Put Your Questions to Murray Johnson

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Hello from Tokyo, Tachiai readers!

Following in the wake of our interview last year with John Gunning, we’re pleased to share that we’ll be speaking with another member of the NHK World sumo coverage team in the coming weeks. None other than play-by-play guru Murray Johnson will be meeting up with us to discuss a number of questions relating to the sport.

As with last year’s John Gunning feature, we’d like to open up the opportunity for Tachiai readers to send in some questions as well. This is another great opportunity to potentially have your questions answered by one of the leading names in sumo coverage and analysis!

Please be advised that we will ask questions as time and the parameters of the conversation permit, but we will endeavor to put as many interesting questions as possible to the esteemed announcer and pundit.

Leave your questions in the comment section below, and we will review them in the coming days before we speak to Murray!

“I’m glad there’s such a great community around sumo” – A Conversation With Jason Harris (Part 2)

Jason Harris: Yokozuna
Photo courtesy of Jason Harris

In the second and final part of our interview, we’re happy to present more takes from the very popular Jason Harris of Jason’s All Sumo Channel. Here, he shares more opinions on what he’s looking forward to in sumo, some fantasy matchups that he would create on the dohyo, and the role of YouTube videos in the English speaking world where content can be hard to come by.

If you missed Part 1 of our interview, click here to check it out. As in part 1, the interview has been edited for clarity and length. We’ve embedded Jason’s “Welcome” video for the upcoming basho as well, so make sure to tune in to learn more about how Tachiai has partnered with him for his upcoming contest this month.

Tachiai: In all of your time watching sumo matches over the years, is there one particular matchup (either because it was something a lot of people related to on the channel, or just because it’s something that you’ve enjoyed) between two rikishi that you could just watch again and again?

Jason Harris: Oh boy! There are so many. I went back through some of old playlists recently, because I wanted to see how it started, and I watched a match here and there. I loved it when people came not out of nowhere – because sometimes they were Ozeki – but when they just won that one tournament. People like Kotooshu and Baruto, or even the wild basho that ended up with Kyokutenho winning – those were very fun [to watch]. Of course, in 2008 & 2009, the showdowns between Asashoryu and Hakuho were always fun to look forward to on Senshuraku.

Videos that stick with me the most probably have to be Harumafuji matches, like when he did the back to back 15-0 [tournaments]. Even when he won recently [in September], I was so happy for him. What happened to him was a terrible way to go out, but he seems to be OK with it. He’s going to have his hair-cutting ceremony this year and I think he’s going to stay in Japan and try and stay connected with sumo.

One of the things I like, that I wish I could show more, is when I get to watch on the weekend for my own enjoyment: They do a pretty good job on NHK of having guests go over sumo history. Every now and then, they’ll show an old Chiyonofuji match, or one of the big Americans like Akebono. I really have zero knowledge of sumo pre-2004: I came into a complete void, I’d never seen the sport before. So, when I get to see older matches from the 80s and 90s and even before that are in black and white, I love watching all that old stuff, it’s great. The amazing thing about watching Hakuho [now] is that I have watched Hakuho from Day 1, attaining Yokozuna and being the “GOAT” that he is. Every record that he’s broken, they go back and show you, “Taiho (or someone) did this and Hakuho beat that record.”

I’m not one of these baseball fans that knows all of these players on the roster going back to the 30s, or one of these football fans that’s been rooting for the team since I was 5 years old. Sumo came to me when I was 36, but it is a huge part of my life. It’s amazing to me that it takes place so often and at such a high level. I can’t think of any sport aside from maybe tennis, where you have tournaments every other month! It’s not easy winning a yusho in professional makuuchi sumo, and they really do go all out every other month.

I wish more people in Japan would watch it, because I go to work sometimes, and I’ll be high on the previous day’s tournament, and I just wanna be like: “Man! Did you see Kisenosato? His arm was falling off! And he won that match (laughs)!” And it’s just crickets. The kids aren’t home from school yet [when sumo is on] and the adults are blasé about it. There’s one old guy at work now who talks to me about sumo. I love to wear my sumo shirts around town – people love that a foreigner is so invested in it.

Tachiai: I’ve had similar experiences. I want to go back to something you said about watching matches in the 2000s up through now. This is a Marvel vs DC kind of question: let’s bring two universes together. If you could pit any current rikishi against a former rikishi from when you started watching to create an ultimate fantasy matchup, what might that be?

