Tachiai Interviews Murray Johnson, Part 2: “I’m never going to appeal to everybody!”

Murray Johnson
Photo courtesy of Murray Johnson

We’re pleased to provide the next piece of Tachiai’s conversation with NHK’s Murray Johnson! As covered in Part 1, I met the longtime sumo commentator on an afternoon in May, just before the start of this year’s Natsu honbasho in Tokyo, and we had a winding conversation which took in many aspects of broadcasting, current events in the sport, and our readers’ comments.

The interview has been edited only for clarity and length. This part of the conversation covers some of the nuances of presentation, foreign expansion of the sport, injuries, and more. We hope you enjoy the conversation, and continue to join us for future instalments!

Tachiai: What’s been the most enjoyable part of the journey in sumo for you, from the start until now? 

Murray Johnson: It’s a bit of a cliche, but I look forward to every sumo tournament starting. Back in the early days, I had to go to keiko 3 days a week, sit down and watch guys slap each other around for 3 hours in that (lotus) position without moving: that was a bit of a chore. But the actual tournaments themselves, I love.

The good thing about it is, once it’s over I can switch off, because I have other activities outside of sumo that keep me extremely busy. When the sumo is done, people keep coming back to me with questions and I’m doing other stuff! I’m also involved in horse racing, and now (May) is a peak time for me for horse racing. I try and get a marriage of both of those events, plus the news, plus the other programs I do. That’s the hard part.

I’m on days that nobody’s going to be watching this time!

People watch most of the days now!

More in Japan than overseas. The regulars, the full timers, they tend to watch the Japanese broadcast, not the English one. The numbers are strong anyway. 

A reader named Martha says: “In an interview, Murray said he felt like sumo commentating was a challenge. I would love for him to expand on that: why is it challenging, how did he hone his skill, what is his philosophy on what makes good sumo commentary, and what are his goals for commentary?”

A lot of questions. The first one would be the toughest: to stay alive! The challenge I found with commentary is to make television a television broadcast, and not a radio broadcast. You know, “he’s pushing him…” We can see that.

That applies to a lot of sports, but in sumo it’s so brief, and you have to try and get it right in five seconds, or sometimes less. Or for 30 seconds! So, making sure that my commentary is enough to do that in the play by play.

If I’m on my own, then I have to analyse (the match). I don’t want my analysis to be in the play by play, but sometimes it is, and then I’ll expand on it in the analysis. Getting the combination of those two things right is what I try to achieve.

And because it’s television, (not to) commentate nonstop for two hours. Then you’re relying on your sound editor – who doesn’t speak English – realising that I’m not talking, so (we can) get a bit of background noise. Quite often they’ll do the opposite and crank it up so loud you can’t even hear the announcer!

Another organisation runs the live show. That’s not Global Media, that’s a contracted company that works for NHK, and has done for many years.

To expand on that and pick that apart a little bit, one thing that I’ve noticed from your broadcasts which is very unique, is that you tend to identify the winning move and explain: “This is where they won,” and “this is why that happened.”

Well that’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I can’t recognise all the 82 kimarite when they happen. Unfortunately some of them don’t happen too often, and when they do, I’m scratching my head: “What is that?” I’ll go with something, and it’ll be close. The guys who do this full time, the Japanese – not just the NHK announcers – that’s their job to get it right. Sometimes they get it wrong and I get it right! But most times I’m wrong and they’re right.

I think it’s important though, especially for newer people. Or for people in the English language world who are watching it at home, to go from “OK he’s pushing him,” as you said earlier, to being able to identify that moment where “this is where the guy got the grip,” or “this is where he was able to move him forward.” It’s important to be able to recognise the point of no return.

Or why was it abisetaoshi instead of yoritaoshi, or tsukidashi and not oshidashi. That is often difficult, depending on the extension of the arms, all that sort of stuff. Or whether they got dumped in the dohyo as opposed to off the dohyo or outside the ring.

When we had Doreen Simmons with us, who unfortunately passed – her enjoyment of sumo was the cultural part of it – she wasn’t really into the winning and the losing. Quite often it was a bit of a chore to have her on the air, because she’d just go, “uh huh!” So she was hard to work with, although when she got her moment, she shone.

You’re working with so many different people, different levels of knowledge and different degrees of presentation. You’ve gotta work with it. My goal quite honestly is to live long enough to keep doing it – that applies to everything! I don’t have any lofty goals.

I’ve never been in the media for the red light syndrome, I couldn’t give a rat’s about whether people know me. I appreciate pleasant comments, and I can handle negative ones. I don’t get put off by negative comments, I just get on with what I do. I’m never going to appeal to everybody. And I just try to be as professional as I can with what I do. If I get it wrong, c’est la vie. If I get it right, that’s what I’m there for.

