Tachiai Interviews Murray Johnson, Part 2: “I’m never going to appeal to everybody!”

Murray Johnson
Photo courtesy of Murray Johnson

We’re pleased to provide the next piece of Tachiai’s conversation with NHK’s Murray Johnson! As covered in Part 1, I met the longtime sumo commentator on an afternoon in May, just before the start of this year’s Natsu honbasho in Tokyo, and we had a winding conversation which took in many aspects of broadcasting, current events in the sport, and our readers’ comments.

The interview has been edited only for clarity and length. This part of the conversation covers some of the nuances of presentation, foreign expansion of the sport, injuries, and more. We hope you enjoy the conversation, and continue to join us for future instalments!

Tachiai: What’s been the most enjoyable part of the journey in sumo for you, from the start until now? 

Murray Johnson: It’s a bit of a cliche, but I look forward to every sumo tournament starting. Back in the early days, I had to go to keiko 3 days a week, sit down and watch guys slap each other around for 3 hours in that (lotus) position without moving: that was a bit of a chore. But the actual tournaments themselves, I love.

The good thing about it is, once it’s over I can switch off, because I have other activities outside of sumo that keep me extremely busy. When the sumo is done, people keep coming back to me with questions and I’m doing other stuff! I’m also involved in horse racing, and now (May) is a peak time for me for horse racing. I try and get a marriage of both of those events, plus the news, plus the other programs I do. That’s the hard part.

I’m on days that nobody’s going to be watching this time!

People watch most of the days now!

More in Japan than overseas. The regulars, the full timers, they tend to watch the Japanese broadcast, not the English one. The numbers are strong anyway. 

A reader named Martha says: “In an interview, Murray said he felt like sumo commentating was a challenge. I would love for him to expand on that: why is it challenging, how did he hone his skill, what is his philosophy on what makes good sumo commentary, and what are his goals for commentary?”

A lot of questions. The first one would be the toughest: to stay alive! The challenge I found with commentary is to make television a television broadcast, and not a radio broadcast. You know, “he’s pushing him…” We can see that.

That applies to a lot of sports, but in sumo it’s so brief, and you have to try and get it right in five seconds, or sometimes less. Or for 30 seconds! So, making sure that my commentary is enough to do that in the play by play.

If I’m on my own, then I have to analyse (the match). I don’t want my analysis to be in the play by play, but sometimes it is, and then I’ll expand on it in the analysis. Getting the combination of those two things right is what I try to achieve.

And because it’s television, (not to) commentate nonstop for two hours. Then you’re relying on your sound editor – who doesn’t speak English – realising that I’m not talking, so (we can) get a bit of background noise. Quite often they’ll do the opposite and crank it up so loud you can’t even hear the announcer!

Another organisation runs the live show. That’s not Global Media, that’s a contracted company that works for NHK, and has done for many years.

To expand on that and pick that apart a little bit, one thing that I’ve noticed from your broadcasts which is very unique, is that you tend to identify the winning move and explain: “This is where they won,” and “this is why that happened.”

Well that’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I can’t recognise all the 82 kimarite when they happen. Unfortunately some of them don’t happen too often, and when they do, I’m scratching my head: “What is that?” I’ll go with something, and it’ll be close. The guys who do this full time, the Japanese – not just the NHK announcers – that’s their job to get it right. Sometimes they get it wrong and I get it right! But most times I’m wrong and they’re right.

I think it’s important though, especially for newer people. Or for people in the English language world who are watching it at home, to go from “OK he’s pushing him,” as you said earlier, to being able to identify that moment where “this is where the guy got the grip,” or “this is where he was able to move him forward.” It’s important to be able to recognise the point of no return.

Or why was it abisetaoshi instead of yoritaoshi, or tsukidashi and not oshidashi. That is often difficult, depending on the extension of the arms, all that sort of stuff. Or whether they got dumped in the dohyo as opposed to off the dohyo or outside the ring.

When we had Doreen Simmons with us, who unfortunately passed – her enjoyment of sumo was the cultural part of it – she wasn’t really into the winning and the losing. Quite often it was a bit of a chore to have her on the air, because she’d just go, “uh huh!” So she was hard to work with, although when she got her moment, she shone.

