Tachiai Interviews Murray Johnson, Part 4: “The objective is to fight the best”

Murray Johnson
Photo courtesy of Murray Johnson

Welcome to the final part of our interview with NHK’s esteemed sumo presenter Murray Johnson. Thank you for everyone who has followed along with the preceding parts of the series thus far. If you missed them, here are the links: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

As Bruce notes, we are going live with this final part on the day that Murray’s latest work on the NHK Sumo Preview airs, and just before the upcoming Kyushu basho. This final piece focuses mostly on our reader questions, so thank you to those who submitted them on the site! I had this conversation with Murray during the Natsu basho, so while a few questions may feel slightly out of date, I will caveat that I included many here where the commentary felt relevant and important. As ever, the interview has been edited only for length and clarity.

Tachiai: A reader named Tom asks: “What will sumo look like in the absence of Hakuho when he retires: (with regards to) up and comers like Hoshoryu and Roga, or top division rikishi who are waiting to find that consistency like Ichinojo, or just a general change in the atmosphere of the sport with such a dominant figure (who wasn’t always afraid to speak his mind) departing from sumo?”

Murray Johnson: I say quite often we don’t know where or who this person [the next dominant rikishi] is at the moment. I suggested those that might be factors and regular contributors to the top division who have spunk in their delivery. But the old nail sticks up in Japan, you get knocked down. When Hakuho leaves, it’ll be a relief for a lot of them. But it will be a disappointment, because the objective is you’re supposed to fight the best. The best is gone, a new best comes in.

Just before Hakuho came along, Asashoryu was the only guy. It was looking pretty sad, and some people thought “oh, this is boring, this guy keeps winning everything.” I didn’t think that, but a lot of people did. When Hakuho came along, he still had to work hard because he had reasonably tough opponents.

There will be another. Who he is I don’t know. I mentioned guys who I think have chances to go on. They could get injured, all of a sudden no one’s there. They’ll be relieved though, it will give all of them a chance to win a tournament.

Do you think the diversity of winners that we’re seeing right now will prepare us for the vacuum that will come?

Yeah. Some people will say, “oh this is dull with no Hakuho,” but someone will emerge from the pack.

A reader named Nerima asks: “With NHK World’s coverage in English being available all over the world, does Murray think we are going to see any more top level rikishi from English speaking countries any time soon? And what about about the prospects of any emerging from Australia, given that there seems to be an upsurge of interest in sumo among Australians?” Of course Ishiura studied abroad in Australia.

He went there for six months and worked with the local association people for a while.

I don’t know of any. There’s only one guy in Australia who’s any good, and he’s a former rikishi. I don’t know of anyone coming on from Australia in that sense.

I think Europe is the breeding ground for potential champions of the future. You’ve got Kotooshu (Naruto oyakata) with his own heya now, who’s taken someone on who seems to have disappeared [nb: Torakio, who has officially since retired]. The biggest problem they have is to adapt to the Japanese way of life: the hazing and all of the stuff that goes on behind the scenes. No matter how big you are, if there’s five or six (rikishi) doing it to you…

There was a well known Canadian (Homarenishiki) [who was in sumo and left], and it’s never going to come out what happened to that poor kid. And probably it shouldn’t.

Tachiai: It seems like Musashigawa – who’s got two Americans – Wakaichiro being technically Japanese, and Musashikuni – at least they have a buddy in there so maybe that helps as opposed to someone like Torakio. [nb: Musashikuni has recently himself retired due to injury and is now starring in sumo exhibitions in America.]

Musashigawa is quite smart, he’s not trying to race (rikishi) through. It takes time. If you’re good at a certain age and you just build on it, maybe you’ll get there. It’s hard work!

A lot of people don’t want to train for 15, 20 years, and go “is that all there is?” There have been plenty of foreigners that have been through sumo from all sorts of countries. That will continue to happen, but it will come in waves. There’s a bit of an interest now with Filipinos, because of these young Japanese-Filipinos who have taken it on, who have inspired them. Brazil, maybe? It’s a long way away, but there’s a pretty big fanbase in Brazil. That doesn’t necessarily mean you want to get up on the dohyo. Someone will emerge, but whether they become the ultimate, there’s nobody I can see.

Well there’s a decent segue, because Tomscoffee asks: “Hi Murray! What do you think needs to happen for Takayasu to finally achieve his first yusho. He has gotten achingly close too many times for it to be simple luck. Many of us are desperate to see it happen, but what is the rate limiting factor?”

