Andy Reviews Al-Jazeera Feature

I Love this mystical side and the long history of sumo, too…but sorry, I dislike its treatment in this video.

God, I miss jungyo.

I thought this little news feature would be a good way to quench my thirst for a half-hour or so but it’s not all smiles. In fact, it’s a lot of frowny faces and now a few hours spent drafting a rebuttal. Despite the overwhelmingly positive appearance of the reviews on YouTube, 63 “likes” to 1 “dislike,” I found myself clicking thumbs-down and becoming “dislike #2”. I’m disappointed that it caves too easily to reinforcing stereotypes. Rather than ignore such shoddy reporting, I think it’s important to call it out — and it’s important for me to give John Gunning, and MMA fans, an apology.

For a few weeks, I had been thinking my bad translations were the “fake news” that had gotten John Gunning riled up. That article did not have a lot of specifics but now, I’m thinking…”Was it this, instead?” It may have just been unfortunate timing that he had tweeted me about a mistake I’d made a few days before.

Yes, I make mistakes, but I try real hard to provide fans with updates on the sumo world because more and more, reliable news is hiding behind a paywall or a wall of ads. And the reason I think reliable information must be free is because there is BS out there. Truth must always outbid lies. I’m struggling to find a sustainable model for providing that reliable information but I’ll get there and I’ve got a plan I’d like to try if we can get to the other side of this Covid crisis. (So watch this space.)

Let’s face it, when I think two rikishi standing in a parking lot are going to drivers’ ed instead of sumo school, I feel like a dumbass. But it is vitally important to get called out and I take it on the chin and learn. I’m always open to criticism of me and my reporting on this site. I’ve got pretty thick skin. The few times I’ve had to step in relating to comments on the site, it’s been about protecting others and things that are offensive…which has been VERY rare. Readers of this site are amazing and quite knowledgeable and respectful.

As an aside: While I’m typing this, I realize that I owe MMA fans an apology for dissing MMA recently. Sorry, Takanofuji’s actions are not an indictment of the sport, as I’d implied. He needs to be able to control his aggression because I fear he’s going to end up in real trouble or really hurting someone. I was afraid RIZIN was enabling it and promoting it for attention.

In the case of this news story, though, I don’t think Al-Jazeera will learn anything and begin to cover sumo as anything more than a weird curiosity, “closed off to outsiders.” This is a one-time piece, not a reporter learning a new beat. And it’s the same for The New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, etc. They will not do what we deserve, which is provide reliable current events about our sport. Wouldn’t it have been cool to have an sports channel from the Arab world covering the sport when Osunaarashi was dolling out kachi-age?

I’m sorry, John. I’d taken it personally when you’d called out “fake news.” The fact is, we exist here because the usual media sources do exactly what this piece (of poo) does. They try to offer viewers “Unrivaled Access” by peeling back a curtain on some bizarre, foreign world. “Hey guys, get a load of what’s happening in here! Their religion makes them do weird things.” On the contrary, sumo Twitter, the Sumo Forum, Doistuyama’s SumoDB, and us fan blogs and podcasts try our best to share the rare tidbits and nuggets from this amazing sport.

OK, rant over, let’s get to the review. After an ad, the piece starts out by looking at young Toki and Shosuke training to be sumo wrestlers then abandons that and follows a young female fan and her obsession with sumo. Then, we jump to having special access in Naruto-beya. And just as we’re settling in with Naruto, the crew takes us back to talk to the kids — but not before they take a shot at the “isolation.” From here, they go completely off the rails and take the disappointing angle of pegging young Shosuke as a dumb jock with this insane dream of joining a bunch of fat monks who beat each other to death. Those other kids, the ones who dream of being “rock stars and football legends” are so much more legitimate somehow?

While in Naruto-beya, and criticizing all the fat they’re adding to the chanko, they cite a startling statistic that sumo wrestlers’ life expectancy, at 65, is 20 years less than the average Japanese man. I immediately wonder whether the crew will follow the guys from the chanko dining-hall out to an izakaya. The narrator goes on, the newer wrestlers “joined 3 months ago. Most won’t last a year.” It wouldn’t surprise me, but I’d check that little stat. Sometimes I wish the News was subject to peer review.

