144/year for the NHL games. (And there are FAR more games to watch league-wide than days of Sumo to watch!) I would happily pay a similar price for Sumo.

            Also, I agree that the Tyson comparison isn’t a very good choice. Not because boxing (and Tyson as a phenomenon at the time) was more popular, but because of the frequency of a fight. Sure, people paid $40 for one pay-per-view bout, but that was one of less than a handful of bouts he fought that year. If he was fighting 90 bouts a year (of course, that’s how many days of Grand Sumo we get), I don’t think anyone would be paying $40/bout no matter how popular he was.

            I think they should look at models such as MLB and NHL single-team packages for a good comparison. Then you’re talking about a similar number of broadcasts in a year. They’d have to make it (as I know they do for NHL, at least) where a day is archived after it’s shown live because I, for one, wouldn’t be able to watch my 15 days of sumo at 3am!

            Great to get to know a little more about the man behind the voice. Looking forward to the next installment!

  3. Great interview. Nicely done. I was interested, and agree with, his decision to keep his distance/anonymity in order to remain objective. And his initial response to the job opportunity. Not many of us would pass up an opportunity like that, during bubble-money days, in order to study/prepare. I’m impressed.
    Am looking forward to the next part (and the one after that!).

  4. Thanks, that was a good read and I’ll look forward to future instalments. Murray is my favourite sumo commentator, because of his voice (always a prerequisite for a top commentator), his natural way of speaking, and his willingness to give a politely expressed opinion. By contrast, some of his colleagues speak in a string of sports commentary cliches that can become pretty tiresome, and they don’t critique anything.

    I understand that NHK needs to strike a balance between new viewers and experienced watchers, and the 25-minute highlights package gives little scope for extras, so it’s good to be able to get those extra insights with the preview shows and the live broadcasts.

  5. I was strangely thrilled to hear a fellow Aussie doing sumo commentary.. then I it turns out he is literally from a few suburbs west of me which explained why his accent sounded so familiar!

    Much appreciation to both Murray and Tachiai for this interview!

  6. I kind of take offense at his attitude toward people who prefer the Japanese broadcast. Does he really think that the coverage by people most of whom were never on a dohyo themselves (with the exception of John, and he, only as an amateur), is comparable to listening to someone with actual experience?

    I appreciate his own expertise. I am a basketball fan and for years the best local commentator was a man who did not come from the basketball world himself, but had real perceptions into it. But those are kind of rare. That man is now a politician, and he has been replaced by a former player who also happens to be a good public speaker, and when that combination happens, you hear great insights and understand things at much better depth.

    The same is true for sumo coverage. Yes, there are oyakata who are deadwood. But the NHK coverage usually includes two of them – one in the front box and one in the rows on the opposite side of the dohyo. And their announcers seem to be more experienced as well. Case in point – that match in which Endo did or didn’t step outside. Hiro was completely clueless as to what was going on. On Abema, Shikihide oyakata did not notice what was happening at the edge of the dohyo and made a fool of himself. On NHK Japanese, the announcer immediately caught on and noted to the audience that the side shimpan has called this one already. Which broadcast was the best to listen to? Never mind the days when Araiso oyakata or Wakanohana Masaru are commentators (the latter is only on Abema). These two are a true joy to listen to.

    • I take your point there. What I gathered was he was driving at (my own interpretation) was a desire to cater to fans of all levels, not just the veteran fans as so many of them watch the Japanese feed anyway and slag off the English broadcast online (admittedly, to your point, deepening their bench of color commentators would certainly help). I do think it’s a fair comment to be proud of the product, and to say, “hey, there are days when the Japanese feed hasn’t got an engaging guest and sometimes on those days we’ve got a product that’s at least equal if not better.”

      I’m by no means fluent in Japanese but admittedly even I find there to be days when I have to watch the Japanese feed as well – it also certainly helps my ability! I’m hopeful they can continue to improve the English product across the board but these things will take time. I’m just glad there’s the desire at least from NHK to do it.

      My own opinion, but I think most people might agree they can go a long way to improving the commentary without needing to get in an ex-pro who speaks English and has good presentation (even if that would certainly be a plus).

      • Like some of the evening news on domestic NHK, I believe the domestic live feed is broadcast in two audio channels, Japanese and the same live English commentary that goes out to the NHK Premium platform. Just hit the audio button on the remote to alternate.

    • I just prefer the Japanese broadcast for, I suppose, its authenticity and congruity. I only understand fragments of it, so I’m certainly not listening to it for the insights of the commentators. What I don’t understand just becomes atmospheric noise, like the crowd or the on-scene announcer who introduces the rikishi and declares the winner/kimarite. The English audio is more noticeable because it doesn’t “belong” over imagery that is so quintessentially Japanese. I do enjoy the English content outside of the basho though, such as the basho previews.

  7. Sumopedia should be a 20 minute show in the off season so they can air a few more matches per basho. They can have interviews, typical sumopedia stuff,etc. I would love to see some university sumo. Instead of Venetia, At Home with Enho, At Home with Abi, At home with Chiyomaru.

  8. Very interesting interview!

    The bit about not going to morning keiko or having relationships with rikishi anymore comes across a bit as “I can’t be bothered waking up at 5 to sit in the lotus position for hours or staying up late to watch these guys who have terrible conversation gulp down 15 beers”.

    But what I find most impressive is the honesty and humility in Murray’s words. He raises a good question about the proximity one should have to their subject – sorry I know it’s been brought up in previous comments -, although the (right) answer to that is far from obvious. John Gunning knows all those rikishi but like Murray says, he can’t do anything with it at least on air (a bit more in his column in the JT) and has this “I know more than thou” attitude that doesn’t really convert into something useful for the viewer.

    On the Japanese side the guest oyakatas on the broadcast mostly just waffle as they can’t say anything bad for the NSK and don’t want to badmouth a colleague’s recruits. But I agree with Herouth that they have expertise and experience that’s extremely valuable (I.e they know what they’re talking about).

    Mainoumi is not employed by the NSK anymore but has his own agenda of elating Japanese pride by going on and on about sumo-dou and the unique spirit that is supposedly only found in Japan-born rikishi, and predicting Hakuho’s demise for the past 10 years. The only one who brings something more (again, in my opinion) is Kitanofuji, who doesn’t mince his words probably due to a mix of seniority as an ex-yokozuna, the fact that he’s always been a bit of a free spirit and some amount of “I don’t give a hoot” wildness that comes with senility. But even he can’t say anything that wouldn’t sit well with the NSK. Not to mention the Japanese NHK announcers who are probably the least free of all, not wanting to lose their hanamichi privileges or be blacklisted by the NSK.

    Good point also about the pissing contests (in the English speaking community) online about who’s more knowledgeable but that’s not specific to sumo!

    Can’t wait to read the rest of the interview.

  9. Murray was right here, that “if you get that little taste of sumo, you’ll be hooked.” All my life, Sumo was the one thing I never really understood the appeal of in Japanese culture. So I wanted to, and decided to watch it. Other forms of wrestling never appealed me in the slightest. Within a couple of days I thought “this is great! Really exciting” and finally got it, and I was hooked. Now the two months between basho are filled with melancholy and longing. Thank goodness it’s six times a year and not less! Or worse, seasonally like other sports.

  10. I would like to know who the woman is that sits very close to the dojo and dresses in white, sits up very straight and claps delicately. Is she family of one of the wrestlers or just a super fan. I see her in Tokyo mostly.


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