He needs some fire in the belly. He’s developed this calmness in his sumo that works most of the time, but when the pressure comes and someone bustles him, he doesn’t have that comeback. When he started his sumo he was a pusher-thruster, and then went to the mawashi, and now has both skills. He doesn’t know when to use which one. I think he makes mistakes. He’s trying not to lose instead of trying to win. If he doesn’t win one this year, he’ll never win one. He could join that short list of ozeki who have never won a tournament.

Do you think he’s adopted that bridesmaid mantle that Kisenosato had for so many years?

Well, I’d stop practising with him! I’d go somewhere else. It’s not doing him any good. He’s still getting beaten by a guy who’s retired? And he’s proud of that! His practise was going really well and then it fell off the rails. The biggest problem is we do the preview show 16 days before the tournament. That was all dictated by the holiday.

Well, at the recent soken…

The soken’s a waste of time. An absolute waste! The soken in front of the public is ok, it’s a PR exercise. But the soken in front of the small amount of media and the YDC? I’ve been going to those for 20 years. And I see no reason to have them.

Do you think it gives an opportunity for people within the community who have opinions to have another platform to air them?

Someone like Kitanofuji? No. Kitanofuji’s probably got more bitter as he’s got older, but that’s his job. He’s kind of taken it on board to become the negatory of all the rikishi.

I think at least his opinions are perhaps a little more reasoned than people in the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee (YDC). 

The YDC is an honorary job and they get paid. They’re there to uphold the traditions of sumo.  They’re the conservative face of sumo, so when Hakuho does the three claps, it’s a bit of a brain fade. Now, I thought it was charming! But it was wrong. Most people don’t get to see something like that, because they’ve all left the building. You bring out the newcomers to sumo, and they all stand around, and that’s the last thing that’s done. He usurped that tradition by trying to figure that “we’re losing an era and we’re going into a new one.”

It was embraced by many people, but not the traditionalists. If any YDC member gets one nasty letter from a traditionalist, then it becomes: “we’ve got to discuss this.” But for three hours? It was three hours because they all stood up and had their say. They weren’t straight into him for three hours. I felt sorry for him, but he was wrong.

Stonecreek says: “What is the single biggest reform or change you think needs to be made to ensure a solid future for the sport of sumo?”

I think it’s injury. They’ve got this cash cow which is the jungyo, the provincial tours, to promote sumo to the masses, where people can get up close and personal. And we talk about interest from overseas, but (the jungyo is also) to encourage Japanese boys to take on sumo. And it does work.

Unfortunately, they flog these guys, the idea being that they put these guys out there because they’re employees of the Sumo Association. The whole process, the procedure of going out 28 days in a row, on a bus… you ever sat next to a rikishi on a plane? I’d rather be on the wing!

They have to go out and do (the jungyo). I would like to see that reduced. And then bring in some sports officials with an overseeing view of sports injuries within sumo. There have been excercises that have been carried out by professors that have come from the United States (regarding) body mass and weight and went back and wrote a thesis. But the Sumo Association doesn’t care about that.

Also there’s a diversity in body mass just in the top division and it doesn’t mean that one build creates success or not.

People have talked about “why don’t they have cushions around the dohyo,” or a softer floor, things like that. That’s not going to change. And the elevated dohyo, why it’s elevated when they don’t practise on an elevated dohyo. Well, they learn to roll, and most of the injuries don’t happen from falling off the dohyo, they’re injuries on the dohyo that are sustained during a bout. If there was a flat dohyo, it just wouldn’t be sumo.

I’d say reduce the jungyo, and introduce a realistic sports medicine assessment of injuries where they have people that say, “OK, we’re checking him out of the clinic, and we advise he doesn’t fight for six months. Here’s the submission.” Then the Sumo Kyokai (can) say: “OK, oyakata, this is what we’ve been told, we don’t want to see him on a dohyo for six months.”

Now, if that happens, people will say, “oh, well they’ll lose their rank.” Tough! That’s the system. Maybe you introduce the old system (Kosho Seido) which was abused before, and allow maybe one or two tournaments without losing rank. That’s what I would like to see. 

I totally agree about the raised dohyo, and I would go as far as to say…

It should be higher?

It should be higher! No. Actually, we post sometimes about an amateur tournament that Hiro Morita went out to last year in Long Beach in the States, the USA Sumo Championships. It is not something that traditionalists, people who like the sport as it is here in Japan, are really attracted to. I think they try and appeal to more WWE audience. It’s on a flat dohyo, and I think it does take away from the presentation and the fan experience. There is something about where your eyes are drawn to when you’re at the Kokugikan. 