I’d also offer a little context. I know a lot of English teachers and hosts and hostesses who didn’t make it a year in Japan. I also know a whole bunch of servers and cooks and Target Associates here in the US who didn’t make it a year. I wonder what the attrition rate is for journalists? It must be rough starting out as an urban beat reporter, alone, carrying around your own camera in downtown DC or Philly to set up your live shots, or in the studio getting unwelcome daily fashion advice from your traffic reports…while your editor hobnobs with the political and business elites at cocktail parties? Or am I stereotyping?

I am curious, though, Al Jazeera…are you going to follow a young salaryman or engineer at Toyota while he’s at the office until 10pm and living at the company dorm? Are you going to mourn his love live or access to girls? Dude…the look on those wrestlers’ faces when that girl was taking pictures. Girls are not some unknown to them. I’d have loved that kind of attention. Let’s face it, I didn’t have career goals in mind when I was living in Tokyo. I went out, had fun, met my wife…15 years later, I still can’t speak Japanese. When you set your mind to a career, chances are you are not going to have a lot of time to do a lot of things.

I think my major frustration here is that there was so much potential here for a half-dozen great documentaries. Follow Shosuke without insulting a 13-year-old kid. Why is his dream any less legitimate than anyone else’s? As for you dissing his math, he’ll be a whiz counting up his kensho one day. What happened to Toki? Or Makko? I can tell you, sujo are not some new thing. My wife’s grandmother was one.

Makko’s autographed Hakuho tabi-sock and sumo cards are surely only a small fraction of her private sumo museum. I cracked up when she’s “back stage” at a jungyo event with Hakuho himself, and he quietly asks her, “Who’s design are you wearing?” and she answers, “Mitakeumi.” The subtle look on his face was priceless but the moment appeared lost to the narrator. The shot where Makko walks up to Ichinojo and asks his weight should have been left on the cutting room floor. Yes, he’s big, we know that. Go back and explore her collection!!!

I swear, with the kind of access that was offered to Al Jazeera, any of us sumo fan blogs or podcasts would have walked away with absolute GOLD. Yes, we’re aware of the controversies. But when you do a story on Shohei Otani, are you going to mention the Houston Astros and their cheating scandal? Is Jordan McNair a required topic for a piece about football? You’re not going to change things from the outside. The sport has been changing, and it has been changing for the better. We fans will keep working on it because it’s an awesome sport. And this awesome sport deserves better, and more regular, reporting. (I mean, if you’re having to dive into scandals from a decade ago, how current is your reporting?)

Al Jazeera, you just proved to me that a 15 year-old girl got better access to the Kakukai, and a lot better understanding of it, than you. “Unrivaled Access.” HA!

SUMOS: A New Short Film on Mongolian Sumo

Acclaimed photographer Catherine Hyland has released an astonishing look at Sumo in Mongolia. In a project commissioned by WeTransfer’s WePresent arm, Hyland has released a stunning series of photographs and a short film, titled SUMOS: Rise of the Mongolians, providing insight into the world of the sport in Mongolia. Groundbreaking Mongolian rikishi Kyokushuzan, who now trains young wrestlers in Mongolia, makes an appearance in the film, which also features an interview with a recent Hakuho Cup winner who aspires to be like the tournament’s namesake someday.

Many of us around the world are of course aware of the presence and dominance of many rikishi (and Yokozuna, and yusho winners, and now stablemasters) from Mongolia, but I felt this short film was exceptionally interesting by presenting us with moving images from a country which is extraordinarily infrequently covered in the western media. Indeed, any conversation about Ichinojo will go to serve how the origin stories of Mongolian rikishi can be the stuff of legend.

The short film – SUMOS: Rise of the Mongolians – is embedded above. Click here to read a brief interview with Hyland about the project on WePresent, which includes some wonderful photos from the project.

In other news, this is apparently our 2000th post on the site, so thank you all for joining us!

Sumo in The Economist

The website for The Economist had a little article about sumo last week. Their “Economist Explains” series focused on the rise of foreign wrestlers in sumo’s upper divisions.

The past basho had mixed results for native Japanese wrestlers. Though yusho in the lower divisions were won by Japanese, Hakuho dominated the makuuchi and his only competition (and sole loss) was from Mongolian compatriot, Terunofuji. Also, all Japanese ozeki had lackluster performances, squeaking by with winning records. Further, Endo, Aminishiki, and Chiyootori had devastating knee injuries.

Anyway, interesting article. It doesn’t go much into the recent rise in the sport’s popularity nor does it really compare Mongolian wrestling to sumo which would help explain why Mongolian wrestlers feature so prominently. Personally, I think the foreign competition is making the sport more exciting.