You’re working with so many different people, different levels of knowledge and different degrees of presentation. You’ve gotta work with it. My goal quite honestly is to live long enough to keep doing it – that applies to everything! I don’t have any lofty goals.

I’ve never been in the media for the red light syndrome, I couldn’t give a rat’s about whether people know me. I appreciate pleasant comments, and I can handle negative ones. I don’t get put off by negative comments, I just get on with what I do. I’m never going to appeal to everybody. And I just try to be as professional as I can with what I do. If I get it wrong, c’est la vie. If I get it right, that’s what I’m there for.

We have a couple questions from readers about injuries. This is something that in the broadcast, you do end up talking quite a bit about. We hear it when you have a tournament where five guys go kyujo, or you’re describing a specific match and there’s been something that’s been hobbling a guy that may have a bearing on the result. The first question comes from someone named Baikinange, who asks: “Regarding injured rikishi, are NHK announcers prevented or discouraged about discussing the extent of their injuries on air, or is it as difficult for you to find out real information as it is for the rest of us?”

Quite simply, no, and yes (respectively). That gets back to what I told you earlier when I used to go repeatedly to keiko and ask the guys how they are. And the guy’s hobbling off the dohyo of the practise session of the keiko-ba, saying “my knee’s fine!”

Then, you go to soken and watch these guys not fight, and you knew straight away they weren’t going to be good (in the basho). Or they just didn’t feel like it. They might turn up on Day 1 and blow the (other) guy away. It’s a bit difficult sometimes to assess.

We’re not shackled by what we can say, as long as we know. If we don’t know, we assume he has an injury, if we don’t know what it is. But if we know that he injured himself on Day 3, or three days before the tournament when he had a practise session, we can say that. We’re not telling the other rikishi who are listening to our show! We don’t have scouts going, “oh, he’s obviously injured.” If we know something, we will say it. 

The second part of the question comes from Andy, who says: “Rikishi health is a continuing issue as it is in any sport, and seeing Kisenosato (and now Hakuho) opt for ‘natural’ healing rather than surgery, is there anything sumo can do to improve the situation so we don’t have a continual string of obviously injured wrestlers mount the dohyo each day (like Ikioi in recent makuuchi tournaments), only to go 2-13 – which ultimately has a bearing on the product that you present?”

There is no Sumo Association that oversees how each heya or oyakata goes about treating his deshi. And the higher (ranked) they [the rikishi] get, they tend to dictate what they want to do anyway.

Kisenosato – as you’re probably well aware – said once he retired he realised he made the wrong decision. I also think that in his situation, his oyakata was not a particularly strong influence on him, since he took over that role from the former Naruto.

Hakuho, as you know, has a couple of specialists that are in his backup team and he pays for them. They regularly monitor his situation and look after him. They tend to be lower body specialists: legs and knees and things like that. The biceps issue for him, I don’t think (was) anywhere near the same as Kisenosato. And once again, I think in his case, he’s managing his time.

Just to get rid of this: he’s not appearing in the Olympics and no rikishi will be! He looks to have some role, he hasn’t been given the role yet, but inevitably… Japan, sumo, world audience: Hakuho and rikishi will be involved in something whether it will be the opening ceremony, closing ceremony, or something (else). He will have a role I’m sure, if he’s still competing. I think he wants to be there, a little bit in memory of his father, who competed in the ’64 Olympics. So, that is ongoing. He’s good enough to probably fight with one arm anyway! Still, he’s going to rest this time [Natsu 2019] and we’ll see what happens.

Here’s a question from someone calling themselves Blobeecat…

Blobeecat! Wow.

Blobeecat says, “A big g’day to Murray from me, it’s great having a fellow Aussie as a sumo guru! Does NHK have any plans in the near future to extend its regular ‘NHK live’ coverage to include whole tournaments?”

I think they would like to expand it, it’s just a case of working with NHK World, in their programming, because that’s 4 o’ clock until 6 o’ clock here (in Japan). It depends how much power they get, and whether they take it.

The other problem is, people are paying for NHK Premium. They get to see it live anyway overseas in English or Japanese, whatever they choose.

So what does NHK do? Do they repackage it, sell it as a separate package? Then you don’t have to pay for it if you’ve got NHK World! 

I would gladly pay for it if it were a separate package.