JH: The obvious one has gotta be Chiyonofuji against Hakuho. That’s the Muhammad Ali vs X, or Michael Jordan vs X… the matchup for the ages. When you look at Chiyonofuji, he’s just so muscular! He doesn’t look fat to me! My gosh, I can imagine how formidable an opponent he must have been, and to see him fight Hakuho!

I loved how Harumafuji was so quick and so good with technique, and I think that was the one thing that allowed him to have any yusho wins during the Hakuho reign. It would [also] be great to see somebody like Ichinojo who’s now tipping the scales at 225kg against somebody like Akebono or other huge guys from the past. It would be great to see some Americans make it back up to the top division, and have that fun pride. We talk a lot about foreigners in sumo, and now we’ve got a guy from Texas, that Tachiai promotes a lot, Wakaichiro.

Fantasy matches are fun to think about. Hakuho vs. Chiyonofuji though, that’s gotta be the one, right there.

Tachiai: I’ve got a question coming up now from Andy, who runs the site.

JH: Yo, Andy!

Tachiai: Andy is curious as to your thoughts on Araibira, who used to put the whole NHK feed on Youtube before he got shut down and moved over to Vimeo. Firstly, have you ever been worried about how close you might be cutting it in terms of the amount of content you put on Youtube, and how the authorities might feel about that? How do you, as a person who’s in that space, react to seeing someone else having to move off Youtube and onto another platform?

JH: Araibira was a nice dude. I talked to him a few times back when he was popular. He had some feed – not proper NHK. The thing that I think got him in trouble is that he was so quick, and he would put up the matches literally minutes after they were live, and he just would take the footage and post it. And that’s kind of direct competition [with NHK] in a way. He wasn’t adding commentary or anything, and I don’t think he wasn’t using an English feed, it was all in Japanese. So he got in trouble and taken down. I don’t know if he’s still over on Vimeo. If he is, then good luck to him.

I could never match the speed of Kintamayama, who does a really good job with his editing. I feel like I just offer a slightly different product, and you’re not going to get the whole day [of matches]. I don’t live in fear of the channel being shut down, but I know that at any point it could happen. I would just have to be sad, and be like: “oh well.” And then move on.

It is completely not my content, which is why I’ve never put any ad on any content, I’ve not monetised [my videos], I’m not a partner on YouTube. It’s just a portal for me to share what I love about sumo with other people… and I’ve been attacked for it. There was a guy who wrote a whole article in The Japan Times about two years ago, calling me bad names and saying “why is this allowed?” And I thought, “well, that’s it, they’re going to shut me down.” But they didn’t, and I heard from other people that guy is kind of a crank anyway! [editors note: the writer in question was not current Japan Times sumo writer and friend of the site, John Gunning]

Every now and then, especially when I first started, NHK would flag this video or that video, and then I’d say “oh, damn!” People would ask “where’s so and so… where’s the Kaio vs. Asashoryu match, the final match of the day?” And I’d just have to say, “yeah, it got snagged.” When people first watched my channel, they just got used to that. But it really hasn’t happened since 2011, since they changed the broadcast.

I think NHK are trying their own thing at streaming services and apps and it hasn’t quite come all together yet, and they’re really leaving me alone. And I’m very thankful about that. Because I think as much as I do it, and I’m in English (and I don’t want to toot my own horn but I’m kind of the most high profile person posting in English), there’s probably tons of people posting and reposting NHK sumo in Japanese. I don’t type in kanji for the names of the wrestlers and see all of those videos. So I’m sure that happens a lot and I’m just not aware of it. If you’re going to ask me to justify what I do, I feel like I’m spreading the sport around to people who wouldn’t normally get to see it.

Tachiai: That touches on the second part of Andy’s question too, which is that in an era where only so many fans around the world can make it to Kokugikan or one of the other venues around Japan, it’d be interesting to get your take on what role videos like yours and other online content can play in the spread of sumo as a sport. Specifically for people who can’t get there: maybe they’re in Japan and it’s too far away, or they’re in other countries and are never going to make it there. What roles do these videos play in creating more fans? 

JH: Absolutely. If I lost my job tomorrow, and I had to move back to California, I would want my channel: somebody who does what I do, so that I could keep watching sumo in America. Now, I would be lucky, because the US has a large Asian-American population, so there’s a cable channel you can get called TV Japan, and it’s $25 a month, and you can watch sumo on it. But sumo is on at midnight or whatever it is in America because of the time difference.