That same guy who does the US Open is trying to set up two tournaments in Australia: Sushi and sumo. He’s advertising sumo’s years and culture coming to Australia. I think that’s rather interesting! You can get a premium package. It’ll be held in Sydney and Melbourne. No venue, no dates, just prices! Hmm.

Watch this space. Philip Noyed says: “Ichinojo has been up and down in performance over the course of the past couple of years, but (earlier this year) discovered how to swat other rikishi down to the defeat with a slap down to win 14 matches. Will other rikishi figure out a way to defend and counter attack this one-dimensional attack or is he too big and powerful?” [nb: this is now an out of date question given Ichinojo’s injury troubles, but Murray’s analysis related to his long-term career challenges was interesting and I wanted to include it.]

I think firstly the reason he was better is he went to degeiko. He didn’t stay at home fighting one guy. There’s nobody there. He got a bit of a rocket from Hakuho, saying: “You gotta do something, you’re a big guy, you’re huge, use it to your advantage.”

Forget the actual number – 12 of the 14 bouts he won by slap down. He’s been working on moving forward and that’s not been working out well for him. So now automatically he’ll retreat. For people who say, finally now Ichinojo’s turned the corner – I want to wait, let’s see if he can put two together. You can beat him at speed. All (rikishi) have to do is hit and shift. If he starts well, he’s a massive man to move, but the lower back problem he had comes and goes. 

Do you think defending his rank would be a success?

He doesn’t care about rank. He actually doesn’t care if he becomes a Yokozuna or an Ozeki.

It’s been suggested before that he is motivated by kensho, and he turns up for the big matches.

Oh he likes to win the big ones, but he doesn’t always win them with great sumo. He’s a bit of a loner, he does hang out with the other Mongolians. I think he will “ride the elevator” for quite some time. He could go on for quite a long time, he’s not an old guy. He could probably still fight for another five years with a sore back. Whether he stays with numbers like 14, that’s pretty unlikely in my opinion.

George has a big question: Can you predict who might become the next Yokozuna, from people that we already know?

I always said Asanoyama. He had two tournaments were he was looking very light on his feet, which was very surprising to me. The two tournaments prior to that he was moving so well, and adjusting. [nb: a reminder to readers that we spoke right before Asanoyama won his yusho.]

If he gets his act together, Mitakeumi could make Yokozuna – but I don’t think he will. That means full practise! Not just for the cameras.

Speaking of that, one person who practises a lot but doesn’t turn it on in tournaments is Goeido – he’s kind of the opposite of Mitakeumi. What does his career look like from here?

He’s at the end of his career, he’s probably got another year or two year in him. As the opposition gets not as troubling, he might win one more yusho. He’s a flake when the pressure is on. Like Kisenosato was, then he got his act together. Goeido doesn’t handle pressure well, though he did once, his unbelievable zensho yusho. I’m still having nightmares about that!

Why is that?

Oh, I never thought he should have been an Ozeki. I never thought Kisenosato should have been a Yokozuna. I was supposed to eat a straw hat – I had an on-air bet with John Gunning!

Those are the worst ones to lose!

I haven’t seen that hat. Normally, I would say I don’t support any particular rikishi: I’m supposed to be impartial. I like the guys who, when push comes to shove, they pull out the big wins. Goeido elevated in my opinion by getting a zensho yusho but every now and then…

A broken clock’s right twice a day?

Yes, there you go. 

I think those are all the questions we have time for – so, thank you!

Very welcome.

Thanks again to Murray for taking the time to speak with us! You can enjoy his commentary on NHK’s Grand Sumo Preview and also during selected days of the upcoming basho.

Tachiai Interviews BuySumoTickets: “There aren’t enough sumo dates in the year!”

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Recently, I had the chance to sit down with the team from BuySumoTickets.com. Many of our readers (and even writers!) have had questions about the very murky and high demand sumo ticketing process, so the team at BuySumoTickets agreed to have a chat with us. We talked about the challenges of sumo ticketing, what compelled them to start the business, and what kinds of offerings they provide for sumo fans and tourists.

With the introduction of new ticket tiers for 2020, ticket price increases, and the BuySumoTickets pre-sale having just started for the 2020 Hatsu basho – and with several upcoming rikishi retirement ceremonies on the horizon – it seemed the appropriate time for us to present this content.