Yeah, but we’re broadcasting to two different programs. We have to consider that. One has English graphics, and we’re following Japanese graphics on the main channel. So even for that 40 or 50 minutes, sometimes it is a bit of a challenge.

You don’t want to insult the people who know a lot about it, and you don’t want to treat the people who’ve just come on like, “sorry, didn’t you know that?” You have to find that balance between trying to help people learn and still maintaining your presence. And I try to do somewhere in the middle.

To answer the question: There is an intention to expand the live coverage, in what format I don’t know.

A reader named Janet has an evolution of that question, tying in to how we can get better coverage outside of various streaming providers: “Where do you see sumo in general in 5, 10, 15 years? Especially outside of Japan.”

I think it will grow immeasurably.

Amateur sumo is growing. Sumo will never be an Olympic sport for another 10 or 15 years, because it needs to have more people actively involved. It won’t be like a Dream Team in basketball, the Yokozuna won’t be turning up to pick up the gold medal. It would just be amateurs in the concept of (Sumo in) the Olympics. On the amateur side, that’s where that will grow.

The professional side is OK. No one can see another Hakuho, but he’s in there. We don’t know who he is yet. Sumo will continue to evolve, but it’s a traditional sport. The guys that run the show run it in an ad hoc kind of way with 50 different arms. The directors will try and maintain the traditions that have taken it to where it is. A big screen in the Kokugikan so that people can watch instant replay? That’s the worst thing that could happen to sumo, and the mystique of sumo.

You gotta watch it live!

Yeah, that’s the appeal. If you were looking around, you missed all the nuances that are happening that are the hallmark of (the sumo experience).

I think sumo will still be very strong. Will there be another great? Of course there will be! We just don’t know who it is yet.

You said something interesting that I want to go back to, because this is a question that comes up in the comments section of our site a lot: When you talk about what it takes to get to the point where sumo can be an Olympic sport and the development that has to take place in all of these other countries, do you think that the relaxation of the one foreign member per stable rule would help? Because there has to be space for guys to want to get into professional sumo.

That’s not going to affect the Olympics.

No, but if you’re a kid growing up in America, or Australia or Egypt – like Osunaarashi – or Europe, as some of these rikishi are, there are only so many slots for you to get involved in sumo to the extent that it can be a career you can aspire to have.

You’ll just have to wait until the other (foreigners) retire. I don’t see that changing. The only reason it would change could be the lack of workers here in Japan. They’re trying to import foreigners now en masse, because no one will do the labouring work that they need.

It ebbs and flows, sumo. It’s peaks and troughs. Right now, the peak has been up there for quite a while. Not long ago, it was “where would you like to sit?” I used to go to Kokugikan and just choose a spot. Now, you can’t get a ticket! I can get in with my media pass, but I have to go and get my media pass before I go.

When the scandals hit, (the Sumo Kyokai) basically took everyone’s media pass. If you wanted one, you had to go and pick it up on a daily basis. They were worried that foreigners were going to have too much of a say against the Kyokai. That was an interesting time, and I didn’t go to the Kokugikan for about a year and a half as a result of that. But now if I choose to go, I can.

Getting back to (foreign) expansion, the only way I could see it could happen, (is if) young Japanese guys don’t want to do it. But there’s enough of them, even though they’re a greying society. They say in 50 years, there’s only going to be 60 million Japanese people? That’ll still be enough for sumo.

Come back to Tachiai for the next parts of our conversation with Murray over the coming days and weeks!

Tachiai Interviews Murray Johnson, Part 1: “If You Get That Little Taste of Sumo, You Get Hooked”

Murray Johnson
Photo courtesy of Murray Johnson

I met Murray Johnson on an afternoon in May, just before the start of this year’s Natsu honbasho in Tokyo. We walked around the busy neighbourhood of Shibuya before settling down for a coffee and a chat in a cafe out of the way of tourists. Murray is best known to our readers as one of the voices and faces of NHK World Japan’s growing coverage of sumo for English language audiences, and it is here for the next 90 minutes that we will sit and discuss the goings-on in the sport, the growth of the audience, and the challenges of presenting.

As with many of our previous interviews on the site, this will run over several posts owing to the duration of the conversation. It has been edited only for clarity and length. The first part of the conversation covers Murray’s start in sumo broadcasting and his perspectives on presenting live sumo coverage. We hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I enjoyed having it.

