Andy Reviews Al-Jazeera Feature

I Love this mystical side and the long history of sumo, too…but sorry, I dislike its treatment in this video.

God, I miss jungyo.

I thought this little news feature would be a good way to quench my thirst for a half-hour or so but it’s not all smiles. In fact, it’s a lot of frowny faces and now a few hours spent drafting a rebuttal. Despite the overwhelmingly positive appearance of the reviews on YouTube, 63 “likes” to 1 “dislike,” I found myself clicking thumbs-down and becoming “dislike #2”. I’m disappointed that it caves too easily to reinforcing stereotypes. Rather than ignore such shoddy reporting, I think it’s important to call it out — and it’s important for me to give John Gunning, and MMA fans, an apology.

For a few weeks, I had been thinking my bad translations were the “fake news” that had gotten John Gunning riled up. That article did not have a lot of specifics but now, I’m thinking…”Was it this, instead?” It may have just been unfortunate timing that he had tweeted me about a mistake I’d made a few days before.

Yes, I make mistakes, but I try real hard to provide fans with updates on the sumo world because more and more, reliable news is hiding behind a paywall or a wall of ads. And the reason I think reliable information must be free is because there is BS out there. Truth must always outbid lies. I’m struggling to find a sustainable model for providing that reliable information but I’ll get there and I’ve got a plan I’d like to try if we can get to the other side of this Covid crisis. (So watch this space.)

Let’s face it, when I think two rikishi standing in a parking lot are going to drivers’ ed instead of sumo school, I feel like a dumbass. But it is vitally important to get called out and I take it on the chin and learn. I’m always open to criticism of me and my reporting on this site. I’ve got pretty thick skin. The few times I’ve had to step in relating to comments on the site, it’s been about protecting others and things that are offensive…which has been VERY rare. Readers of this site are amazing and quite knowledgeable and respectful.

As an aside: While I’m typing this, I realize that I owe MMA fans an apology for dissing MMA recently. Sorry, Takanofuji’s actions are not an indictment of the sport, as I’d implied. He needs to be able to control his aggression because I fear he’s going to end up in real trouble or really hurting someone. I was afraid RIZIN was enabling it and promoting it for attention.

In the case of this news story, though, I don’t think Al-Jazeera will learn anything and begin to cover sumo as anything more than a weird curiosity, “closed off to outsiders.” This is a one-time piece, not a reporter learning a new beat. And it’s the same for The New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, etc. They will not do what we deserve, which is provide reliable current events about our sport. Wouldn’t it have been cool to have an sports channel from the Arab world covering the sport when Osunaarashi was dolling out kachi-age?

I’m sorry, John. I’d taken it personally when you’d called out “fake news.” The fact is, we exist here because the usual media sources do exactly what this piece (of poo) does. They try to offer viewers “Unrivaled Access” by peeling back a curtain on some bizarre, foreign world. “Hey guys, get a load of what’s happening in here! Their religion makes them do weird things.” On the contrary, sumo Twitter, the Sumo Forum, Doistuyama’s SumoDB, and us fan blogs and podcasts try our best to share the rare tidbits and nuggets from this amazing sport.

OK, rant over, let’s get to the review. After an ad, the piece starts out by looking at young Toki and Shosuke training to be sumo wrestlers then abandons that and follows a young female fan and her obsession with sumo. Then, we jump to having special access in Naruto-beya. And just as we’re settling in with Naruto, the crew takes us back to talk to the kids — but not before they take a shot at the “isolation.” From here, they go completely off the rails and take the disappointing angle of pegging young Shosuke as a dumb jock with this insane dream of joining a bunch of fat monks who beat each other to death. Those other kids, the ones who dream of being “rock stars and football legends” are so much more legitimate somehow?

While in Naruto-beya, and criticizing all the fat they’re adding to the chanko, they cite a startling statistic that sumo wrestlers’ life expectancy, at 65, is 20 years less than the average Japanese man. I immediately wonder whether the crew will follow the guys from the chanko dining-hall out to an izakaya. The narrator goes on, the newer wrestlers “joined 3 months ago. Most won’t last a year.” It wouldn’t surprise me, but I’d check that little stat. Sometimes I wish the News was subject to peer review.

I’d also offer a little context. I know a lot of English teachers and hosts and hostesses who didn’t make it a year in Japan. I also know a whole bunch of servers and cooks and Target Associates here in the US who didn’t make it a year. I wonder what the attrition rate is for journalists? It must be rough starting out as an urban beat reporter, alone, carrying around your own camera in downtown DC or Philly to set up your live shots, or in the studio getting unwelcome daily fashion advice from your traffic reports…while your editor hobnobs with the political and business elites at cocktail parties? Or am I stereotyping?

I am curious, though, Al Jazeera…are you going to follow a young salaryman or engineer at Toyota while he’s at the office until 10pm and living at the company dorm? Are you going to mourn his love live or access to girls? Dude…the look on those wrestlers’ faces when that girl was taking pictures. Girls are not some unknown to them. I’d have loved that kind of attention. Let’s face it, I didn’t have career goals in mind when I was living in Tokyo. I went out, had fun, met my wife…15 years later, I still can’t speak Japanese. When you set your mind to a career, chances are you are not going to have a lot of time to do a lot of things.

I think my major frustration here is that there was so much potential here for a half-dozen great documentaries. Follow Shosuke without insulting a 13-year-old kid. Why is his dream any less legitimate than anyone else’s? As for you dissing his math, he’ll be a whiz counting up his kensho one day. What happened to Toki? Or Makko? I can tell you, sujo are not some new thing. My wife’s grandmother was one.

