“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.

“There are NO guarantees in sumo.” A Conversation with John Gunning – Part 2

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We’re pleased to present the next segment of our interview with popular journalist and sumo pundit John Gunning. John is well known to Tachiai readers from his work with The Japan Times, NHK and Inside Sport Japan among others. Click here to read Part 1 of our interview with John and read on for Part 2, below. Part 3 will follow in the lead up to Haru. This conversation took place during this year’s Hatsu basho last month, and has been edited for clarity.

Tachiai: First of all, let’s talk about up and coming rikishi. We do a piece on our site called Ones to Watch, where we pick 20 rikishi before each basho – only from the bottom 4 divisions. Do you get to spend much time exploring that part of the banzuke? Are there people who excite you at that level?

John Gunning: For the work that I do in Japan, I don’t really have to do any of that, that’s more of a personal interest. I go to stables and I still spend a fair bit of time with rikishi. Maybe not as much as I would have 5-10 years ago, but I still visit stables regularly and socialise with a lot of them. That’s more to do with my own personal interest rather than work.

Tachiai: But are there characteristics that you look for in someone who might have the potential to break through?

JG: Generally, guys coming from university are probably going to make it to makuuchi. If they were successful at an amateur level at university, that means they’re already basically sekitori level. So, I tend not to get too hyped about them until they show decent results in the top division.

I feel that if you go through the university and amateur system, there’s a very specific way of doing things which can make it more difficult to succeed in pro sumo where opponents can be less predictable. So, when you’re looking for someone who’s going to be successful, it’s the same things as the Shin Gi Tai: heart, technique, physique. Those are the three things.

You need a certain physical type. Smaller guys can succeed to a degree. But if you’re talking about someone who’s going to be an Ozeki or Yokozuna, they need a certain physicality. The most important thing is the fire, the desire to win. When they lose, how do they react? The guys that hate losing more than anything, where there’s no difference between training and real fights… the guys who give everything, who have that burning desire to win and are willing to literally battle: those are the guys.

The technique can be learned. Technique is probably the least important of the three, even though it excites fans most. For example, when guys like Ura come in, or others who are really skilful – that excites fans, but it’s the thing that can be learned. Heart is the thing that can’t be taught.

Tachiai: Let’s continue on that same path and talk about Ura: have you ever seen a rikishi come back from that type of serious ACL injury, and is there any expectation about when we might see him again in the top division?

JG: I’ve known him since he was an amateur, since he was a kid. I was always surprised that he put on so much weight when he moved up to pro sumo. I can see why he did it, like I said, you need a certain physicality when you’re in the top division. But it didn’t hurt Takanoyama, the Czech guy, to be thin and skinny: he kept that speed. If I were Ura, I probably wouldn’t have put on all that weight. I think it hampered him in the end.

Is he somebody to come back? Yeah, sure, why not? Look at Osunaarashi, who’s fought with basically half an ACL. It was half-torn for a year, and he was still competing every single tournament. You can actually compete without ACLs! Olin Kreutz, the Chicago Bears centre [nb: both the author and subject are Chicago Bears supporters] didn’t have an ACL, and he played in the NFL for a decade! It’s rare, but it’s possible. For Ura’s style of sumo, it’s probably more difficult. But, I don’t see anything that would stop him coming back, and having a reasonable career as a sekitori. But he’s never going to make the top.

Tachiai: Along the lines of knee injuries, one person who’s been the subject of a lot of debate is Terunofuji. His dedication is incredible. The big question is: is there a point at which he should heal up and train back to full fitness, even if it means dropping down a couple divisions? The example of this is someone like Tochinoshin, who dropped down and came all the way back up. Or is Terunofuji on the right path right now by persevering, and going out and giving what he can in every single tournament?

JG: Well he did have surgery, that’s the thing. You see people say all the time, “oh, he should take a year off.” That’s presupposing that he’ll come back and won’t get injured in the first fight, and that everything will be fine and dandy after that. If you do sumo, you’re going to get injured. And it’s especially tough if you’re a rikishi because if you’re him, and you’re an Ozeki, you have a lot of rights. You have a great lifestyle. If you drop down, you’re basically like a kid again, you have to come back into the stable and you lose your salary – a pretty good salary. How can you say to somebody in that position who might even be married with kids, “hey, you should take a year off, and give up your salary and leave your house and your mortgage and move back into the stable with 20 other guys and then come back in a year?” That’s not realistic.

