Foreign sumo fandom has been thrown into disarray as YouTube shutdown multiple sumo highlights channels over intellectual property rights, including the heavyweights, Jason’s Sumo Channel, Kintamayama, and NattoSumo. This is a serious blow to foreign sumo fans who often rely on the YouTube digests for access to recorded sumo action. Frankly, it might completely shut out some foreign fans from watching altogether. The timing of this move is rather odd since Japan is opening back up to visitors and the Kyokai is opening back up to fans. So, as Haru basho is still a ways off, I do want to ready foreign fans for options since accessibility has improved dramatically over the past decade — as well as generally editorialize a bit on the topic.
I have previously written about my earliest exposure to the sport of sumo. To recap, in the days before online streaming, Konishiki, Akebono and Musashimaru were giants of the sport and all were from Hawai’i. We didn’t quite have the hundreds of channels we have now so I don’t know how I found this gem of a highlight show that Larry Beil had a late-night highlights show on ESPN. (You may remember Larry from his catch phrase, “Aloha means good-bye,” from SportsCenter clips of home runs. He has ties to Hawai’i though he’s now working for ABC in San Francisco.) He’d basically condense all of the drama of a 15-day tournament into a single brief program and I was enthralled.
Fast-forward a couple of decades and I had already moved to Tokyo and moved back to the US but I had an urge to stay connected to Japan. The internet really changed everything. I happened upon Araibira’s and Jason’s videos and there was a pretty good community of fans in the comment section. Even back then, the NHK already had Araibira in their sights and he was shut down several times, and he tried to move over to other platforms. You can still find some of those later videos on the interwebs. It’s also still hit-or-miss on the glorious SumoDB, itself. [insert Wayne’s World meme here] Not many of the bouts have links and several which do have been taken down for the same IP concerns.
Araibira’s channel was a rather no-frills, straight rip of the sumo broadcast while Jason obviously added his own jovial commentary. The emotion of Harumafuji’s Yokozuna promotion still gets a sniffle from me. (“I’m not crying, you’re crying.”) And Kintamayama’s digest was always great to watch quick at lunch, and helped keep up with some of the behind-the-scenes news and drama.
So these channels in particular helped reconnect me with my sumo fandom and really helped spark my need to start the blog and connect with sumo fans in my own (camera shy) way. The addition of Natto’s newer data-driven visuals has meant there has been a lot of content to get us hyped for each day’s action. I do think that their channels serve to “broaden the church” of sumo as the community has really flourished, even during a full-on global meltdown which threw the sumo world, itself, into a cloister. So this is a gut-shot to have them all down, even if this is temporary. I can’t pretend to know what’s going to go on with Haru and beyond.
How to Watch Now
I do not think the NHK or the Sumo Kyokai were quite ready for this influx of interest from foreign fans. I have not been able to get comment from either but based on their actions, it is clear that they are opening up to, and embracing foreign fans. The NHK has added a lot of English-language content that is well-produced, engaging, and informative. Especially pre-pandemic, the Sumo Kyokai had been working to improve its outreach to foreign sumo fans through its website with a bit more English content. While the Japanese website got a bit of an overhaul, though, the English site didn’t and there’s still a lot of content that is in Japanese only for now. But perhaps the biggest change over the past few months was the addition of live results and wrestler profiles in the lower divisions, in both Japanese and English. But Andy, where do I watch?
In Japan, the NHK and Abema offer free coverage, streaming and broadcast. Via your TV, it’s a rather ubiquitous, standard broadcast. To log in via the internet, you create an account with your Japanese address and there are additional premium options available for both. But the basic NHK live broadcast has been a staple in my wife’s family for generations. Abema has been a great new arrival since it covers all of the lower division action live — even maezumo!
In the United States and Canada, TV Japan is the only way to legally get the NHK content which includes the daily live sumo coverage. Edit: Thank you to Herouth and Steven Palmer for pointing out in the comment section the JSTV option for viewers in Europe, the Middle East, Russia, and North Africa. The two week ad-hoc option sounds fantastic for sumo fans! Internationally, the NHK World site does offer live streams, on select days, of top division matches via its website. The NHK World channel is available to stream live at this link, 24/7.
Now, that streaming option in Japan seems very enticing, doesn’t it? Especially for the hardcore fans, it’s awesome to watch every minute of action. I’ve often wondered why the TV Japan folks (operated by the entity known as “NHK Cosmomedia America” and headquartered in NYC) have been slow to adopt these more modern technologies. Even the question of HD-digital broadcast availability is answered with a glorified, “it depends.” Why does it depend? You cannot purchase TV Japan directly. You have to go through a satellite or cable provider. For those of us who cut the cord, it’s not an option. Monopolies suck.
Replays of selected Makuuchi highlights are available on the NHK World website for the most current tournament. The Kyokai has its own, expanding array of videos and highlights on its official YouTube channel. To be frank, I think I will try to go as direct to the source as I can for footage for the blog. So anything that’s straight from the Kyokai is A-OK. There’s also premium content available which gives access to archival footage, which is pretty cool. All of that, though, is pretty much exclusively found in Japanese. Additional, English-language content is now available via Hiro’s Sumo Prime Time, as well. The video below is his coverage of Hatsu’s Makuuchi yusho bout.
So, the result of all of this is that we sumo fans still have a much improved outlook compared to what we had in the 1990s. We have a lot of well-produced, official content. That content is primarily highlights of the Top Division honbasho as well as ancillary content about sumo culture. This is fantastic but it’s not enough. So fans are going to continue to clamor for more. TV Japan was only an option for the US and Canada so other foreign fans were already forced to resort to VPN access, Twitch streams, Discord, etc., in order to get their fix of sumo. Short clips of bouts are readily available on Twitter, from official and unofficial sources. It’s really a different world than it was when Bush and Stone Temple Pilots were my favorite bands. I mean, this was before Napster and Kaazaa, y’all. We adapt.
Our reliance on these will likely expand if the YouTube channels are gone for good. Personally, I think this may be the start of a wider crackdown on YouTube where the top channels are targeted first and then smaller channels start to disappear. These smaller channels would include a variety of videos which actually pirate content from the other YouTube channels. There are some automated methods for digital rights attorneys to identify copyrighted content, and that is probably why one of our own podcasts got hit with a claim over a short audio clip. Let’s face it, the story is as old as Vanilla Ice and “Ice, Ice, Baby.” OK, yes, it’s actually much older.
So where does this leave foreign sumo fans? I dunno. Ask me again after Haru. I’m very interested to see how this YouTube drama plays out and if it just shifts to other platforms. Best case scenario, this was temporary, a lot of old content is gone but new content will be available (possibly briefly). Hopefully this presages expanded offerings from the Kyokai directly, or the NHK.
However, for Tachiai, and me personally, it rather heightens the urgency to familiarize myself and my readers with the Japanese language if Kyokai sources and Japanese fans end up being some of the best sources for bout footage. Frankly, if you recognize and can search for shikona and key sumo terms, you’re in a great spot. The content is out there and we’ll help you find it. But mostly I just want to make sure the sumo fan community stays active and accessible.
It looks like Jason is up-and-running with a new channel!