One of the great additions to NHK World’s sumo coverage is a new program that is filmed and broadcasts prior to each basho entitled “Grand Sumo Preview”. This 30 minute program features the NHK on-air sumo personalities and commentators providing an overview of the state of sumo just prior to the tournament, along with one or two in-depth examinations of subjects around sumo. The one prior to Nagoya featured one of the hosts joining the queue to get “day of” tickets outside the Kokugikan in May.
The program airs Friday and Saturday Japan time, with the first showing being tonight at 12:30 AM Eastern / 9:30 PM Pacific in US time.
I know my point of view on spoilers in sport is controversial so I figure I owe some explanation.
Let’s assume a sport fan, fw, has watched a sporting event while another fan, fn, has not. There is a certain amount of enjoyment, e, to be had in watching an event live, unaware of the outcome. However, the enjoyment of a sporting event is not merely in knowing the outcome, eo. The enjoyment of a sporting event also comes from knowing how the outcome was achieved, eh. So, e = eo + eh. I have certainly been on both sides of the coin: I missed this past Superbowl because my wife wanted to go to a movie and I watched Harumafuji win this very Nagoya basho live last year and, as an eager fanboy, was extremely excited to share the result with my friends.
So here we have it: Which is greater: ∑fw (eo+ eh), the enjoyment of fans who watched the event and want to freely discuss how in the hell Edelman caught that pass? or ∑fn (-eo), the enjoyment lost by those who learn that the Patriots won another title, yet without having watched the event? I believe that even with the outcome known, both fans have more enjoyment in the HOW than merely the final score. ∑fw (eo+ eh) > ∑fn (-eo), and I firmly endorse the free speech rights of fans who want to freely discuss an event.
The implication is this: I put together this blog for the comment section, not so I could read my own take on the sport. As a fanboy of this professional king of the hill we know as sumo, I find every Tochinoshin/Ichinojo match-up just as thrilling as every Micky Ward/Arturo Gatti (RIP) battle. On reddit yesterday, I was reminded of the greatest henka ever: Hakuho pulling one over on Kisenosato from about five years ago. Kisenosato charged at Hakuho prematurely, not once, but twice! Hakuho was fuming and even bumped that dastardly ozeki. The drama is something to behold…and is certainly not lessened by the fact that it’s a historical bout with its outcome long ago known and determined.
Granted, I love the sound of the voice of the dude who narrates NFL films. But that’s beside the point. I don’t watch the sport like a gambler, just interested in whether I made the over/under. I watch the sport for the technique and the drama and I cover this sport because I want to share my love and appreciation for that drama. Now, y’all can flame me to your hearts content. No comments will be censored in this thread.
One of the great improvements in NHK’s coverage this year have been as series basho preview shows. They frequently incorporate discussion among the commentators and highlight footage from the prior basho, training and events since the last basho, and material that would otherwise never make it on US TV.
As many of our readers know, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to travel to Japan for the first week of the Natsu basho this year. It was my first time back in Japan for 30 years, and it was quite a wonderful trip to make. I have promised Andy and others a recount of my adventures there, with tips for other sumo fans wishing to go. That should be posted soon.
But the first thing that hits me is the Japanese nature of sumo, and how it interlocks with the Japanese culture. Those of us who are not in Japan can get our sumo through both official and unofficial means. Official being the 25 minute daily highlight show on NHK World and the unofficial being the wonderful content on youtube.com from Jason’s All Sumo Channel, Kintamayama and One and Only.
Why is it the rest of the world only gets a subset of the bouts in Makuuchi? A hint came to me watching sumo live in the Kokugikan. The pacing is a tough sell to world sports fans that insist on rapid, continuous action. Most people who follow sports find things like baseball too slow, where nothing much might happen for minutes at a time. When the NFL recently started inserting more commercials into football broadcasts, it helped induce their catastrophic drop in ratings. When fans watch football (soccer) in Europe or rugby, the periods are non stop, no commercial festival of people running crazy on a big grassy field. Even then fans sometimes think it’s too slow and awkward – just give us the part where they try for a goal.
Sumo is a few seconds of combat surrounded by minutes of ceremony. Fans like those who read this blog are into the entire package, we dig the ceremony, we dig the build up to battle. We like that each day the intensity and stakes of the matches increase until we end our day watching the top men of sumo slugging it out for the championship.
Sitting in the Kokugikan, there were no announcers in Japanese or English. There is just you and sumo. No overlay graphics showing history, winning moves or the kanji if each rikishi’s shikona at giant size. This is what I would call “Actual” or “Organic” Sumo. Even watching the telecast on NHk with either english or japanese audio subtracts quite a bit from the organic experience.
I submit that this experience, either live or broadcast, does not translate well, and does not offer much appeal to average human beings or even average sports fans. If you “get” the ceremony, and feel the connection it has to the sport, you can and usually do become a sumo fan, and you chafe that these elements are removed from what is packaged and fed to us. It would be as if a great Western had cut out the story behind the gunfight, and just showed two men drawing their weapons in the middle of the street.
It is clear that sumo, as it is constituted right now, is made in Japan for Japanese people living in Japan. It’s not really exported in a form that would make it a world product. In fact, when discussing this with Japanese fans at the Kokugikan, they are completely baffled why foreigners want to watch sumo at all.
It was clear from the stands at the Kokugikan that Sumo has a global appeal, as the second floor chair seats were well populated with fans of European, African and Indian ancestry. But the men who run and control both sumo and the media spectacle that is packaged around sumo are only now starting to realize that there is a significant income and licensing stream possible outside of Japan.
Japan as a culture is very slow to change any traditional institution, and sumo is a very traditional institution. But the time has come for the NSK and the NHK to embrace sumo for the world. I would suggest the following steps
TheNSK should appoint/hire foreign language/culture liaisons. These people would ensure that education, outreach and licensing for sumo and sumo merchandise are set up in foreign countries. This could and should open the door for fandom to grow and flourish outside of Japan
TheNHK needs to package and make available an expanded sumo feed. I would suggest everything from the Juryo dohyo-iri to the end of Makuuchi. As NHK is now turning more to streaming for global content delivery, this could and should be a value add subscription delivered over streaming content systems. This would allow both NHK and NSK to judge if there is a market for sumo, and it would also make Jason and Kintamayama’s hard work to bring us expanded sumo coverage redundant. And let’s be clear, both NHK and NSK are working to find ways to limit and eliminate Jason and Kintamayama.
I urge them to take a page from the American playbook. If someone is beating you at what should be your own game, put them on the payroll, and let them teach you how to improve your product. Those world sumo liaisons? Jason is already in Japan, Kintamayama is fairly fluent in Japanese, and would be a great resource for advocating broader following of sumo world wide.
Are we likely to see any of this come to pass? Only if us fans urge NHK and NSK to start thinking bigger.