And [that view] also doesn’t understand the thinking of top class athletes. Athletes never think like that. They don’t look at things – whether it’s a rikishi or a football player – in a long term view. There are no guarantees in anything, so, you have to do what you can do now. It’s rare that somebody would just drop out. Look at Kevin White, the wide receiver from the Bears: he’s had season ending injuries for the first three years of his career. He took a year off and got healed up and then got injured immediately again. There are no guarantees in contact sports, and the likelihood is that you will just re-injure it anyway. A career is only 7 to 10 years at the most for most guys, so you’re giving up around a fifth of that on the off chance that everything will be ok? It’s just not realistic.

Tachiai: We have a reader question from Tom, who wants to know – which of the current rikishi do you think could be a Yokozuna by Tokyo 2020?

JG: In the top division now?

Tachiai: Or anywhere. I know you’re a big fan of Mitoryu.

JG: Oh yeah, Mitoryu! I talked about him (on the NHK Grand Sumo Preview before Hatsu). He went through the university system obviously, and the high school system in Japan. Injury permitting, he has the ability.

Murray (Johnson) who works at NHK with me always says, “who’s going to beat Hakuho?” If Hakuho was out of sumo, then everything would be wide open. You could have a new Yokozuna this year, even. As Murray says, when Hakuho is there, who’s going to win at least 13 or 14 (matches), who’s going to take those 2 basho in a row? Your target is probably 14 wins to get the yusho. Maybe you can lose to Hakuho if you face him and still do it. That kind of consistency is hard to see from anyone while Hakuho is still there. But, there’s age and injury, and he has started to miss tournaments. If I had to pick one, then probably Takayasu. Takayasu could win two tournaments. He’s the best placed, obviously he’s an Ozeki, so a couple of good tournaments and he could be Yokozuna.

Further down… I’m high on the two young guys, the 21 year-olds Takakeisho and Onosho. I don’t know if they’re big enough to make Yokozuna, because size is important. But, both of them have something. I could easily imagine both of them making Ozeki. They didn’t have the best start [to Hatsu], but they’re still young. They’re 21 and they’ve both reached san’yaku which is a huge thing.

There are a couple of German guys on the Sumo Forum who have all these tables and stats – a guy called Jürgen (Randomitsuki) developed a prediction of future success. And it’s incredibly accurate. You put in all the factors: age, size, what age they started sumo, how they did in the first couple tournaments, and he can predict very closely the highest rank someone will have. It’s kind of shocking really. If you think about it, it actually follows what’s intuitive to older people who follow sumo. Then you always have the kids like Tochinowaka, people who have everything but are just missing the mental points.

Tachiai: Corey Yanofsky has been in touch with a question, and wants to know what steps Takakeisho should take in his training in order to make Ozeki rank?

JG: I don’t think he needs to do anything particularly differently. One of the things with Takakeisho, Onosho and Mitakeumi is the flexibility in their training. They all do stuff outside of the regular sumo training. For the two young guys (Takakeisho and Onosho) especially, that’s one trait that goes back to what I said about heart. They hate losing with a passion, and will do whatever it takes to improve. And that’s why they’ve had that success. So, I wouldn’t presume to advise Takakeisho on what he needs to do – I think he’s doing plenty of stuff in his training.

From here, it’s just basically experience. These guys are knocking off Yokozuna. It’s about consistency during tournaments, and they’re getting there! They’re young, and they will get it. They’re going to make mistakes, but I think those mistakes will decrease over time, and they’ll continue to rack up the wins. But no, I don’t think he needs to do anything differently.

Check out Inside Sport Japan on Twitter and Instagram, as well as their website. Stay tuned as we dig into more topics in Part 3, which we’ll post here on Tachiai ahead of the Haru basho in Osaka!

A Tachiai Conversation with John Gunning – Part 1

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During the Hatsu honbasho we had the chance to catch up with John Gunning – whose work many Tachiai readers and others throughout the sumo world thoroughly enjoy in places like NHK World, The Japan Times and Inside Sport Japan. As it’s quite an exciting time in sumo, we had a number of topics we wanted to discuss with John, and Tachiai readers also responded to our call and came forward with an incredible list of questions.

Owing to limited time we were not able to get to all of our readers’ questions, but we are thrilled to have John as a friend of the site and are looking forward to connecting with him and others in the community in future. Over the course of 45 minutes we covered a lot of ground, and so we will run the interview over three parts. It has been edited only in places for clarity, and we hope you enjoy what will hopefully be the first of many similar features!

Tachiai: Most of our readers come from outside of Japan. As someone who is an immigrant to Japan, what brought you into the world of sumo?

John Gunning: Well, originally, when I moved here, a long time ago, it was pre-broadband internet, pre-good internet and I was basically like most people: your entertainment came from television. I didn’t speak Japanese when I came to Japan, and the only thing I could understand on TV was sumo. Basically, you know, the rest of it was people running around, shouting at each other. I had no idea what was going on. And, like a lot of people, you see sumo at first, and you realise “hey, there is more to it than I thought, this is not just fat guys in diapers shoving each other around!”

