In last week’s column, I talked about overseas tours by the Japan Sumo Association and also mentioned the live sumo broadcasts with English commentary on NHK.
What I didn’t reveal was that the latter came about as a direct result of the former.
According to Hiro Morita, a presenter and commentator at NHK, English-language coverage of sumo on Japan’s national broadcaster started in 1992 “because the year before that (the JSA) went to London and that was a huge hit. Everybody loved that. So people around the world asked NHK to start sumo broadcasts in English”
Those early shows were very different from the current format. Three Americans — Tom Quinn, Dave Wiggins and Glenn Van Zutphen — were all on air for the full 15 days of every tournament.
The producers soon decided they needed people with a deeper knowledge of the sport in the booth, however, and began bringing in experts like Doreen Simmons and Katrina Watts.
Appearances by English speaking stablemasters and ex-wrestlers were also a feature of the show in the early days.
Takamiyama, the first-ever foreign winner of the Emperor’s Cup, was a regular guest but according to fellow Hawaiian Ross Mihara (who replaced Van Zutphen in 1994), the former sekiwake “hated being on air because he’s naturally shy and was embarrassed about his raspy voice. He would often lose his train of thought in mid-sentence. A couple of times, I would finish his sentences for him, while imitating his voice. When I talked to a couple of viewers afterwards including my parents in Hawaii, they didn’t even notice.”
Morita also enjoyed working with the big Hawaiian.
“I used to watch Takamiyama on TV all the time when I was little,” he said. “It was my dream come true meeting Takamiyama, working with him and speaking about sumo. Whenever I asked him questions he gave me great answers.”
Like Mihara, though, Morita has plenty of his own Takamiyama stories from their time on air together, recounting one occasion when the free-spirited Hawaiian got up and left the booth in the middle of a live broadcast to go answer a call of nature, leaving his stunned partner to carry on alone.
Budgetary constraints, among other reasons, mean those guest appearances no longer happen, and only six of the 15 days currently see a color commentator joining the play-by-play person on air.
Morita also rues the fact that, with Simmons passing away this year, there is no longer a female voice among the commentary team.
The Tokyo native, who spent a significant period of his upbringing in the United States, greatly admired the ability of women like Simmons and Watts to succeed in the male-dominated world of sports media.
While there may be less gender diversity than previously, the current commentary lineup is comprised of a range of people with dissimilar backgrounds, each one taking a different path toward the job.
For Morita, it was simply a matter of asking.
Joining NHK World after graduating from Ohio State University, he was surprised to learn about the English-language broadcasts. Being a fan of the sport since childhood, he took the unusual step of walking down a couple of flights of stairs, knocking on the door of producer Shigeno Tateno and requesting a shot.
Raja Pradhran was a flight attendant before joining NHK as a newscaster and later becoming a sumo commentator.
I personally spent many years as a counselor working with kids with autism and rare disabilities. Before NHK asked me to join the broadcast team, my sumo involvement was mostly in the ring and in print media.
Murray Johnson actually turned NHK down twice before finally accepting the job.
According to the Australian, who is also well known in horse racing circles, “In 1992 (NHK) approached me as I had a sporting commentator’s background in Australia. I said I know nothing about sumo and needed to learn before I would commit to taking on a role.”
He was approached again in 1994 but felt he still needed more knowledge. Johnson eventually joined in September 1996.
The varying backgrounds and personalities means that on air you get a far wider range of commentary styles than in many other sports, where a lifelong play-by-play commentator normally teams up with a former athlete in the color role.
The lack of set pairings on NHK also necessitates different preparation depending on the person you are working with.
For Morita, the key point is to take into consideration the color commentator’s area of expertise, whether it be sumo history or technique, and prepare questions accordingly to ask during the broadcast.
The preproduction meeting usually only lasts 15-20 minutes and takes place about an hour before going on air. Mostly it’s just information about which wrestlers will be interviewed if they win, what graphics will be on screen, what VTR highlights of practice will be shown etc.
Generally speaking, the commentary teams don’t discuss what they will say on air beforehand, even with their co-commentators. When doing a two-hour live show, flexibility is important. Deciding in advance what to say would limit a commentator’s ability to go with the flow and describe or explain what is happening on screen in a timely and natural fashion.
Morita is excited about the future of the live broadcasts and is one of the voices pushing hardest for constant improvements and new content. An American football fan, he thinks sumo should copy that sport’s ‘pylon cam’ lead and insert cameras in the straw bales that ring the dohyo.
Combine that with VR headsets, and perhaps soon people watching sumo at home will also be able to experience the terror of seeing Ichinojo’s 200 kg falling toward them at speed.