We have a couple questions from readers about injuries. This is something that in the broadcast, you do end up talking quite a bit about. We hear it when you have a tournament where five guys go kyujo, or you’re describing a specific match and there’s been something that’s been hobbling a guy that may have a bearing on the result. The first question comes from someone named Baikinange, who asks: “Regarding injured rikishi, are NHK announcers prevented or discouraged about discussing the extent of their injuries on air, or is it as difficult for you to find out real information as it is for the rest of us?”

Quite simply, no, and yes (respectively). That gets back to what I told you earlier when I used to go repeatedly to keiko and ask the guys how they are. And the guy’s hobbling off the dohyo of the practise session of the keiko-ba, saying “my knee’s fine!”

Then, you go to soken and watch these guys not fight, and you knew straight away they weren’t going to be good (in the basho). Or they just didn’t feel like it. They might turn up on Day 1 and blow the (other) guy away. It’s a bit difficult sometimes to assess.

We’re not shackled by what we can say, as long as we know. If we don’t know, we assume he has an injury, if we don’t know what it is. But if we know that he injured himself on Day 3, or three days before the tournament when he had a practise session, we can say that. We’re not telling the other rikishi who are listening to our show! We don’t have scouts going, “oh, he’s obviously injured.” If we know something, we will say it. 

The second part of the question comes from Andy, who says: “Rikishi health is a continuing issue as it is in any sport, and seeing Kisenosato (and now Hakuho) opt for ‘natural’ healing rather than surgery, is there anything sumo can do to improve the situation so we don’t have a continual string of obviously injured wrestlers mount the dohyo each day (like Ikioi in recent makuuchi tournaments), only to go 2-13 – which ultimately has a bearing on the product that you present?”

There is no Sumo Association that oversees how each heya or oyakata goes about treating his deshi. And the higher (ranked) they [the rikishi] get, they tend to dictate what they want to do anyway.

Kisenosato – as you’re probably well aware – said once he retired he realised he made the wrong decision. I also think that in his situation, his oyakata was not a particularly strong influence on him, since he took over that role from the former Naruto.

Hakuho, as you know, has a couple of specialists that are in his backup team and he pays for them. They regularly monitor his situation and look after him. They tend to be lower body specialists: legs and knees and things like that. The biceps issue for him, I don’t think (was) anywhere near the same as Kisenosato. And once again, I think in his case, he’s managing his time.

Just to get rid of this: he’s not appearing in the Olympics and no rikishi will be! He looks to have some role, he hasn’t been given the role yet, but inevitably… Japan, sumo, world audience: Hakuho and rikishi will be involved in something whether it will be the opening ceremony, closing ceremony, or something (else). He will have a role I’m sure, if he’s still competing. I think he wants to be there, a little bit in memory of his father, who competed in the ’64 Olympics. So, that is ongoing. He’s good enough to probably fight with one arm anyway! Still, he’s going to rest this time [Natsu 2019] and we’ll see what happens.

Here’s a question from someone calling themselves Blobeecat…

Blobeecat! Wow.

Blobeecat says, “A big g’day to Murray from me, it’s great having a fellow Aussie as a sumo guru! Does NHK have any plans in the near future to extend its regular ‘NHK live’ coverage to include whole tournaments?”

I think they would like to expand it, it’s just a case of working with NHK World, in their programming, because that’s 4 o’ clock until 6 o’ clock here (in Japan). It depends how much power they get, and whether they take it.

The other problem is, people are paying for NHK Premium. They get to see it live anyway overseas in English or Japanese, whatever they choose.

So what does NHK do? Do they repackage it, sell it as a separate package? Then you don’t have to pay for it if you’ve got NHK World! 

I would gladly pay for it if it were a separate package.

Yeah, but we’re broadcasting to two different programs. We have to consider that. One has English graphics, and we’re following Japanese graphics on the main channel. So even for that 40 or 50 minutes, sometimes it is a bit of a challenge.

You don’t want to insult the people who know a lot about it, and you don’t want to treat the people who’ve just come on like, “sorry, didn’t you know that?” You have to find that balance between trying to help people learn and still maintaining your presence. And I try to do somewhere in the middle.

To answer the question: There is an intention to expand the live coverage, in what format I don’t know.

A reader named Janet has an evolution of that question, tying in to how we can get better coverage outside of various streaming providers: “Where do you see sumo in general in 5, 10, 15 years? Especially outside of Japan.”

I think it will grow immeasurably.

Amateur sumo is growing. Sumo will never be an Olympic sport for another 10 or 15 years, because it needs to have more people actively involved. It won’t be like a Dream Team in basketball, the Yokozuna won’t be turning up to pick up the gold medal. It would just be amateurs in the concept of (Sumo in) the Olympics. On the amateur side, that’s where that will grow.