Tachiai: First of all, thanks for taking the time to chat with us.

Murray Johnson: Most welcome!

Were you living in Australia when NHK approached you? Is it right that you rejected them a couple times as you had never called sumo before? What was even attractive about that offer when they came, and how did they find you?

Well, I was here (in Japan). I was working in the news. I came here in 1991. Actually, I came here in ’86 and also ’88 for a couple months at a time, so when I finally started work with NHK it was basically news and radio.

(NHK) started in ’92 with the English sumo (coverage), because there was plenty of money around at the time. They had three guys who knew not much about sumo doing the show together for 15 days. So it was quite lucrative for them. Eventually, it expanded in ’94, but when they started in ’92, the director wanted changes to be made. He approached me and asked me if I would be interested. And I said, “I know nothing about it.”

I had a background in sports as well, in Australia, calling various sports. So, I then said, “well look, let me go away and learn a bit about this sport, I don’t want to come on the air as a complete moron.” So I spent about two years just watching sumo, because I hadn’t really got into it at all. I’d seen a few bouts when I came in the ’80s, and I had no interest in it at all, because I knew nothing about it. And as most people find out about sumo, if you get that little taste, especially if you go for the first time, you get hooked.

I realised, “yeah, this could be something that I could do.” The director came back to me in ’94 and said, “are you ready?” I said, “no, now I want to concentrate on learning the techniques, the history and the cultural aspects of sumo.” More about the technique, that’s what I’ve always been into. So, I did that.

Eventually I started (broadcasting sumo) in September of ’96, when we had a full crew of people. We had a guest on (the show) every day with a simultaneous interpreter, a floor director and a main director, so there were 4 or 5 people in the booth in those days. Sometimes now there’s one. I don’t know if I prefer it, but for me, as a rookie, it was a great learning experience: I could do my announcing bit, and concentrate on the bouts and not worry about having to come forth with some gems of historical information that I didn’t have anyway.  It was a good learning curve.

That’s amazing. What brought about the broadcasting changes between then and now?

Money. It was just money, nothing else but budget cuts. They realised that they couldn’t afford to run it. It is an expensive operation when you have that many people, on varying degrees of salary as well. So the budget was cut back, it was just past the bubble economy. There was still money around (at that time), but then as time progressed, there wasn’t any.

There’s always a feeling in the sumo community that something like that happens and it’s a reaction to something within sumo. As we at Tachiai have got more ingrained in the community and it continues to grow – especially in the western areas – one thing that has become really clear is how important it is to be connected in the sumo world. Culturally, for you, how big of a challenge or a change was it to make inroads into that world, to understand what’s going on behind the scenes, so that you can explain it?

Quite often the things that go on behind the scenes you don’t explain, because of the way the society works. If you’re too close to someone and you know too much about something, you can’t use it. The more I got involved that way, the less it became a plus on the air – no advantage whatsoever.

In the early days, I used to go to keiko prior to a basho, 3 or 4 times a week for 3 weeks before the tournament started. Especially back then, there were few foreigners going to keiko. Invariably, we went with the director anyway. They wanted to know, “who are you, what are you doing here?” You sit down, shut up and watch. You’re there for three hours, in the lotus position, very uncomfortable. That was the learning curve: “shut up and watch.” That’s all I did, for probably ten years. Then you get to talk a bit with the guys outside. And invariably, I found that pretty useless! Because they’re not actually going to say how their injury is.

A lot of guys have “white light fever:” in practise they’re terrible, and when it gets to the actual basho they turn it on. These days, maybe Mitakeumi is the best example of that. Back in those days it was Takamisakari who was always useless in practise.

I got to know quite a few of the rikishi personally, and went out to regular dinners with a few of them back in the day. Now, I don’t do that at all now. The last five years, I went to keiko probably twice a year. Most of the rikishi don’t know who I am, and I like it that way. I like to be objective.

John Gunning knows a lot of them, and he can’t use (those stories) either! He will come out openly and say “there’s certain things in sumo I can’t tell you, because A) it won’t be good for the sport and B) it’s just ‘he said he said.'”

Yaocho is a classic example. (People say), “I know that was a fix.” Well, you don’t know! You can assume it was. Even some classic matches that were and everyone knew they were, you have to prove. And even in all these days gone by, until they catch someone saying or texting that it did happen – say, betting on sumo – until they catch them in the act, it’s just an opinion. 

