It’s become a fixture of the sumo calendar for the English speaking world. With the opening day of the Nagoya basho just a few days away, NHK World brings us another preview of the tournament, along with highlights and features about sumo and rikishi. Fans are eager to see what new torture Raja is subject to, and what kind of discussion breaks out between Murray and John.
Make sure to tune in and enjoy it as its broadcast, or visit the NHK World web site to watch it via video on demand (works great on Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and other streaming platforms).
Schedule (All Times US Eastern)
Friday July 6th @ 12:30 AM
Friday July 6th @ 04:30 AM
Friday July 6th @ 12:30 PM
Friday July 6th @ 06:30 PM
Sumo commentator, sports photographer and friend of Tachiai John Gunning has put together another excellent piece for The Japan Times. This article explores keiko; the intense, exhausting and repetitive regimen of sumo training.
A choice section of the article:
After each group has finished their bouts, they do a pushing practice with another wrestler acting as deadweight. This is known as butsukari-geiko and is the toughest part of training.
Already exhausted, you can be forced to push someone over and back until you collapse. This is called kawaigari — literally tender loving care — and even the name alone is enough to send chills down a wrestler’s spine.
Yokozuna Harumafuji once compared it to the verge of death, and having been on the receiving end I fully agree.
As always, head to The Japan Times and read the whole thing.
Coming this Friday, world wide – it’s time for another Grand Sumo Preview courtesy of the good folks at NHK World. As always, these programs provide a great amount of insight and commentary from the NHK staff. We can assume that we will get more rikishi one-on-one interviews, and possible a few media personalities being thrown around a practice ring while trying to look like they are enjoying themselves. Check your local listing or the NHK World web site.
With a nod to Kyokutaisei’s long hard road to the top.
No need to exerpt this – just go to the Japan Times and read the whole thing. John does his usual excellent job and provides a great deal of insight into all of the work that goes into creating each tournament’s banzuke.
Noted sumo commentator and friend of Tachiai, John Gunning, bravely wrote another knock-out piece for the Japan Times. This time, he took on the sumo tradition of barring women from the dohyo. For sumo fans that somehow missed it, at an early jungyo stop in Maizuru, the town’s mayor collapsed while delivering the opening remarks from the dohyo. In the rush to render aid, two female medical professionals mounted the dohyo and began CPR. In an unfortunate mistake, the venue’s announcer began to admonish the women to leave the dohyo at once. As a result, the Japanese public responded with outrage, and hours later the story went world-wide.
First of all we have to ask what the purpose of the rule is. Women are not barred from the sport completely. They compete in amateur tournaments and play a large role in the management of professional sumo stables. The proscription is solely Shinto related and can be seen in other places “sacred” to the religion such as on Mount Omine in Nara.
I encourage our followers to read this well-thought-out piece of commentary.
Due to prior problems with comments on this subject, there will be no comments accepted on this post.
Noted sumo commentator and NHK media figure John Gunning has another excellent article in the Japan Times, taking a close look at Yokozuna Kakuryu, the Osaka basho, and some insightful discussion on sumo’s near-term future. An excerpt below, but go to the Japan Times and read the whole thing.
The quality of the sumo is not reflective of the quality of the man, however, as Kakuryu is both widely respected and admired by people inside the sport. A self-starter without any personal experience in, or family connection to Mongolian wrestling, Kakuryu originally wanted to be a basketball player but decided to try sumo after seeing countrymen Kyokushuzan and Kyokutenho on television.
A letter outlining that desire, translated into Japanese by a friend, impressed Izutsu oyakata (sumo elder) enough for him to give the then 16 year old a shot.
Of special interest to myself is his discussion of the conclusion of the current Yokozuna dynasty. As many fans, the only rikishi who could step up to constantly hold a Yokozuna slot is recent Ozeki Takayasu.
It is likely that if Takayasu were to take the rope now, he would struggle. But it would relieve the pressure on his senpai, Kisenosato. Kisenosato may in fact be beyond repair physically, and his retirement would be a blow to a sport already embroiled in negative press. A Takayasu yusho would allow everyone to move past the scandals and negative coverage. But of course, this would require Takayasu to actually win the cup. With Hakuho likely back in Tokyo, and Kakuryu eager to defend his yusho, a Natsu tournament win would seem a tough goal to reach.