Makko’s autographed Hakuho tabi-sock and sumo cards are surely only a small fraction of her private sumo museum. I cracked up when she’s “back stage” at a jungyo event with Hakuho himself, and he quietly asks her, “Who’s design are you wearing?” and she answers, “Mitakeumi.” The subtle look on his face was priceless but the moment appeared lost to the narrator. The shot where Makko walks up to Ichinojo and asks his weight should have been left on the cutting room floor. Yes, he’s big, we know that. Go back and explore her collection!!!

I swear, with the kind of access that was offered to Al Jazeera, any of us sumo fan blogs or podcasts would have walked away with absolute GOLD. Yes, we’re aware of the controversies. But when you do a story on Shohei Otani, are you going to mention the Houston Astros and their cheating scandal? Is Jordan McNair a required topic for a piece about football? You’re not going to change things from the outside. The sport has been changing, and it has been changing for the better. We fans will keep working on it because it’s an awesome sport. And this awesome sport deserves better, and more regular, reporting. (I mean, if you’re having to dive into scandals from a decade ago, how current is your reporting?)

Al Jazeera, you just proved to me that a 15 year-old girl got better access to the Kakukai, and a lot better understanding of it, than you. “Unrivaled Access.” HA!

12 thoughts on “Andy Reviews Al-Jazeera Feature

  1. Great post! You saved me the time I might have lost watching this. Too bad they didn’t mention the average life expectancy of an NFL player – 54, last time I checked.

  2. Good for you, Andy! Too many stereotypes, and it prevents more people from getting to know more. People think I’m strange for being a sumo fan, but I decided to be open about it, and use peoples’ reactions to give them another pespective. Men who choose this life are not fat clowns, they are incredibly dedicated and talented athletes.

  3. The Al Jazeera material was in part a rehash of snippets that I have seen elsewhere.
    The youngster who came second in that competition was part of a report about a skinny young boy who wanted to take up sumo. His sister wanted to accompany him and of course they could not exclude the baby of the family. The video I watched also had the little girl go through training motions of foot stamping, very cute.

    Watching Harumafuji’s apologies with a tearful Isegahama oyakata at his side was painful.

    There is no denying the existence of cultural barriers between Western and Japanese civilization. However in all parts of the modern world established institutions find their attitudes towards young people under their ‘guardianship’ scrutinized. The somewhat sensationalist reporting on sumo ‘child-torture’ chose to ignore this.

    Also, Japanese society and not just the Japanese Sumo Association is male dominated. I dare not speculate when women might be allowed on the dohyo.

    In the past NHK English had a female sumo commentator and a very knowledgeable one at that. Doreen Simmons successfully negotiated the culture barrier. I give her the last word on what makes a rikishi, ‘ they are going to have pain they are going to have exhaustion and they have got to learn to reach into that inner being and find that inner strength that most people never need to find’.

    That is why I am interested in sumo and why I admire rikishi.

    And Andy, if the Al Jazeera feature has made one soul become interested in sumo and delve little deeper and find out a little more about what it really is, it has achieved its purpose for us, hasn’t it?

    • If that’s the influence of this, then yes. However, a few of the comments on the YouTube page give a less flattering impression. But if those people who were featured, like Naruto beya, feel slighted or made fun of or disrespected, they may be hesitant to provide such access in the future. I hope not, though.

      • OT
        Hello Andy,
        I am new to this site. I do not really know how things work with/at Tachiai.org.
        One thing that has been on my mind ever since it happened is Hibikiryu’s injury.
        I do not know who you people are, how good your Japanese is, how well you are connected with the powers that be in sumo e. g. heya oyakata or the Western luminaries in the Japanese sumo world.
        Would Hibikiryu’s oyakata accept contributions from gaijin sumo fans towards Hibikiryu’s recovery? Or would he consider it as interference, meddling into things that are of no concern to us or perhaps as us forcing him and his other rikishi into looking at something which they do not want to consider – yet?
        I find it difficult to address all this via a public website because I do not want to put off, offend or hurt the feelings of Japanese people.
        I would genuinely like to help Hibikiryu. Medical treatment for a spinal injury is very expensive, the same goes for whatever else might be needed.
        Call me an oddball, but wouldn’t the best approach be that gaijin fan contributions towards that were collected somewhere and then someone who knows his heya and perhaps also its support organization process that, so that face is saved for all parties concerned, a culture that prefers to leave the unpleasant unsaid is not violated whilst at the same time getting things done
        Apologies for being emotional, but I really feel sad and sorry for Hibikiryu. Myhope is that things are less complicated than they appear to me.

        • I’m a physician in Seattle who loves sumo and adores cats. Assuming by your name, you feel the same. Hibikiryu will need much for the rest of his life. I’d like to contribute what I can in a proper way. Please share information on how we can help if you obtain it.

          • Yes, your assumptions are correct.
            And, yes I know what you are talking about re Hibikiryu. I have a friend who broke his neck age 17 in a parachute jump.
            On a lighter note; one of the NHK commentators described a bout of two pusher thrusters as , ‘They are having a go at each other like fighting tabbies’. I liked the analogy.

  4. Bravo Andy! So good to read your article! And the comments are spot-on! Does anyone know how we can donate directly to Hibikiryu? He’s surely going to need every dollar/yen we can send to him….Sharon, a sumo fan in Seattle

  5. “I cracked up when she’s “back stage” at a jungyo event with Hakuho himself, and he quietly asks her, “Who’s design are you wearing?” and she answers, “Mitakeumi.” The subtle look on his face was priceless but the moment appeared lost to the narrator. ”

    Can you explain the joke for us newbies?

  6. Literally the only thing I didn’t like about this post was that you could have gone in a bit harder on the title of it ;)

    Fully co-signed!

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