NHK World, I gotta admit, is doing a good job. They’re stepping up, they’re putting out these [daily] summary videos. They’re fairly accessible, they’re free, and they get reposted on YouTube a lot! They’re not comprehensive, they don’t show every match of every day, they drop 1 or 2, but it’s a good way to get into the sport too.

I just hope there’s still something my channel can offer that’s not redundant. If people say “I can go to NHK World, why come to your channel?” Hopefully people find interesting things, and the fact that I’m reacting to it live most of the time is a little bit of a different flavor. A lot of people surprisingly don’t just want to see the tachiai and the outcome. They want to see the ritual. They want to see the salt throwing, and the stare down, and the replay, and all of those things that I provide.

And it’s definitely a big space! It’s a big huge thing, YouTube. I know for a fact that people in Mongolia, and people in Georgia, and Canada, and all the places that I get a lot of hits from, their source for sumo is YouTube. Maybe they don’t have that [premium] cable channel in their country. I’m sure now in Georgia, they probably do have somebody watching [and posting updates]. I know they’re going to be watching Tochinoshin closely this tournament, but who knows if they still cover sumo in Estonia now that Baruto’s gone.

So many people send me messages and say “I used to be stationed in Okinawa as a soldier,” or “I used to live in Japan where I was a teacher,” or “I was a student,” and they are reigniting their nostalgia and feelings for sumo by seeing some of my videos and starting to follow the new guys. And that’s great. That makes me feel great and I’m just glad that there’s such a great community around. Tachiai, and my channel, and people on Twitter, and what John Gunning is doing: everybody is talking about it in English, which is an important part to spread its popularity.

Tachiai: I agree. I certainly feel it because a lot of the content that I personally write for Tachiai is covering stuff that happens outside the top divisions: things that happen in the lower divisions, and how guys making their debuts are doing, and things like that. And it’s hard enough for us to see the content from the top divisions in America. There’s just absolutely NO WAY that without the folks who are there at Kokugikan at 10am shooting video from the Jonidan division and posting it on YouTube, that it would be possible. It just wouldn’t.

So finally, our last question… what are you looking forward to in sumo over the course of the next year or so?

JH: It’s hard. Talking to sumo fans, Japanese sumo fans have their own point of view because they are Japanese and they want a Japanese champion… and then they got Kisenosato and then they didn’t, know what I mean?

Tachiai: Yeah. 

JH: He became Yokozuna, and then unfortunately, bad things happened and he just couldn’t keep it up. I think – and it’s funny, because I get called out for this a lot, people [think I don’t like him] – that Hakuho is the greatest of all time. Absolutely. We are in a special era to be able to watch him on a daily basis.

Tachiai: He’s trying to make it until the Olympics.

JH: He’s talked a lot about that. Sure. But we don’t want diminishing returns, he should go out on top.

Tachiai: Well, he is trying to get 1,000 wins in makuuchi. That’s the next thing. He’s 28 wins short.

JH: I hope he gets that! You know, I feel like he should get a little more respect from some of the other fans. It’s hard when you’re that consistently good and you’re always winning, people do then cheer for the underdog because they just want somebody different.

But that’s not a reflection of how good he is and how much he deserves, because if somebody could have stepped up to him, then certainly I think he would have been happy to have had a good rival. Not that Harumafuji wasn’t a good rival, or Kisenosato, but they were not and are not him. And when Asashoryu left as unceremoniously as he did, we really lost that good rivalry.

So, my hope for the next couple years is that we do see some of these new guys: the Enhos, the Abis, the Mitakeumis, these guys come up, and a new crop take over the san’yaku. And some new blood, and some new really strong rivalries that will really keep us entertained for the next 4 or 5 years. Harumafuji’s retired, and there’s talk that Kisenosato might retire this year. There was talk about Kakuryu, but that’s gone, he’s back pretty strong. I don’t think Hakuho is going to retire, but I don’t think he’s going to dominate like he did in the past. It’s the middle of 2018, so he’s got to stay wrestling for 2 more years to get to the Olympics? He could do it! He’s not that old.

Tachiai: He’s 33.