And, so, yeah, I had an interest in it – a casual interest in it as a fan. And then, I guess like a lot of people, I went to a live tournament and was just hooked: the smell of the binzuke, and the rikishi walking in, this was just unlike any other sport I’ve ever been involved in. And then I became a bigger fan, and through various connections I got to see keiko and stuff like that, and built up some more connections. At that time, I was living in Osaka, and when I moved to Tokyo I’d been playing soccer. I was 60 kilos when I came to Japan, and my soccer career was coming to an end, I was looking for something to replace it, and I was thinking “sumo looks easy” – the insanity of that! I took it up, I moved to Ryogoku, I got in with a lot of the rikishi and stable-masters. I used to visit keiko every day because I lived right there, I’d see all the guys in the supermarket and stuff like that, so that became my world, the sumo world.

I have a background in media anyway, so it was kind of inevitable that I’d eventually start doing sumo stuff in the media. So, that’s it!

Tachiai: How did you transition into the media work that you do today?

JG: In Japan, who you know is very important. Introductions are very, very important. You know, “he’s a friend of ours, a friend of mine,” like you see in those mafia movies. Generally speaking, in the media world, they don’t advertise positions or openings in Japan, you get introduced through somebody else. I knew some people in the media world here, through my own background, and I’d done bits online, stuff like what Tachiai is doing, and various pieces for a French magazine. The Daily Yomiuri, as it was then, had a columnist that was leaving and he recommended me. They asked me, “can you write something for tomorrow morning?” It was a preview for a tournament.

Tachiai: Wow.

JG: Yeah. It was a Friday, and they wanted it for the Saturday paper. They contacted me at noon and said “can you get this to us for 6pm?” A whole story, with quotes from rikishi! So, it was kind of a test I guess, but I have everyone on the phone so I just called up a lot of rikishi and said “give me comments! I’m writing a piece.”

And then I got them and I wrote it, and I guess they were really impressed that I could get original content. That’s a big thing for Yomiuri: they want original content, they want quotes. And I wrote for them for a few years and had a column and stuff like that. [With] NHK, same thing. They had someone leaving, and somebody there said they liked what I was doing, and they contacted me and asked me if I would come work for them.

I’ve never actually sent a resume, or applied for a job. Somebody knows you, and then there’s that first meeting, which is what I call the “psychopath barrier,” and before you get offered anything, you meet for coffees so they can see if they can actually work with you. That’s the thing in Japan. And then with a lot of companies in Japan, there’s no contracts, right? They say “do you want to come and work for us?” And you see the paycheck then and you go, “oh, ok!” (laughs)

And that’s the way it kind of works in Japan, in the media world. I did a podcast, and someone was asking me “how do you break into the media world in Japan?” I said, “whatever your thing is, whether it’s sumo or some other sport or anime or something like that, come here, and get involved in the world and build relationships and build connections. And you create work, good work. And if your work is good quality, you eventually get it.” It’s all about networking, and building relationships with people. If you can do good stuff, and you have the connections, you’ll get in. You can’t just send a résumé – it’s everything in Japan: getting introduced through somebody else, essentially.

Tachiai: A lot of Tachiai readers first became aware of your work through seeing you on NHK World’s Grand Sumo Previews – what does it mean to you to get to share what’s going on in sumo with fans all around the world? For a lot of people, your work, and things like that preview are the only things in the English speaking world that they see that describes what’s going on, on TV.

JG: The flippant answer is you get paid to give people your opinion, which is great (laughs). It’s the dream job! But, yeah it’s a good point, I hadn’t really thought about it before.

There’s a lot of misinformation, urban myths, there’s also people writing about sumo who don’t know anything about it – journalists and so on. Also, that mystique about Japan and Asia, there’s a lot of that surrounding sumo. A lot of people romanticise the view of what sumo is. So, getting a chance to correct those factual errors and give people a sense of what sumo is – especially young rikishi and people who want to join sumo – I obviously can’t reveal everything that’s going on inside the sumo world, but to give people a truer sense of what it is, that’s an invaluable thing.

Tachiai: For sure. With the increase in the popularity of the sport – obviously the last couple of months have been interesting – but if you look at the last couple of years, tournaments have been selling out, and it’s exciting. Do you think we’ll be able to see an expansion of coverage like that to the English language community?

JG: I can’t say what – but there are plans in place among certain media organisations in Japan to expand – greatly – the coverage of sumo in English.