This is the third and final part of our chat with journalist and sumo pundit John Gunning. Click here to read part 1 and click here to read part 2 to get caught up on our conversation if you haven’t yet! Many thanks to the Inside Sport Japan founder and NHK World and Japan Times man on taking the time to chat with us and answer many reader questions. While I wish we could have asked all of our reader questions, John was very gracious and giving with his time and volunteered the opportunity to do it again.
That being said, we weren’t going to miss the opportunity to talk about someone who’s become a bit of a curiosity to Tachiai readers (and the Tachiai team itself!), so let’s start with a question about our favourite hapless rikishi…
Tachiai: On a completely different end of the spectrum, have you heard of Hattorizakura?
JG: Yeah, yeah. Of course.
Tachiai: We’re huge fans of his enthusiasm, and the fact that he continues to have a go despite his incredible losing streak. Has there ever been anyone like that in sumo before that continues to not put up wins but just get up there on the dohyo and keep going?
JG: There have been lots of guys over the years. Do you remember Sugishita?
JG: He lasted 2 years in sumo and didn’t win a single fight. He got one win by fusen-sho. And he retired soon afterwards. He was something like 0 and 40. [nb: fantastic memory – including the fusen win, he was 1-41]. People were thinking he was just doing it as a piss-take. You never know. But you have guys that go their whole 20 year careers and never get past lower Sandanme.
You get all types of people. It depends on their own motivation to be a rikishi as well. Some guys you know from day 1, if somebody comes into sumo like Baraki who’s in Kitazakura’s place –
Tachiai: Shikihide-beya. Same as Hattorizakura.
JG: He’s about 161… 163 centimetres tall, right? What’s he going to do? There’s no way… no way in hell he’s ever going to get to the top division, or even become a sekitori, it’s just an impossibility. He’s too small. So… why is he even interested?
You’ve got guys who love the sport, guys that just love the lifestyle of it, guys who may be doing it for some other reason. Maybe their grandfather or grandmother loves sumo. Maybe they just don’t have anything else to do. A lot of the kids who join sumo at 15, if they’re leaving school at junior high school level, they’re not going to go on and get their doctorate in mathematics. So, for somebody who doesn’t really have any desire to continue education, what are they going to do? They might go and work in construction or farming or something like that, and sumo is a better option for them. So they give it a go, and when they retire they can go do that other thing anyway.
I know guys like that and I ask them that question – why do you stick with it? They just love sumo, they love being a rikishi. They might not be a sekitori, but it’s still special. They’re still part of a very unique group of people. Even if you’re not a Yokozuna and you’re just in Jonidan, you’ve got the mage, so that’s something you can say. You’re on the banzuke which has been published for a few hundred years, it’s a special thing!
Tachiai: Yeah, of course. Here’s more of a cultural question from AG. He says: “Mr. Gunning, we have all seen the tensions between the ‘sumo for Japanese rikishi only’ crowd, and those who accept or even celebrate the infusion of international talent. As Japan changes demographically, how do you expect that to change?”
JG: Sumo for Japanese only rikishi crowd? In the Sumo Association or online?
Tachiai: I think he means in the fan community. Let’s say that.
JG: If it’s in the fan community, it doesn’t really affect anything. In the Sumo Association there’s no “sumo for Japanese only” feeling – it’s one of the most open to foreigner-organisations in all of Japan. I think this may be a misconception among some foreign fans, that there’s some inbuilt dislike or distrust of foreigners. Look at all of the Mongolians who have become Yokozuna.
There is the one foreigner per stable rule, but that wasn’t introduced along racial lines. It was introduced because you would have ten Hawaiian guys in the same stable, they weren’t learning Japanese, and were just hanging out. That was about protecting the culture of stables.
Tachiai: So that people would culturally assimilate?
JG: Sumo’s remit is to protect sumo, not to give way to different thoughts and ideas. So with having one foreigner per stable as a rule, it’s to ensure anyone who comes does assimilate because they don’t have a little clique where they can just live in their own culture. There are still Mongolians that do hang out together, but if you come to join sumo there are no concessions made. You become a rikishi, the same as anyone else. There are people who are racist in every walk of life, but there’s no “sumo for Japanese only” crowd or thinking like that in the Sumo Association. If people think that, then they just don’t understand the world of sumo.
Tachiai: Yamanashi is a Tachiai reader who wants to know if you are able to identify any innovators in sumo – an oyakata, or someone with new training ideas – or someone who has invested in logistics, management, publicity, et cetera.