JH: Yeah, so you look around at some of the other guys [over the years] who were able to hang on. Kaio was able to hang on because he had that Ozeki “safety net.” Aminishiki has stuck around, he is going to be 40 soon. But to be a Yokozuna like Hakuho, and have everybody gunning for you, it’ll be interesting [how long he can keep going].

I’m excited about the next couple years of sumo. I think we’re going to have some great tournaments, and in each basho some story emerges that you weren’t really prepared for – along with the standard narrative: “Hakuho’s going to dominate.” What’s going to upset that apple cart may be more interesting.

I’m looking forward to it. I plan to live in Japan at least until 2021. At that point I’ll be turning 50, and then I have to think about what I want to do from there. I hope the channel stays around, and stays popular, and sumo is still a lot of fun for everyone for the next 3 or 4 years at least!

Thanks again to Jason for taking the time to chat with us. You can find his channel on YouTube by clicking here, and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

“I feel like I have a duty to provide the coverage” – A Conversation with Jason Harris (Part 1)

Jason-Yokozuna.jpg
Photo courtesy of Jason Harris

If you’re a sumo fan in the English speaking world, then it’s very likely that at some point after discovering the sport you also discovered the work of Jason Harris. He’s the man behind Jason’s All Sumo Channel on YouTube, and has built an incredible community wherein he watches each day of every tournament’s biggest matches and provides commentary for fans online. As he says in our interview, watching a video on his channel can be like watching sumo with a buddy, and over the years he’s become the sumo buddy for tens of thousands of fans all over the world.

In a world where sumo content can be difficult to come by for English speakers, we wanted to talk to Jason about his experiences, successes, and what gets him excited about sumo. The first half of the interview, below, has been edited for clarity and length.

Tachiai: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. For those folks that don’t know you or maybe haven’t been around since the channel began, can you tell us a little bit about how and why you started the channel?

Jason Harris: Sure. A question I get asked a lot is: “why are you so interested in sumo?” The simple reason is, when I moved to Japan in 2004, to become a teacher – pre-Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, even – I lived in a very, very rural part of Japan called Shimane-ken, and there wasn’t a lot to do after school as far as entertainment.

You could turn on the TV, and everything was in Japanese, which is no surprise! My Japanese wasn’t so great, but a friend said “hey, if you watch sumo, you can watch in English by hitting a button on your remote control at 4pm every day.” My first basho was in September 2004, which Kaio won, believe it or not. I thought, “Oh! This is interesting.” The next January, it was so cold outside, I ended up watching the whole basho sitting under my kotatsu. Asashoryu won, which started his year when he won all six basho in a calendar year – and that’s never been done by anyone, including Hakuho!

When I started doing videos on my main YouTube channel, and I talked about living and working in Japan, part of my life was watching sumo. So, I would turn my camera around from time to time, and point it at my pretty small TV, and just say “hey, this is the sumo on today.” I’d show maybe 1 or 2 matches every other day. And [the videos] got some hits, people were sort of interested, but it wasn’t quite the same audience overlap.

I moved back to the States in 2010 after I finished my stint on the JET program, and [by then] some videos had gotten really good hits – big Asashoryu matches, etc – and a big thing on YouTube was doing reaction and reply videos. And, I thought, “maybe I’ll just do an all-sumo channel because I love it, and I know there’s at least a thousand other people who probably want to watch in English and then talk about it.”

I really didn’t think it would go much beyond that, and that started in 2011 when I moved back to Japan. Unfortunately, that was the year of the great tsunami and earthquake, and the yaocho scandal in sumo, when they cancelled a basho. I was having a hard time getting sumo in my house, because NHK then switched it from BS1 over to the NHK G channel and curtailed the [broadcast] hours, so it really started in earnest in 2012.

And it’s just grown. It’s been pretty amazing, especially recently as more and more people turn to YouTube for information on sports and everything they’re interested in. I just found a niche. There’s a few of us: me, Kintamayama, and a couple other guys that do good sumo coverage on YouTube. A lot of people just reshow the NHK broadcast, but time and time again I get messages – as many comments as I get about how I should shut up and stop talking – that a lot of people enjoy my talking, and I think it’s like watching sumo with a buddy.

I don’t think I come over as overly informed about sumo! I enjoy it, and I know of course more than the average person, but I’m not super encyclopedic about it. There are people in my YouTube comments who know way more about sumo than me, and that’s awesome because they add a richness to the community that’s now formed around the channel.