Tachiai: You opened the site in 2008. What made you want to provide this service for foreign customers?

BuySumoTickets: My girlfriend was on a travel forum and someone was asking how to get tickets for sumo. She said, “Oh, my boyfriend knows how to do that. Send us the money and your shipping address and we’ll send them out.” It was an exercise in trust! 

I did that first one for free, and I had a “wait a minute!” moment: “Why did I do that for free?” Later that day I had a domain registered. It took a few days to build the site. At the time, the Sumo Kyokai had an old site which had an English version. On that English site it said, “let’s show you how easy it is to buy these tickets for the sumo!” It had a little cartoon drawing of a guy on a phone. It said, “Call this number, in Japanese please!” I just thought, “OK, I can do a better job than this.” And I did.

My expectations when we opened it were very low, and it has vastly exceeded those expectations. I was thinking maybe I could buy a few PlayStation games with the extra money. It took a few years, but then it turned into a full time thing.

It’s well known that you have seen a huge rise in interest for tickets, as it has become harder to get tickets for tournaments in general. What moments in sumo have corresponded with these increases?

The first big drop (in demand) we saw first was the retirement of Asashoryu. For a while, you had the Asashoryu-Hakuho rivalry going on, and when Asashoryu retired, sales went down amongst the Japanese. I don’t mean our customers, I mean overall sales.

The first time we really saw what the Sumo Kyokai was capable of, was when Hakuho was going for the consecutive win streak [in 2010], and the days when he was scheduled to tie and break that record were the middle weekend of the Fukuoka basho. Fukuoka had always been easy for us to get tickets, at least at that stage. When sales opened for those dates, there was nothing. Nothing! That’s when I learned they are both capable and willing of holding all of the tickets back for an entire day.

But in general, do you know what the first (huge jump) was? Everyone’s going to think it was Kisenosato but it started way before that. 

I would think it would be something weird, like Kyokutenho winning his surprise tournament.

The first time when the ticket sales really started increasing, was when Endo got into makuuchi and people started going nuts. I remember thinking after a ticket buy, “oof, that didn’t go as well as it should have.” (Demand) just started getting higher and higher, and we had to start eliminating ticket types from our website, the rarer ticket types that we used to be able to get. All because of Endo!

By the year that Kisenosato won the most matches but didn’t win a tournament (2016), I was starting to panic. I was thinking, “this is bad, this is getting horrible, we’re going to be forced out of business.” When he won that next tournament, I went “oh no!”

But we adapted, we made some contacts that were mutually beneficial, and we were able to survive the Kisenosato era. At least in Tokyo, I don’t see (the demand) reducing any time soon. The main things were Endo and Kisenosato.

Has it become easier to acquire tickets, or has it changed since Kisenosato’s retirement?

It’s become a tad easier, in the cities except Tokyo. In Tokyo, it’s actually got worse! I think the reason for that is the Sumo Association is giving out more of the tickets before public sales open than they were before. It’s easy for them! In other cities, it’s starting to ease off a little to the point where it’s: “can we get you some really good seats,” and not: “can we get you any seats at all.”

Were you able to sell any tickets for Kisenosato’s retirement?

No. We had a couple people request it. It never went on public sale. My understanding is that after his fan club and the stable got done with it, there were only a few tickets left. They put them on a website with a lottery system, and that website crashed for several hours. When that website came back up, there was nothing left.

They do special websites for many of them. I went and talked to Satoyama when he was out hustling to sell tickets for his danpatsu-shiki. His was the day before, and he was working for a while to sell tickets for his.

We’ve done a lot of good for his event.

I have to imagine a lot of people who would like to see Kisenosato’s and can’t get in, would still like to go to that type of event.

Most of our customers don’t know who Kisenosato is! You think you guys [Tachiai and its readers, big sumo fans] are the majority of the customers. You aren’t – you’re a very small minority. The vast majority of our customers are regular tourists seeing sumo for the first time, as a curiosity while they are in Japan. Some of those will become hooked, and join your group (of fans). But the vast majority of our customers do not know who Kisenosato is – if they did, we wouldn’t need the guide (that we send with all orders).

Does that come down to really good SEO? People might say, “I want to buy sumo tickets!” And that is your name.

Yeah. We advertise in various places, but word of mouth is a big one now. There are other sites out there that charge a whole lot more than what we’re charging. We think that’s kind of a jerk thing to do.

What’s the most complicated thing about dealing with a customer from overseas who is not already a fan, and just wants to see sumo?