I think an informed opinion in sumo, or any sport for that matter, is important. What I try to do now, is if I have an opinion on something, it’s based on what I know, and not what I think. Anyone can go online and read people’s opinions, and a lot of it is not informed at all. Now, I don’t mind that! I think it’s good for the sport. But sometimes you look at something and you go, “where did that come from?! It came out of left field.” You know it’s totally wrong, but there’s no point jumping in, getting online with people and having a bit of a stoush with them over an “I know more than you” attitude, because I don’t want to come across as arrogant. I think I’ve learnt enough to know when to shut up and when not to.

Let’s go off on a tangent about the people that have come into the sport online, opinions, and so on and so forth: How have you seen a transformation in the English language audience since you arrived? Are there certain milestones or points where the audiences for your sumo work increased, and you’ve thought, “wow, we’ve got something here?” Obviously if we’re talking the Harumafuji scandal, or Kisenosato – there are those milestones, but you’ve been in sumo a lot longer.

I think prior to that, it’s (the emergence of) people like the Sumo Database. I had been doing sumo for five years and didn’t even know it existed. Someone said to me, “your facts are not right,”  and I’d go to the Sumo Forum and check that out. I’d find people slagging me for things that I’d said that they thought were wrong, and I probably was.

I was using NHK’s basic data that I would go through, read the Japanese, translate it with my wife into English, and use all that on the air. Then, I found out about the Database. I don’t use that all the time, because NHK has its own resources and I tend to use those more, but the database is a great cross reference.

NHK is well aware of the people (who post videos). I keep out of that. I think it’s kind of wrong, because people are getting it for free. If people are charging for it, I’d be surprised if they aren’t trying to get it for free. But (the NSK/NHK) need to look at the overall global situation and perhaps make it affordable for everybody. You could get 10 years of the NFL for what the Sumo Kyokai is trying to charge for a basho!

The Kyokai probably doesn’t really want the foreign involvement. NHK does, because it’s more of a global [entity]. But NHK is a non-profit organisation, it’s a quasi-government operation. They’re trying to pay for their costs. I’m probably digressing here, but what they do is, they come on board with the sumo highlight show, and now three days of live sumo for the tournament. No doubt you probably want to know whether that’s going to expand. I would say in the short term, no.

There’s not the time frame for it, to show Juryo plus the top division for 4 hours a day, while they’re running the very expensive shows that they’ve gone out and mass produced: Cultural programs, which have a huge appeal. I don’t see in the short term, it being expanded by NHK. But, I know that my immediate bosses in global media who run the sumo highlights program are more attuned to try and achieve that.

I’ve had conversations with them about what I think they should do. They do allow our input – not just mine – and suggestions about how we should improve things to make sure that the overseas audiences are coming. As you know, there are more people coming to Japan to go to the sumo, because they know what a buzz it is. So… I don’t think the foreign audience is a priority, but they’re certainly welcoming the fact that more people are coming on board.

It’s working with (NHK’s) Facebook page, I think. I try to answer people on Facebook. If people pose a question and no one answers, I’ll jump in. People go, “oh wow, the guy on air does this?” Which is a little unusual.

Some people try and become my permanent friend on Facebook, and I have to deny all that. I’ve realised I don’t really want to know about their dog and cat, but I’m interested to talk sumo!

One interesting thing that I’ve always thought about, coming from my own background in music and entertainment: there was a disruption that happened in those areas in terms of rights and ownership over however many years. It seems that sumo is getting to a point with a greater international audience, that – to your point about what NHK charges for the Premium service – there is money to be made, but the remit is Japan, and that’s the audience that they obviously have to serve first.

I don’t know if you are aware, but in the early days, or at least up until about seven years ago, we were on Broadcast Satellite 1 or 2, but then we switched to GTV, so our audience went from this to this [raises hands to demonstrate huge growth].

There are millions of Japanese people who watch the sumo in English! They want to improve their English, and they want to hear English. Or, maybe they’ve lived overseas and they want to hear it. All of a sudden our audience (had) a massive jump. But we didn’t change our delivery, we didn’t change our broadcast. We just knew that they were there.