Tachiai: We have had a similar experience on Tachiai with a rich community that is developing in the comments, so I can relate to that. In the English speaking world, we are so limited for content. A lot of people’s first exposure to sumo when they look it up online brings them to your videos. Especially in the days before NHK started stepping up their coverage – which is pretty recent in the English speaking world – it has really been a lifeline and stepping stone for so many fans. What has it meant to you to be able to participate as you have in the growth of sumo to the English speaking community?

JH: Oh, that’s very flattering! I hope that’s what the channel has been able to do.

It’s just a hobby. But at the same time, in the past 2 or 3 years particularly, it’s kind of taken on more of a duty. I feel like I have a duty to the community to provide the coverage, and I take it pretty seriously. I try to have fun with it. My commentary is mostly light, I don’t go into serious topics very often, and I throw in a lot about what’s going on in my day, and stuff like that.

But at the same time, I get so many emails from people about how they start their day with sumo, or how they look forward to every lunch break where they can tune in for half an hour. The way you build playlists in YouTube, if I put up 6 videos from Day 7, people can just play them in a row like they’re watching a little sitcom or half hour TV show. It’s incredibly satisfying that people are that dedicated.

A lot of people that saw the viral video [of Tochinoshin winning the yusho] I’m sure thought: “What is this? Why did I get taken here, why did I hit this link?” Then, they look at it and they’re like “oh, this is interesting.” Then, if you click on the channel, there’s so much there to watch. That’s the good thing about YouTube: people can say “oh, I want to watch a little bit more of this,” or “who’s this Tochinoshin guy? Let me see what else he’s done.” I just hope I don’t get lost in the shuffle as different players come into the game. It seems to me that NHK is stepping up their game and offering more content now, but they’re still a little out of touch with what people want and need.

Tachiai: That Tochinoshin video from January where he wins the tournament has over a million views now, which is amazing. What does it even feel like to reach the point where that many people are watching?

JH: If you go on my channel, my next highest viewed video has 280,000 views, and that’s an insane number of people when you think about it. That’s like, soccer stadiums full of people. How can you rationalize that in your brain?

It’s so out of my hands what happens after I post, in terms of where they get shared. [The Tochinoshin video] obviously got shared on some Reddit board or some other place, especially in Georgia. Huge numbers of people from Georgia have subscribed [to the channel], and I get comments in all kinds of languages. My subscriber numbers have gone crazy in the past year. And that’s great, I hope they come and they stick around.

It’s funny, because in that particular video, I get criticised a lot from the casual Joe Internet guy: “Shut up! You’re talking too much!” But, I rewatched it recently, and I said: “I’m actually giving solid information about Tochinoshin’s career.” If you came into this completely blind, you would actually know a little bit before you watched the match, and it was serendipity that I chose that video to recap what was happening.

Then of course, there was the emotion of me being so happy for him, and that comes across all the time in my videos. I’m a fan. I’m watching live most of the time, and I’m getting excited just like anybody watching a live sporting event. I think it turns off some people, but they can watch with the sound down!

It’s great if people find sumo through the channel, that’s a huge part of the reason why I do it. I don’t really plan on changing anything too much, but I do have some announcements coming up in May.

Tachiai: Was there a moment before that Tochinoshin match, or is there ever a moment where you’re filming a particular video and you think, “oh, a lot of folks are going to see this one”?

JH: You like to think you can plan for it, but you certainly can’t plan for something taking off like that.

I know there’s an audience out there that’s very eager to get it right away: as soon as I post it, they want it. Maybe [those people] don’t want it spoiled, they want to watch it that day. And then the views steadily stack up over the basho. I’ll end the basho sometimes with a video that’s got 25,000-30,000 views. But over 100,000 views is certainly an anomaly and no, I never plan for it.

It’s great when one takes off. I certainly know sometimes if there’s a big match, and it’s a match where other people, people who even tangentially know about sumo would say “oh, he’s fighting him? OK, I want to watch that.” There certainly have been moments, like when Harumafuji won to become Yokozuna, where I got really emotional “on camera.” Things like that, you can’t hold back.