JG: Hmm! There are some stables and some rikishi who do stuff in addition to the traditional sumo training. But go back to the question of “what is sumo?” Ozumo is not a sport, it’s a lifestyle. This is also a thing that people have trouble getting their heads around.
If you say, “rikishi should pull out for a year and heal up and be ready to come back,” then you’re putting a priority on tournament results over the lifestyle and doing the training of sumo. A truer sense of sumo is being a rikishi and doing sumo every day. The tournaments are part of what being a rikishi is, but the daily lifestyle of a rikishi is also part of what sumo is. Training is not a means to an end in sumo, training is what sumo is. So, you can’t just modernise that, because then you’re changing what sumo is.
You get guys who will still do stuff outside of that in addition. Like we were saying, the young guys like Mitakeumi or Takakeisho will add on extra stuff, either gym work or even working in a pool like we showed with Hokutofuji (on the NHK World Sumo preview before Hatsu). But that tends to be a much smaller part. That’s more about just improving yourself physically. You have to live the sumo lifestyle. That’s what sumo is.
You’re not going to get huge changes, but there are variations: every stable’s keiko is different. What they do is different because they’re all schools of thought, from master to student. You’ll see a variety of different types of things, but they all fall inside sumo tradition.
Shikihide makes sure all of his guys go to high school and graduate. They do yoga after training is finished. There are other oyakata who try to give a more rounded education. Like any sport, you have different coaches with different approaches, and some guys have a much more open mindset to new ideas. In some places, nothing has changed since 1750! But I wouldn’t call them innovators as such, because still everyone has to stick to what sumo is. There’s no skipping keiko and, for example, only doing resistance-band training. There’s nothing like that. Each stable still has the core of sumo training.
Tachiai: So, kind of along those lines, let’s go back to the post that you wrote in The Japan Times about the Jungyo and injuries. We’ll finish with a reader question from Bakanofuji, who says:
“Clearly you believe, and most of us fans agree, that there needs to be a series of changes in the Sumo Association geared towards injury prevention and allowing for full rehabilitation of injured wrestlers. Are there any groups within the Kyokai that are working towards making it happen? One would assume that the Rikishi Association would push for this, but it doesn’t seem like that’s in the works, potentially because some of those people will soon be oyakata themselves. Who else is there that can advocate for the rank and file wrestlers?”
There are probably about 3 or 4 questions in there for you!
JG: Clearly? Really? (laughs) I don’t know if I said that I clearly believe that or not!
I understand the questions, but again that’s making some jumps and assumptions. First of all, the rikishi association is nothing. It’s informal, they don’t have any power, they get together but don’t do anything. There isn’t a monolithic Sumo Association. The Sumo Association is a very loose group of competing interests and ideas. As I said, doing sumo training is sumo. There isn’t the push to change that, because that would change what sumo is and nobody wants that.
I’ve said lots of rikishi hate the jungyo because it’s badly organised, and it doesn’t really help the rikishi. But the problem with that is, again, going back to the sumo association’s remit, they have to popularise sumo in Japan. And a traditional way to do that is to visit the regions and local areas. Nowadays, I think it’s not required as much, because people have more access to sumo through the internet. People have a connection to sumo that they didn’t have before. People can also travel more and have more disposable income, so they see sumo live or online or in a lot of ways they couldn’t before. So sumo may not need jungyo as much as it did before, but still it’s where a lot of rikishi first encounter sumo. Like I said, I saw sumo on TV but when I first went to a tournament that’s what really kicked my sumo interest into high gear.
Tachiai: Same for me.
JG: Same for you, and also for a lot of people in Japan. Most people in Japan have no contact with sumo in a physical sense, so the first time they see a rikishi even if it’s only at a jungyo event, that can spark somebody into wanting to become a rikishi.
Obviously there’s a financial element to it as well: they get a lot of money from these places. So jungyo generates a lot of money, and it’s broadening their appeal and popularity in Japan which is key to them. There’s a competing tension to that: it may not be good for the rikishi in a physical sense. But again, the Sumo Association is run by older people who had a much harder time when they were young, so they feel that “young guys these days are soft and should toughen up!” (laughs). There’s that mentality too!
So, I don’t think there’s any big push to change it. Rikishi moan and complain about it, and it doesn’t help, but it’s not that bad either. You can pace yourself on jungyo if you want. I might have overemphasised the rikishi complaining a little bit.