The professional side is OK. No one can see another Hakuho, but he’s in there. We don’t know who he is yet. Sumo will continue to evolve, but it’s a traditional sport. The guys that run the show run it in an ad hoc kind of way with 50 different arms. The directors will try and maintain the traditions that have taken it to where it is. A big screen in the Kokugikan so that people can watch instant replay? That’s the worst thing that could happen to sumo, and the mystique of sumo.

You gotta watch it live!

Yeah, that’s the appeal. If you were looking around, you missed all the nuances that are happening that are the hallmark of (the sumo experience).

I think sumo will still be very strong. Will there be another great? Of course there will be! We just don’t know who it is yet.

You said something interesting that I want to go back to, because this is a question that comes up in the comments section of our site a lot: When you talk about what it takes to get to the point where sumo can be an Olympic sport and the development that has to take place in all of these other countries, do you think that the relaxation of the one foreign member per stable rule would help? Because there has to be space for guys to want to get into professional sumo.

That’s not going to affect the Olympics.

No, but if you’re a kid growing up in America, or Australia or Egypt – like Osunaarashi – or Europe, as some of these rikishi are, there are only so many slots for you to get involved in sumo to the extent that it can be a career you can aspire to have.

You’ll just have to wait until the other (foreigners) retire. I don’t see that changing. The only reason it would change could be the lack of workers here in Japan. They’re trying to import foreigners now en masse, because no one will do the labouring work that they need.

It ebbs and flows, sumo. It’s peaks and troughs. Right now, the peak has been up there for quite a while. Not long ago, it was “where would you like to sit?” I used to go to Kokugikan and just choose a spot. Now, you can’t get a ticket! I can get in with my media pass, but I have to go and get my media pass before I go.

When the scandals hit, (the Sumo Kyokai) basically took everyone’s media pass. If you wanted one, you had to go and pick it up on a daily basis. They were worried that foreigners were going to have too much of a say against the Kyokai. That was an interesting time, and I didn’t go to the Kokugikan for about a year and a half as a result of that. But now if I choose to go, I can.

Getting back to (foreign) expansion, the only way I could see it could happen, (is if) young Japanese guys don’t want to do it. But there’s enough of them, even though they’re a greying society. They say in 50 years, there’s only going to be 60 million Japanese people? That’ll still be enough for sumo.

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 3]

10 thoughts on “Tachiai Interviews Murray Johnson, Part 2: “I’m never going to appeal to everybody!”

  1. Great stuff as always – blog is acting up for me, I am unable to “like” this post at the moment.

    Thanks for taking the time to talk to Murray, and for transcribing it all.

    • Great question! I hope they figure out people like me would pay for unmanned webcam footage of the whole tournament. Expert commentary from Murray is a bonus but there’s no way he or anyone else would narrate the whole day…but I’d still like to watch it!

  2. Oy, one of my sports bugbears, people completely misunderstanding how the IOC operates the Olympics nowadays. Of course the one-foreigner rule in professional sumo would be a major issue, notwithstanding the fact that there are several other issues ahead of it that are even bigger obstacles. In all likelihood, sumo won’t be in the Olympics within the lifetime of anybody reading this.

  3. Sumo will hopefully remain a pure Japanese traditional sport, away from all the western influences (and money) that is spoiling other sports, mainly olympic sports. Remember when olympics was for amateurs only? I hope we all agree is that last thing we want to see is a big Coca Cola sign in the middle of the dohyo or mawashi with adidas or nike logos on them. That would surely be the end of this great sport.

    • I’m sure 大相撲 will always maintain that uniqueness and be the standard-bearer for the sport. But international sumo may grow in its own ways and be more like college sumo in Japan.

    • Well, unless you’re over the age of 70, you didn’t witness the days of the Olympics being properly for amateurs only. Olympic athletes getting paid under the table or being amateurs in name only (via having a government-sponsored job, etc.) was happening since at least the 1950s, and the IOC officially gave up on the charade back in the mid-1980s.

      Anyway, sumo was already a professional sport for all intents and purposes back when that term scarcely existed in the West, so there was probably a time when your comment could have been written with the “Western” and “Japanese” roles reversed. Let’s not try to fall into the typical foreign fan trap and treat Ozumo as something unspoiled by commercial interests, because that hasn’t been true for a long, long time. Ozumo saw labour strikes decades before they became a thing in professional sports elsewhere.

  4. I always cringe when I see comments like “you have to see sumo live”. Ever since Kisenosato went on his Yokozuna run the big ticket resellers are buying the bulk of available tickets and ruining everyone’s experience. You can take technical measures against that. Or you could try to take legal measures. But they just don’t care.

Leave a Reply to Sherry R Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.