Sometimes I pause to think about how important [the match] is. Most of the time it’s like: “Hey! Here’s the next match! Let’s keep going!” That makes me give a lot of respect to the guys on NHK who do it for a solid 2 hours. I only do it for 5 minutes for a time and I can pause. And I choose which videos I put up, but they have to do it non-stop and sometimes they have no one to play off. I don’t either, but I see the value in having a John Gunning sitting next to you, somebody who knows about sumo!

Tachiai: We’re coming up on the Natsu tournament and as you mentioned already online, you’ll be doing your welcome video soon, if you haven’t already.

JH: I’ll be doing it this weekend.

Tachiai: What kind of topics will viewers have to look forward to in that video?

JH: We’re going to talk a little bit about the banzuke, and the fact that the Sumo Association is just stubborn! Why can’t we have 3 Sekiwake, why can’t we have 3 Komusubi? Poor Tamawashi. 9-6 at Maegashira 1 and he doesn’t get to be Komusubi. That’s not cool! (laughs)

It’s so hard, because I try to find out “is Hakuho going to show up? Is Kisenosato ready?” A week out, they’re holding their cards so close to the vest. We don’t know either, and they often don’t announce until a day or two before. Plus your excitement by the idea of things like “oooh, is this going to be the time when we get all 3 healthy Yokozuna [in the same tournament]” is tempered. Tachiai does a great job of translating news on the internet into English, along with some other people on Twitter that I’ve found, but especially when I’m doing a contest, [those late changes] can really throw a monkey wrench in.

We’ll talk about the sad case of Terunofuji and what’s happening with him down in Juryo, and we’ll talk about Endo becoming a san’yaku wrestler for the first time. I get an English version of the Yomiuri Shimbun, and there was an article in today’s paper about the whole thing with women on the dohyo – that was a big issue recently – and why foreign wrestlers can’t become elders without giving up their citizenship. I think sumo needs to gradually make some changes, it’s the 21st century guys! So, we’ll talk about that. I’m going to have a contest in May, and I do have some announcements about changes to the channel, and I’ll put those out there and see what the response is.

Tachiai: Everyone who follows your channel knows how much you loved Harumafuji. It might be too soon for you to have a new favorite with that level of emotional attachment – I know you like Okinoumi – but if you had to pick one guy that you just love to watch right now, who would it be?

JH: Oh wow, good question. I wish we had a stronger Ozeki crop. I like Takayasu, but Goeido I think has had his moment, and it’s never going to come again.

I gotta say, I like Abi. He’s fun! He’s a lot of fun to watch. Tochinoshin is obviously the exciting guy of the moment: “Will he become an Ozeki?”

As far as somebody who’s a little older, who I’ve always enjoyed to watch other than Okinoumi (who I obviously root for as you know), I’m always, always rooting for Ikioi. Every time I’ve seen him on Japanese programs, he’s been such a nice guy. I think he really enjoys the fans, and he’s a talented wrestler. He’s a big guy, and he can never quite seem to get it all together. But I’m always rooting for him, he’s someone I definitely keep an eye out for.

Tachiai: That’s funny, he’s my absolute favorite.

JH: (excitedly) Oh yeah?! That’s cool.

Tachiai: He turned up so insanely injured in Osaka, for his hometown tournament, and he just left it all out there every day, and managed to get results. It was amazing, incredible to watch.

JH: Yeah, yeah it was.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with Jason, which will arrive in the next few days before the start of the May tournament. [Edited to add: you can now click here for part 2]

Click here to check out Jason’s All Sumo Channel on YouTube, and click here to visit Jason on Twitter.

“It’s not a sport. It’s a lifestyle.” A Conversation with John Gunning – Part 3

John Gunning with Tochinoshin

This is the third and final part of our chat with journalist and sumo pundit John Gunning. Click here to read part 1 and click here to read part 2 to get caught up on our conversation if you haven’t yet! Many thanks to the Inside Sport Japan founder and NHK World and Japan Times man on taking the time to chat with us and answer many reader questions. While I wish we could have asked all of our reader questions, John was very gracious and giving with his time and volunteered the opportunity to do it again.