We’ve seen such a change in the last few years at NHK as you’ve mentioned, with the highlights show, the addition of Grand Sumo Live, the Preview show and now the activity on social media that you referenced. What’s the next thing that you’d like to see happen to better serve the English language community?

I would like to see a full two hours (live broadcast), not just 40 minutes, but that is not possible at the moment because of the news on NHK World. They do start earlier on Senshuraku, but the sumo finishes earlier! 

I know a lot of people want to see the prize giving ceremony, they want to see a macaron presented on the dohyo. Unfortunately, that is governed by NHK Japan, [Grand Sumo Live] is an extension of that program with our own delivery. We’re not a carbon copy of the Japanese in terms of what we say – certainly not anymore. We probably were a little bit back in the day, because they were a little more strict about what we could say and announcers were not freely allowed to express their opinion. They would just call it as it is and let the guest do that.

Now, because we have less guests, when I’m on my own, I’m basically asking myself a question: “What do you think Murray?” I can express my opinion. Some of the old guard guests don’t like that, because it’s very hard to differentiate. You’ve got to realise when you’re on the air and you’re with another person who’s been doing it for 20 years. All of the sudden (if) I say “well no, I don’t think that’s true, because this happened” – that was not the way in the old day. But now, with me, it certainly is. So I don’t tend to work with too many people anymore!

I think it’s probably better for the listener to get that honest assessment of, “here’s what’s going on, here’s what I think.”

Yeah, but getting back to what I said earlier, it should be based on fact, or based on information that you have. The opinion is built on knowledge that you have prior to the tournament or that you’ve built up – technique wise or how the guy fights. Not just: “aw, that was sloppy sumo!” Anyone can say that. That’s how it’s changed.

Getting back to your question in relation to how I’d like to see it expand, now, that’s what I see happening in the short term – but to what degree, I have no say in that. (NHK) are going to cater for an audience that wants more, they’re going to give it to them. And they’ve got a bit of power. Because last year, it was the most watched program at NHK World.

The highlights show? 

All of it. By a street. So the guys that run the show go: “OK, we had better take notice of this.” They’re expanding the amount of people that work in the program. I’m not going to tell you how much it is to make the Preview show, but it’s a 30 minute show in Edo Noren restaurant near the Kokugikan – it costs a fortune! I think it’s to do with the crew, it’s certainly not the on air crew! Those sort of things have expanded for the newbie to sumo. I don’t go on the air thinking just about newbies, but it’s a waste of time trying to talk (only) to the veteran (fans) because A) most of them have already formed their opinions and B) most of them watch the Japanese show anyway, and think they’re going to get more information out of the Japanese show than watching in English. 

I’ve often seen people write, “I don’t watch the English show at all. It’s crap.” Or, “I don’t learn anything.” In a lot of cases though on the Japanese show, the guest or oyakata who’s on is dead wood. And we have had those sort of people on the air as well! I’m not going to say which ones I think they are – they’ll never talk to me again!

There are certain situations where I think we have equal or a lot better product on certain days. As a viewer, you can choose what you watch if you live in Japan. And if you take the NHK Premium TV package, which is not just sumo, it’s the whole cultural experience of NHK, you get that. Some of the people who started watching sumo watching us (on the English feed) bought that, when Hawaii was the home of sumo, because of Akebono and Musashimaru and Konishiki and all those guys. When they were around, a lot of people had the Premium package in Hawaii, but not anymore, because there are no Hawaiians.

Come back to Tachiai for the next parts of our conversation with Murray over the coming days and weeks!

Put Your Questions to Murray Johnson

NHKWorldLogo

Hello from Tokyo, Tachiai readers!

Following in the wake of our interview last year with John Gunning, we’re pleased to share that we’ll be speaking with another member of the NHK World sumo coverage team in the coming weeks. None other than play-by-play guru Murray Johnson will be meeting up with us to discuss a number of questions relating to the sport.

As with last year’s John Gunning feature, we’d like to open up the opportunity for Tachiai readers to send in some questions as well. This is another great opportunity to potentially have your questions answered by one of the leading names in sumo coverage and analysis!

Please be advised that we will ask questions as time and the parameters of the conversation permit, but we will endeavor to put as many interesting questions as possible to the esteemed announcer and pundit.

Leave your questions in the comment section below, and we will review them in the coming days before we speak to Murray!