It’s a contact sport! People are going to get injured regardless, whether they’re at home or not. You can’t avoid it. I never broke a bone in my life until I did sumo, and then I shattered my arm top-to-bottom in 3 places, I fractured my skull, I broke teeth. I didn’t do keiko once without ending up injured. You’re smashing into people on a hard surface, with no protection: that’s going to injure you. It’s almost inevitable! That’s the nature of it, and the nature of sumo is essentially being able to fight through those injuries. That’s the mental thing, you know?
Tachiai: Thanks again for taking the time to chat with us.
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!
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.
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!
The NHK World sumo team is brining us another 30 minute preview show, just before the much anticipated 2018 Hatsu Basho. Past episodes have featured insightful commentary, and in depth views of star rikishi. For sumo fans, it’s a can’t miss broadcast.
As with the rest of the NHK World line up, you can stream the program via a wide variety of mobile, set-top and web platforms.
Thursday, January 11th: 11:30 PM Eastern / 8:30 PM Pacific (5:30 AM UTC)
Friday January 12th: 3:30 AM Eastern / 12:30 AM Pacific (8:30 AM UTC)
Friday January 12th: 11:30 AM Eastern / 8:30 AM Pacific (4:30 PM UTC)
Friday January 12th: 5:30 PM Eastern / 2:30 PM Pacific (10:30 PM UTC)
Many Tachiai readers will be familiar with John Gunning’s work, be it his insightful articles for The Japan Times, his presenting and analysis of sumo for NHK, his venture Inside Sport Japan, or from the many other places that he has provided expert analysis over the years. We’re happy to say that we’ll be meeting up with John during the upcoming Hatsu-basho in Tokyo, and will be sharing the contents of that conversation in a first-of-its-kind interview feature here on Tachiai after the tournament.
As such, we’d be happy to include questions for John from the wider Tachiai community. As John has profound experience in, and understanding of the sumo world, it’s a great opportunity for Tachiai readers and commenters to pose a question for analysis, or learn more about his experiences and great moments in his career in sumo (or even his own action in the dohyo!). Obviously we can’t guarantee we’ll get to every question, but we’re hoping to include as many Tachiai reader questions as possible! Leave your questions on the comments section of this post and we’ll bring them along.
Noted sumo commentator, photographer and author John Gunning has penned an article for the Japan Times, squarely addressing the problems discussed frequently on Tachiai – namely that sumo has a growing injury problem. As stated on Twitter, this is literally an article that only John Gunning could write.
John has been living in Japan for many years, and has personal relationships with many rikishi, including names that we cover on Tachiai. The Japanese sumo press has its own set of customs and guidelines that they tend to follow, and open criticism of the Sumo Kyokai, the Jungyo schedule and the Kosho system. By contrast, John most likely feels free to write openly about what he surely feels is critical subject.
Just a small portion of a fantastic article here
So just what is causing the increase in injuries? It’s no secret that sumo’s popularity is near an all-time high right now and one effect of that has been a rising demand from various towns and municipalities around the country to host jungyo (regional tour) events. The normal downtime between tournaments, when rikishi could rest, heal up and then build up training intensity gradually, has been cut to almost nothing. The last two inter-basho periods saw 23 and 22 jungyo days respectively.
Tours play havoc with a rikishi’s physical condition, as they travel long distances in cramped buses, arrive at venues late at night and eat bento and convenience store food almost every day. There is no real break during each event either, as activities are spread out and downtime isn’t long enough to get decent rest.
Please do visit the Japan Times and read the entire piece.
Photo above is from the Japan Times article, and likely taken by John Gunning
In his second article for the Japan Times, noted sumo personality John Gunning looks at the increasing number of rikishi who only have one Japanese parent. These men are able to join sumo as Japanese and don’t count against each stable’s quota for a single foreign born athlete. The “One Foreigner” rule was put in place in an effort to keep the sport from being flooded with Mongolians, who at a time looked to be taking over the sport.
John’s article covers a lot of ground, all of it quite interesting to a sumo fan. He also devotes some space to covering Wakaichiro, which will help raise his profile in the sumo community. I must admit, that it seems that Wakaichiro is already doing a decent job of doing that himself, as he is personable and quietly charismatic.
By extension this means that the preview video that is airing today on NHK World is available on demand now via the web site. The preview turned out really well, and includes a great Hakuho retrospective. Note Hiro’s remarks about Yoshikaze – his mobility and how he uses his feet being a essential element of his sumo.