That being said, we weren’t going to miss the opportunity to talk about someone who’s become a bit of a curiosity to Tachiai readers (and the Tachiai team itself!), so let’s start with a question about our favourite hapless rikishi…

Tachiai: On a completely different end of the spectrum, have you heard of Hattorizakura? 
JG: Yeah, yeah. Of course.
Tachiai: We’re huge fans of his enthusiasm, and the fact that he continues to have a go despite his incredible losing streak. Has there ever been anyone like that in sumo before that continues to not put up wins but just get up there on the dohyo and keep going?
JG: There have been lots of guys over the years. Do you remember Sugishita?
Tachiai: Nope.
JG: He lasted 2 years in sumo and didn’t win a single fight. He got one win by fusen-sho. And he retired soon afterwards. He was something like 0 and 40. [nb: fantastic memory – including the fusen win, he was 1-41]. People were thinking he was just doing it as a piss-take. You never know. But you have guys that go their whole 20 year careers and never get past lower Sandanme.
You get all types of people. It depends on their own motivation to be a rikishi as well. Some guys you know from day 1, if somebody comes into sumo like Baraki who’s in Kitazakura’s place –
Tachiai: Shikihide-beya. Same as Hattorizakura.
JG: He’s about 161… 163 centimetres tall, right? What’s he going to do? There’s no way… no way in hell he’s ever going to get to the top division, or even become a sekitori, it’s just an impossibility. He’s too small. So… why is he even interested?
You’ve got guys who love the sport, guys that just love the lifestyle of it, guys who may be doing it for some other reason. Maybe their grandfather or grandmother loves sumo. Maybe they just don’t have anything else to do. A lot of the kids who join sumo at 15, if they’re leaving school at junior high school level, they’re not going to go on and get their doctorate in mathematics. So, for somebody who doesn’t really have any desire to continue education, what are they going to do? They might go and work in construction or farming or something like that, and sumo is a better option for them. So they give it a go, and when they retire they can go do that other thing anyway.
I know guys like that and I ask them that question – why do you stick with it? They just love sumo, they love being a rikishi. They might not be a sekitori, but it’s still special. They’re still part of a very unique group of people. Even if you’re not a Yokozuna and you’re just in Jonidan, you’ve got the mage, so that’s something you can say. You’re on the banzuke which has been published for a few hundred years, it’s a special thing!
Tachiai: Yeah, of course. Here’s more of a cultural question from AG. He says: “Mr. Gunning, we have all seen the tensions between the ‘sumo for Japanese rikishi only’ crowd, and those who accept or even celebrate the infusion of international talent. As Japan changes demographically, how do you expect that to change?”
JG: Sumo for Japanese only rikishi crowd? In the Sumo Association or online?
Tachiai: I think he means in the fan community. Let’s say that.
JG: If it’s in the fan community, it doesn’t really affect anything. In the Sumo Association there’s no “sumo for Japanese only” feeling – it’s one of the most open to foreigner-organisations in all of Japan. I think this may be a misconception among some foreign fans, that there’s some inbuilt dislike or distrust of foreigners. Look at all of the Mongolians who have become Yokozuna.
There is the one foreigner per stable rule, but that wasn’t introduced along racial lines. It was introduced because you would have ten Hawaiian guys in the same stable, they weren’t learning Japanese, and were just hanging out. That was about protecting the culture of stables.
Tachiai: So that people would culturally assimilate?
JG: Sumo’s remit is to protect sumo, not to give way to different thoughts and ideas. So with having one foreigner per stable as a rule, it’s to ensure anyone who comes does assimilate because they don’t have a little clique where they can just live in their own culture. There are still Mongolians that do hang out together, but if you come to join sumo there are no concessions made. You become a rikishi, the same as anyone else. There are people who are racist in every walk of life, but there’s no “sumo for Japanese only” crowd or thinking like that in the Sumo Association. If people think that, then they just don’t understand the world of sumo.
Tachiai: Yamanashi is a Tachiai reader who wants to know if you are able to identify any innovators in sumo – an oyakata, or someone with new training ideas  – or someone who has invested in logistics, management, publicity, et cetera.
JG:  Hmm! There are some stables and some rikishi who do stuff in addition to the traditional sumo training. But go back to the question of “what is sumo?” Ozumo is not a sport, it’s a lifestyle. This is also a thing that people have trouble getting their heads around.
If you say, “rikishi should pull out for a year and heal up and be ready to come back,” then you’re putting a priority on tournament results over the lifestyle and doing the training of sumo. A truer sense of sumo is being a rikishi and doing sumo every day. The tournaments are part of what being a rikishi is, but the daily lifestyle of a rikishi is also part of what sumo is. Training is not a means to an end in sumo, training is what sumo is. So, you can’t just modernise that, because then you’re changing what sumo is.