The most complicated thing is people who don’t understand that sumo tickets are not easy to get. That in Tokyo at least, very, very few tickets are made available to the public. I get people mailing me – and this is serious – demanding front row ringside tickets for Senshuraku in Tokyo! When I say that’s impossible, they say, “Why not? Sales haven’t opened yet!”

Was it Paul McCartney?

Even he didn’t get ringside when he went to Fukuoka!

We get messages like, “I want to sit in the first row of the balcony, north side.” When someone says “North side,” we know they don’t know what they’re talking about. They say, “North side, front row”… that’s the Emperor’s Box! He’s not going to let you use it. Even if it wasn’t the Emperor’s Box, those tickets would not be made available.

The Sumo Association has been extremely clear with us: foreign tourists are their lowest priority. People assume when tickets go on sale that all tickets should have been available, and if we don’t get something for them, that we’ve failed. But we’re very clear about what we do on our website, that we can’t buy tickets if they’re not available, that it’s a preorder, which means we try. There’s never a guarantee, and we say on the site there’s never a guarantee. So it’s the foreign tourists – not the fans – but the tourists, who don’t understand that sumo tickets are hard to get.

You supply a really good introduction to sumo document to your customers. What’s the one thing that you wish customers would know about going to see sumo?

If you lose your ticket, you’re not going in the building!

The document and the packages always say, “Treat this as cash.”

We put that there at the request of the Sumo Association after they got sick of our customers going to the venue with no tickets, making a scene and demanding to get let in anyway.

I think the Japanese attitude, when you lose your ticket is, “well, I’m not going to go.” The foreign attitude is, “I’m going to go, and demand for someone to fix my problem for me!” So, yeah: protect that ticket like it’s cash.

People ask, “why can’t you reissue the ticket?” When you lose your cash, do you go to the bank and ask them to reissue you your cash? (The Sumo Association) makes one, and if it gets out in the wild, they don’t know what happened to it. They can’t make duplicates. Please protect your tickets.

After you get to the venue, the Sumo Association has made two requests of us, that we inform our customers of: the first request is that they do not enter or leave the seating area during a match. The second request is if you’ve ordered a lunch set, please do not ask the guys at the ticket gate about the lunch set and where to get it. Please go inside and ask the ushers. Those are the things the Sumo Association has asked us to tell people, and that is on our site.

What can you tell us about your non-basho ticketing services? Do you get a lot of demand for retirement ceremonies?

Generally, because our customers are not sumo fans, when they book their trip, they have no idea when sumo is on. Sumo is usually the last thing they research. They already have flights, they have hotels, they have an itinerary. Then they find out, “oh, there’s no sumo.”

So, we decided: “we can show you sumo!” We can get retirement ceremonies, and the rikishi super appreciate when we sell the retirement events. We’ve made some good friends that way. The jungyo in October and April especially are the big ones. Since the Kyokai has started increasing the number of (dates) – they used to be only in smaller towns, now they’ve started putting them in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka – we’re able to offer a lot more opportunities to see sumo to our customers.

One of the things we’ve regretted is that there just aren’t enough sumo dates in the year! Our business would be a lot bigger and more profitable if sumo was more often. We appreciate that there are other events we can offer to people.

I went to Jungyo for the first time a year and a half ago, during the April tour. It was a completely different experience. I wonder, for a first time viewer who is not familiar, how they would walk away seeing sumo for the first time there, versus seeing it at Kokugikan which is such a different experience. 

You can get closer. Usually you can get some photos with the wrestlers. Disclaimer: wrestlers are all human and they get to decide if you get a photo with them or not! It’s the only opportunity you’ll get to have where you can sit ringside. Years ago, we could sell ringside tickets in Fukuoka and Nagoya. They are often available for jungyo, especially if you’re fast and early.

Do a lot of sumo fans know that you offer services for other sports and take advantage of that, to purchase other tickets (e.g. baseball)? What other sports do you offer?

I wouldn’t say it’s a lot of people who request non-sumo events but we definitely offer that. We do whatever people ask us to get, as long as the process to buy the tickets is okay. We’ve done baseball, soccer, we’re big into pro wrestling now. That’s our next biggest business after sumo.

People ask us to get anime festivals, and weird things that I’ve never even heard of! We do concerts, as long as they’re on sale. We don’t take orders for concerts if they’re not on sale yet, and that’s because they often have a fan club lottery and another lottery, and then a presale for credit card holders and then another lottery… by the time it opens there’s just nothing there. I think I did 9 concerts in a row where I got nothing. If the concert is on (general) sale and there are tickets there, we’ll help.

