Every few days, year-round, I receive emails from foreign visitors to Japan asking just how to gain access to morning training sessions at one of the sport’s (current) 44 stables.
Most mails are routine from individuals, couples, small families looking to see a unique aspect of Japanese culture during their visit.
The majority are from people who have come across my 2009 piece in The Japan Times on the do’s and don’ts while doing so.
And, on my own numerous visits to 15-20 stables in and around Tokyo over the last year or so, the numbers of non-Japanese visitors willing to wake up at the crack of dawn and head out to sit silently for two or three hours to get the briefest of glimpses inside the world of sumo is quite clearly on the rise.
Increasingly, however, the numbers of international media outlets, professional photographers and journalists reaching out for help in gaining access to morning practice or one of the six annual tournaments has also been increasing.
This phenomena — coupled with the huge numbers of non-Japanese now seen each day at the honbasho — has, arguably seen global interest and awareness of all things sumo increase as a result.
Sumo-related articles have already this year featured in at least two airline magazines seen by hundreds of thousands of travelers, on U.S., and European TV and radio watched and listened to by millions, and on news sites and in newspapers around the planet.
News being news in the modern era, some of the coverage does of course focus rather too much on the less salubrious side of the sport such as continued rumors of match-fixing and hazing; the latest supposed victim of the latter believed to have been Canadian rikishi Homarenishiki, which was reported in the last Sumo Scribblings.
More often, though, sumo is rightly seen as a part of Japanese culture to be experienced in the form of a morning at asageiko, or, if in Japan around the middle of the odd-numbered months of the year, a visit to a full-on tournament.
It is in increasing global awareness of the sport by focusing on the positives in the sport that at time of writing, a popular Southeast Asian television channel in Singapore named Channel News Asia is currently working on a sumo feature.
Unfortunately though, the current surge of foreign media and tourist interest going hand-in-glove with massive domestic interest — daily ticket sellouts now the norm at tournaments — is under threat by individuals on the surface claiming to aid in spreading awareness, but who are, in fact, doing more harm than good in as far as long-term coverage of sumo goes.
Older sumo fans will remember the days of a rather grainy live feed on the main Japan Sumo Association homepage that could be viewed from anywhere in the world.
Others in Japan will recall BS TV broadcasts starting at 1p.m. some days showing the lower-division fights before the top wrestlers appeared around 4 p.m. each day.
Then came YouTube.
Fans with the best intentions in the world — rightly or wrongly with regard to broadcast licensing — recorded a few fights featuring their favorite wrestlers, and uploaded them for others to see. No biggie …yet.
But where there is an interest, a passion, something people enjoy watching, seeing, doing, there will always be individuals looking to profit. Many do so under the guise of helping people out, providing a service for like-minded “fans.”
And so it was — and still is to the detriment of the long-term future of sumo online — with sumo “fans” on YouTube.
Most prominent a few years ago was a student in Hawaii, going under the name of Araibira, recording hundreds of fights over the course of a basho, uploading them, and receiving “donations” for his “work.”
As a result, he was shut down on YouTube but the “by the fans for the fans” aspect of uploads had changed forever. Money was being made by a person with no right to make money in the first place.
Others took note.
Most importantly, those behind the management of sumo broadcasts noticed, put their heads together and not long after the grainy lifeline of fans around Japan and the world unable to get to tourneys was gone.
Said Hawaiian student soon after presumably returned to his studies or found a real job, and uploads stopped.
Yet the recordings that had appeared on YouTube were quite clearly from NHK’s daily broadcast, and continued to be posted by others.
The removal of the Sumo Association live feed only meant that fans lost minute-by-minute viewing options and had to wait a few hours for YouTube posts to appear.
The next move of note by those at the Sumo Association was to only offer sumo live online on a paid, rather expensive, access site.
Nothing changed in as far as the NHK Sumo broadcast went on NHK.
As a result other streams kept popping up — most likely fed direct to the internet by way of NHK subscriptions at home or abroad.
The most reliable for a while, albeit with commentary few could understand seemed to be based in Mongolia. That, too, has now reportedly gone down the paid-access route for reasons unknown.
At present therefore, there is now only one known daily uploader of sumo’s top division bouts direct from the NHK broadcast.
Having contacted said uploader Jason Harris, an American former JET member based in rural Japan, and asking him if he thought it OK to make money from “reselling” work he did not produce and has no rights to by way of his “very own tip jar” I received a long-winded message along the lines of “doing it for the greater good” in public — on his own Facebook page as he appealed for understanding from his followers.
Writing an honest admission of what he was doing by way of “let me be perfectly clear upfront — my sumo channel has always been in danger of being closed for copyright violation,” the American, and private school teacher, even went down the “others were behind the tip jar concept” avenue. Though this was a point slightly at odds with his own online appeal and drawing attention to his tip jar in early March 2015 when he wrote, “Hello to all the SUMO fans stopping by after clicking the link for my Tip Jar. It’s located in the upper right on the main page. I really, truly appreciate the donations and show of support for SUMO on YouTube!”
As such, just how Harris, serves to potentially further restrict online, TV or other forms of dissemination of sumo by those owning the rights to broadcasts remains to be seen, especially as he has, and presumably not with NHK’s blessing interviewed John Gunning, one of NHK’s non-contract color-commentators on his YouTube channel, while at the same time being aware of what he was doing in a further admission: “(A)nd no, I didn’t create that (sumo footage) content, so perhaps you’re right. I shouldn’t therefore ‘profit’ from it.”
The sumo broadcast powers-that-be are watching, and even if not too switched on in shutting down individuals uploading to YouTube of late have repeatedly made things more difficult for the wider sumo-following community as a result.
Hopefully fans will not be too inconvenienced long term in the form of even more expensive or restricted access to sumo broadcasts caused by individuals abusing the rights of work they do not own to make a few yen every couple of months.
Right now, however, the real fans out there will have to wait and see what happens next.