You get guys who will still do stuff outside of that in addition. Like we were saying, the young guys like Mitakeumi or Takakeisho will add on extra stuff, either gym work or even working in a pool like we showed with Hokutofuji (on the NHK World Sumo preview before Hatsu). But that tends to be a much smaller part. That’s more about just improving yourself physically. You have to live the sumo lifestyle. That’s what sumo is.
You’re not going to get huge changes, but there are variations: every stable’s keiko is different. What they do is different because they’re all schools of thought, from master to student. You’ll see a variety of different types of things, but they all fall inside sumo tradition.
Shikihide makes sure all of his guys go to high school and graduate. They do yoga after training is finished. There are other oyakata who try to give a more rounded education. Like any sport, you have different coaches with different approaches, and some guys have a much more open mindset to new ideas. In some places, nothing has changed since 1750! But I wouldn’t call them innovators as such, because still everyone has to stick to what sumo is. There’s no skipping keiko and, for example, only doing resistance-band training. There’s nothing like that. Each stable still has the core of sumo training.
Tachiai: So, kind of along those lines, let’s go back to the post that you wrote in The Japan Times about the Jungyo and injuries. We’ll finish with a reader question from Bakanofuji, who says:
“Clearly you believe, and most of us fans agree, that there needs to be a series of changes in the Sumo Association geared towards injury prevention and allowing for full rehabilitation of injured wrestlers. Are there any groups within the Kyokai that are working towards making it happen? One would assume that the Rikishi Association would push for this, but it doesn’t seem like that’s in the works, potentially because some of those people will soon be oyakata themselves. Who else is there that can advocate for the rank and file wrestlers?”
There are probably about 3 or 4 questions in there for you!
JG: Clearly? Really? (laughs) I don’t know if I said that I clearly believe that or not!
I understand the questions, but again that’s making some jumps and assumptions. First of all, the rikishi association is nothing. It’s informal, they don’t have any power, they get together but don’t do anything. There isn’t a monolithic Sumo Association. The Sumo Association is a very loose group of competing interests and ideas. As I said, doing sumo training is sumo. There isn’t the push to change that, because that would change what sumo is and nobody wants that.
I’ve said lots of rikishi hate the jungyo because it’s badly organised, and it doesn’t really help the rikishi. But the problem with that is, again, going back to the sumo association’s remit, they have to popularise sumo in Japan. And a traditional way to do that is to visit the regions and local areas. Nowadays, I think it’s not required as much, because people have more access to sumo through the internet. People have a connection to sumo that they didn’t have before. People can also travel more and have more disposable income, so they see sumo live or online or in a lot of ways they couldn’t before. So sumo may not need jungyo as much as it did before, but still it’s where a lot of rikishi first encounter sumo. Like I said, I saw sumo on TV but when I first went to a tournament that’s what really kicked my sumo interest into high gear.
Tachiai: Same for me.
JG: Same for you, and also for a lot of people in Japan. Most people in Japan have no contact with sumo in a physical sense, so the first time they see a rikishi even if it’s only at a jungyo event, that can spark somebody into wanting to become a rikishi.
Obviously there’s a financial element to it as well: they get a lot of money from these places. So jungyo generates a lot of money, and it’s broadening their appeal and popularity in Japan which is key to them. There’s a competing tension to that: it may not be good for the rikishi in a physical sense. But again, the Sumo Association is run by older people who had a much harder time when they were young, so they feel that “young guys these days are soft and should toughen up!” (laughs). There’s that mentality too!
So, I don’t think there’s any big push to change it. Rikishi moan and complain about it, and it doesn’t help, but it’s not that bad either. You can pace yourself on jungyo if you want. I might have overemphasised the rikishi complaining a little bit.
It’s a contact sport! People are going to get injured regardless, whether they’re at home or not. You can’t avoid it. I never broke a bone in my life until I did sumo, and then I shattered my arm top-to-bottom in 3 places, I fractured my skull, I broke teeth. I didn’t do keiko once without ending up injured. You’re smashing into people on a hard surface, with no protection: that’s going to injure you. It’s almost inevitable! That’s the nature of it, and the nature of sumo is essentially being able to fight through those injuries. That’s the mental thing, you know?
Tachiai: Thanks again for taking the time to chat with us. 
JG: No problem!
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