How do stable visits work if people order this service through you? A lot of people ask us about that.

The biggest problem we have with stable visits is that we don’t get enough of them! We don’t just show up uninvited, we have to arrange a date with the stable in advance. They’re getting very busy these days. They’ve told us that the demand amongst Japanese people to go see keiko has also skyrocketed, not just the foreign tourists. It’s really hard to get dates now, so a lot of them have had to close their doors except by appointment only.

We have to get an appointment, and compete with the stable’s own fan club. Another problem is we often don’t get notice. We try to get dates as far in advance as we can. When we do that, we send you the meeting time and place and we take you out, we show you the practise, we always give you a souvenir of some kind, and commentary.

One thing I want people to know about us is that we support the stables. When you go on a tour with us, you are also supporting the stable. We’ve actually paid out more to the stables this year than we’ve taken out in revenue from stable tours. So, we’re actually operating in the red on these tours, but I like doing them. I like giving something back and helping the people who have been (good) to us. Stables can’t take cash directly, but they can accept support in-kind. We send boxes full of 20kg of meat to a stable, or we’re members of their fan club and go to their parties, and give money to their rikishi when they’re retiring. There are lots of little ways that we can support a stable.

I want people to know that sumo is not just two fat guys in diapers bouncing off each other! A guy emailed us last week asking for information and I replied to him, and he wrote back, “Tokyo is much too exciting a city to sit inside watching two fat guys bouncing off each other.” What! Give it a chance. It’s what I did years ago, I gave it a chance, and here I am.

Thank you to BuySumoTickets for taking the time to chat with us. They can appropriately be found at BuySumoTickets.com. Their pre-sale for the Hatsu basho is available now.

Tachiai Interviews Murray Johnson, Part 3: “They’re Certainly Not Going to Get Me in a Mawashi!”

Murray Johnson and Baruto
Murray Johnson with Baruto. Photo courtesy of Murray Johnson

Welcome to the third part of Tachiai’s conversation with NHK’s Murray Johnson! 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. Several of our readers’ questions are included in this piece, which touches on the potential and performance of several specific rikishi. As an editorial note: a couple tournaments have passed between the time the interview took place and now, but the points of view we considered didn’t focus as much on the specific moment in time that the interview took place.

If you missed the previous instalments, here are the links: Part 1 and Part 2. We hope you enjoy this piece, and return to the site for the final part of our conversation!

Tachiai: Someone we’ve talked about a lot, who’s now in the top division, is Enho. We’ve followed Enho and Tomokaze since their very first tournaments and charted their rise, which has been great: as you know, sumo predictions can make you look pretty foolish sometimes, so it’s always nice to get one right! Those developments have been super exciting, and we’ve seen some of the great lower division bouts from those guys as they made their way up. Andy has a related question for you: is there any desire or appetite to show exciting lower division matches, and to find that next Hakuho? As you mentioned, the next Hakuho’s in the sport somewhere.

Murray Johnson: Well as you probably are aware, the sumo highlights show doesn’t show all the bouts.

Of course, even in the top division.

Yeah. I’ve sat down with the boss and said, “look, we can do this!” He’s to’d and fro’d. I said, “well, you know, there are some lower division bouts that we should show!”

We can do the English voiceover of the bout, obviously in that situation, because (the highlight show) is done a couple of hours after the live show finishes anyway. So (the boss) is contemplating it. It’s also up to the director, who could be a fan of this guy or that guy.

It seems like focusing on more of those exciting matches is how you make new fans.

I’m just a part of the organization. I do have input, but by the time I get there it’s already been decided. (It’s) another thing in the works.

I hope it happens, but the trouble is, many Japanese don’t sit down and watch the Juryo division. It’s the die hards of sumo that watch it. TV could be on in a bar somewhere, or a cafe, and (people) watch it while they’re having a coffee. There are enough coffee shops or tea houses around Japan where plenty of people will be doing that, but that’s not our core audience. That’s a pickup audience that has a large number, but they’re not glued to the TV to watch an hour of lower division bouts.

Most people would be surprised: there are many dedicated fans overseas that know more about sumo than most people inside of Japan! Of course, they are dedicated to following guys in Jonidan and Jonokuchi.

We are, once again, governed by the Japanese show. When we do the recap of the Juryo winners, we’ll show a bout. It might not necessarily be an important bout, but they’ll show what they think is an important bout. We can’t say, “oh let’s show this one” – we’re on the same channel. Whatever the Japanese show’s director decides to show, we’ve gotta go with it (on the English show).