For a long time, people in the media world in Japan didn’t realise the depth or breadth of sumo fandom across the world. They thought, “there’s a few fans.” But nowadays it’s easy to get the audience feedback and to see who and where and why and what age groups [are paying attention]. It’s much easier to see who your audience is nowadays than it was even 10 years ago. Analytics obviously is a huge thing, but they’re starting to realise how big their audience is, and I think for a lot of organisations, that’s a surprise. Even for those organisations that I work for, the people at the top have been stunned how popular the stuff they’ve been putting out is, and the fact that they do a story, or do a feature on sumo, and it’s the top rated thing on their entire channel or newspaper for that month. So, yeah – there’s going to be a lot more stuff.

Tachiai: Cool. Along those lines, recently you started Inside Sport Japan. Is there anything that you can tell us about that new venture?

JG: OK, so, I work in the media world, and it’s better than it was, but for a long, long time, there have been so many great stories that I wanted to tell, but there has been no outlet to tell them. Either they didn’t fit into a daily newspaper, or there wasn’t an outlet for the feature or the behind the scenes stories, so I’ve always felt that there have been a lot of really great stories that haven’t been told. And I wanted an outlet to tell these stories. So, I created a company basically, to do that. Obviously I want that company to be successful and to be the ESPN of Japan… obviously not a bankrupt ESPN, but a successful ESPN! A place where people can get information.

Sumo is kind of a niche sport, but sumo has a lot of people doing good work, people like yourselves. There’s a lot of people putting out content on sumo, same as baseball and soccer. But there are a lot of great stories. So, we focus on sports particularly that wouldn’t get a lot of English language coverage. Women’s sports, blind soccer. We try to shine a light on great athletes and sports that don’t get a lot of attention. That’s one thing.

There are a couple of streams with Inside Sport Japan. [Another] is that there are a lot of people who are doing good work in Japan who are not getting any attention. Like I said, the media world is kind of closed here. Your site has been really successful and has exploded in growth, but there are some people toiling away for 15-20 years putting out great stuff on baseball or futsal, different sports, but they have tiny audiences. They don’t market themselves, or they don’t know how to market themselves, they’re more just about creating content, and putting it out there. They’re missing that whole “selling” side of themselves. So to be an umbrella organisation for a lot of them was another thing: here’s the content. Then, we give it the audience. That was the second stream.

And the third reason for starting the company was to give people an “in” to the media, and to find new talent – new writers and photographers. That’s been a mixed kind of thing – we’ve got some really great people. Great photographers, people who have no connection to sport or the media world. We’ve trained them up or brought them in and shown them how to do it. I’m willing to give anyone a chance that wants to try it, because other people helped me when I was starting out. And it’s kind of like paying it back, you know? You get a lot of help when you’re young, so you want to help young talent come through.

Tachiai: We have a reader question from Devon P: Is there any conversation within the Kyokai about making sumo more accessible to fans outside the country, and to make it possible for those fans to benefit sumo financially? Such as: merchandise or offering paid streaming services outside Japan?

JG: Not really, no. You’ve got to realise that, even though I said there was a large audience outside of Japan, it’s still minute compared to what’s actually in Japan. The Sumo Association’s remit is to popularise sumo and to keep it popular inside of Japan. That’s the actual remit of the organisation. Their whole raison d’être is to keep sumo alive inside of Japan. So, if they do stuff for foreign fans like jungyo or putting stuff in English, it’s extra, it’s ancillary to what they do. It’s not their purpose.

The unfortunate side effect of sumo being so popular in Japan, is there’s no need of a foreign audience. So, a lot of the stuff that maybe 5 or 10 years ago was put in place, like when they started selling burgers and hot dogs and pizza and stuff in the Kokugikan, because of this “Westerners, that’s what they like,” image – a very cliched image… a lot of that stuff was put in place when sumo was at a low level of popularity, because in those days, foreigners buying tickets made up another audience. It didn’t take much to cater to that, and put stuff in English.

The Kyokai itself is not the monolithic entity that a lot of people think it is. It’s very split up and there’s a lot of individuals. People tend to think of the Kyokai as a solid entity that decides this and that… and it’s not like that. It all depends who has the power and there’s all kinds of schools of thought and people with their own agendas, so a lot of stuff doesn’t happen, because it’s not really organized like that. And there are a lot of people inside the Kyokai who would rather do less for foreigners, because tourists can be troublesome.  You know, showing up without tickets, losing their tickets and showing up at the gate and demanding to be let in… that’s a thing that happens in Japan a lot. It may be an outdated model of thinking, but whenever anything bad happens, or anything happens with foreign tourists, it reinforces the mindset that people have. You know, “it’s just too much effort to deal with foreigners.” So, there’s also that kind of thinking.

Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of our chat, where we discuss rikishi, injuries and more!