But the highlights show and the preview show, those are different. All of these heya visits done by Hiro Morita or Raja Pradhan, that’s our baby. John Gunning’s threatened to come back (on the dohyo). They’re certainly not going to get me in a mawashi!

Now that Hiro’s done it, it seems like they are working their way through the team.

I’m pretty sure that my senior card will not allow me to put on a mawashi! I’m the only one in the current group who has never been on the dohyo… well, not in a mawashi anyway.

A reader named Andrew asks: “Do you see any constraints on the widening of an international following of Japanese sumo?”

No constraints, other than the fact that people will be frustrated at the fact that they can’t see enough of it. NHK in particular is well aware of the growing audience, and they are bragging about it within the office to their fellow work mates: “look at what we’re doing!”

They want to go another step forward, but (for example) they have to argue with the guy who runs the science department (at NHK), who may say, “I’ve done a show on IPS Research and this is far more important to the world than some guy in a loincloth.” They’ve got to juggle their expense. I think the Sports division will be pressing to make sure that at least what some people are saying, they’ll try and cater for. I don’t know if that’s going to happen, or when that’s going to happen, but I know they’re well aware of it.

One thing I’ve asked NHK to do, instead of doing a preview show, is to have a Q&A roundtable with 4 or 5 of us: Raja Pradhan, Hiro Morita, John Gunning and myself. We would take questions from people overseas, or we would have our own questions to throw at each other. Like “why do you think I’m terrible,” and all that stuff!

I thought it would be a good opportunity. You get online sometimes, and people say “what’s happened to such and such,” and the question has been asked 3 posts previous. And the answer’s underneath it! 3 posts later someone asks the same question. That is a bit frustrating. Just look around, the answers are there.

Sumopedia has been a pretty good thing, I’ve done a lot of those (videos). One thing I say to people a lot is, “sumo’s not the sort of thing you’re going to learn in five minutes. It takes years, and enjoy the ride.” You will learn something new every day: “I didn’t know that,” or “I’ve been doing this for that long and I didn’t know that.” There’s always (new) stuff. 

Here’s a question from someone called Thomas: “Is there anything in particular in an up and coming wrestler that you see as a sign that they will end up being a mainstay at the top of the rankings in the future?”

They’re kind of the obvious ones. I think Roga is (a few) basho old, and he’s another Mongolian. He looks like someone who has a mind for sumo, if he can adjust his position. Hakuho wasn’t seen as someone who’s going to be a Yokozuna, he was a skinny little kid!

He was rejected by stables!

Yeah! But he could move well. And Roga is already using that wiggling of the hips move that is a winning move. Takanohana incorporated that in his sumo, look where that got him. And Asashoryu and Hakuho, and Harumafuji to a lesser extent.

I’m a little unsure about Hoshoryu. He doesn’t look like he’s going to put on a lot of weight.

He hasn’t so far. 

That could be his biggest problem.

Do you see him as more of a serious prospect than Naya? They frequently come up in conversation together.

I think Naya can be a serious candidate for Sekiwake or Ozeki. If Hoshoryu (doesn’t) put on weight, especially in the lower body, his calves, he’ll start looking like Abi.

If you look across the board, there’s probably some guy in there we haven’t even seen yet. I do watch the lower divisions, and occasionally there’s someone who bursts out of the block. I think everyone’s been saying that… but I think Roga is the guy I’d watch.

Going back to how Roga adjusts to situations: is that one of the key features in an up and coming rikishi? Not just the reactiveness or physicality, but to be someone who can read a situation and react to it, that makes you see them as being projectable? 

Most of them would say: “I’m going to do my sumo.” But sometimes their sumo doesn’t work, or doesn’t work against everybody. So, they need to adjust.

Mitakeumi is probably a good example of that in recent times. He was a pusher-thruster, and then developed some mawashi technique. His lack of intensity of his training shows him up when he gets into difficult situations. But he’s got that ability, because he’s developed his sumo, and I like that.

Takakeisho is a one -and-a-half trick pony, but it might be good enough. He’s strong and he’s smart. Whether he goes beyond Ozeki? I don’t think so. (There have been) not too many Ozeki pusher-thrusters of that height.

But if Hakuho drops out of sumo in the next year or two, sumo becomes a very different sport. Like now, we’re going to have a different winner every tournament, because Hakuho won’t be (a factor) at all. Kakuryu isn’t much longer for the mawashi I would think than the next 18 months.

Things will change. That could be for good. (Some) will say, “Oh, the authority’s gone, it’s like watching the B team when Hakuho disappears.” So for these folks who are just getting into sumo: Enjoy Hakuho. Once he’s gone, the “GOAT,” depending on what era you started watching sumo, will be gone. 

Staying in that stable, we have received quite a few questions about Enho. Corey Yanofsky says: “Does Murray think any of makuuchi’s current small men (Ishiura, Enho, and Terutsuyoshi) have the staying power of Mainoumi, or are they likely to be elevator rikishi, always bouncing up from and down to Juryo? With Ishiura we already have a bit of a track record…”

Yeah, Ishiura’s going to ride back and forth, he’s not going to stay, because he doesn’t quite have the technique. He has a lot of sideways movement, trying to get that inside grip, but is not (as strong at) his pushing and thrusting particularly, and he’s vulnerable for a decent slap.

Enho is a clever young man. His biggest issue will be injury. He’s already injured his right shoulder. He weighs under 100 kilos! The thing with Mainoumi is that he used to prepare for every bout. He and his brother would have a practise session the day before, for who he was going to fight and what he was going to do. It wasn’t every day, but he prepared himself for certain opponents. A lot of times, he was pushed out in the blink of an eye!

Mainoumi only ever fought at Komusubi and not successfully, but he was exciting to watch and I think all these guys are exciting because they’re small. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be greats. Enho will bring some joy to a lot (of people). He is fun to watch, the way Ura was. Poor guy (Ura), two ACL injuries.

It seemed like his weight became an issue, he added a lot.

He did put on a lot of weight. The style of sumo that he does, the bending of the knees at the edge, that sort of stuff is going to put more on the knees. Enho doesn’t do that kind of sumo, he’s more of a throwing (rikishi). It’s all upper body movement, it has to be. Great advice from Hakuho (for him) though: “if you want to be in sumo, what’s the point of coming here just to compete? You’ve gotta win.”

Who do you consider to be the most exciting prospect in sumo in the top 2 divisions [this is a question from Abi Fan which we modified as the answer was covered elsewhere]? We already touched on Roga outside the top divisions.

Within the top 2 divisions? I don’t think there’s anybody exciting. Enho’s exciting because of his stature and his movement. Abi is exciting at times, but equally disappointing. He can look like a Jonidan guy sometimes!

Do you think he will ever add a yotsu element?

I think he is what he is. His oyakata went to yotsu-zumo, and he was a failure (at that). Abi’s very light in the lower limbs, and he likes doing sumo the way he does it. It’s fun! He’ll just ride up and down the banzuke, but within the top division. I don’t think he’ll drop out of the division unless he gets injured, but he tries to stay away from that.

Yeah, I’d have to say Enho.

This is a question from Daniel Iliev: “Which of the two styles (oshi-zumo and yotsu-zumo) do you prefer watching, and do you think that one of the styles suits someone who’s trying to become a Yokozuna better?”

Yotsu-zumo does certainly (help make) a Yokozuna candidate. Whilst there are more oshi-zumo rikishi now than there were 30 years ago, the initial training in sumo is oshi-zumo. (Young rikishi) learn to push and thrust and keep people away, and then they go to the mawashi, and learn mawashi grips and mawashi holds, all the required elements.

You have to be able to do both. Usually, you can’t just be a pusher-thruster and become a Yokozuna. Even Akebono, who started out his career as a pusher-thruster, went to the mawashi. He was big, he could do that. Yotsu-zumo is required to become a Yokozuna in my opinion. Oshi-zumo will get you to Ozeki. It’s very difficult to be beyond that.

Is there a style that you find more enjoyable?

Not really. Some people don’t like oshi-zumo, people that have been watching it since the Chiyonofuji days. They say, “aww, that’s not real sumo.” But it is, it’s what they learn when they first start. The thrusting comes to that pushing sumo that they learn initially.

A lot of people don’t like the thrusting of (for example) Chiyotaikai, because it’s all over in a blink. They like to see chest to chest. But back in the ’70s, they didn’t touch the shikiri-sen either, (those rikishi) just stood up at the tachiai and grabbed each other!

To see a great uwatenage, or a great throw that has worked is exciting. But so is a dynamic thrusting attack that has someone on the move! I enjoy that.

Come back to Tachiai for the final part of our conversation with Murray over the coming days! [edit: click here to continue reading Part 4]

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]