For Fujio Kariya, NHK’s executive commentator (the broadcaster’s top news commentator), the most impressive bout in his 31-year career as an NHK sumo announcer took place at the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament in 1988.
That was when yokozuna Onokuni upset fellow yokozuna Chiyonofuji on the final day, snapping Chiyonofuji’s winning streak at 53. Chiyonofuji had already clinched the Emperor’s Cup the previous day, and people’s interest was focused on the great yokozuna’s bid for the all-time mark of 69 consecutive victories, which Futabayama achieved from January 1936 to January 1939.
Chiynofuji would’ve had a chance to tie or break the record during the next year’s New Year Basho if he had beaten Onokuni, who had topped Chiyonofuji in seven out of their previous 26 meetings.
“The moment Onokuni won, there were so many cushions being thrown (a common practice following a big upset) from every angle, the inside of Fukuoka Kokusai became dark,” Kariya recalled in an exclusive interview with The Japan Times last month at the NHK office in Shibuya. “I saw Onokuni walking down the aisle. He looked so pale. It was as if he only looked white under the dark arena. I never forgot that scene.
“He was so exhausted he could barely speak. I said to him, ‘You won,’ or ‘How do you feel now?,’ but all he could do was give short replies by saying ‘Yeah,’ ” Kariya said. “A few moments later, he caught his breath and said, ‘I was relieved to win. I have been criticized as a weak yokozuna, but finally I did my job as yokozuna.’ “
The high-level fight between the two elite rikishi caught the young Kariya’s mind.
“You train yourself for years and years to improve,” Kariya said. “Then you bring out everything you have for bouts that last only a few seconds. That is the greatness of sumo. That’s why sumo has been loved by Japanese people for more than 1,500 years. As long as the sumo wrestlers show this ultimate level of the sport, people will want to watch sumo no matter how wrestlers change and how generations change.”
Kariya joined NHK in 1983 and worked as a sports announcer until last year. He has covered 28 sports, including gymnastics, figure skating and sumo. The 58-year-old native of Gotenba, Shizuoka Prefecture, was an announcer for eight Olympics and covered three others.
Kariya was on the mic when Japan won the gold medal in the men’s gymnastics team event for the first time in 28 years at the 2004 Athens Olympics. Kariya is widely known to have said, “The parabola of his new moon alto is the bridge to glory,” when Hiroyuki Tomita, Japan’s last performer, finished his horizontal bar.
Two years later in Turino, Italy, Kariya made another famous statement when Shizuka Arakawa became the first Asian to win a figure skating gold medal. At the moment Arakawa secured gold, Kariya announced, “The goddess of Turino kissed Arakawa.”
But the majority of Kariya’s tenure has been in sumo.
“I grew up as a sumo fan. That was the major reason I was called up as a sumo beat announcer,” said Kariya, who thinks doing play-by-play for sumo is one of the most challenging tasks in sports broadcasting. “The fans really know (a lot) about sumo. They easily point out when we make mistakes or show a lack of knowledge. So we study a lot. The beat announcers of NHK cover sumo 120 to 130 days a year. And we share the information we get with every announcer of the sumo team.”
One of the toughest things, according to Kariya, is learning the techniques. There are 82 winning techniques and five non-techniques (ways to lose) in the Japan Sumo Association’s official rules. It is hard to learn everything and call the right techniques during the bouts.
“The only way is to watch as many bouts as possible. There is no easier way,” Kariya admitted. “We also learn from stablemasters or rikishi. But we still have a tough time when we see rare techniques we have never seen before.”
Former Hawaiian yokozuna Musashimaru, who’s currently the Musashigawa stablemaster, is one of the wrestlers Kariya won’t ever forget. Musashimaru was famously known as a rival of brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana and contributed sumo’s popularity boom during the 1990s and early 2000s along with Akebono, another Hawaiian yokozuna.
The championship playoff between Musashimaru and Takanohana at the 2001 Summer Basho has remained a fan favorite. Takanohana overcame a torn meniscus in his right knee, which he suffered two days before, to defeat Musashimaru in dramatic fashion.
The bout, however, was costly to Takanohana, who was forced to withdraw from the next seven tournaments. It turned out to be his last title.
Takanohana finally made a comeback during the 2002 Autumn Basho and took on Musashimaru on the final day for the championship. This time, the Hawaiian took his 12th and last Emperor’s Cup.
“After winning the championship, Musashimaru told me, ‘I finally brought myself back,’ but I did not understand what he meant,” Kariya said. “He continued, saying, ‘The most important thing for a sumo wrestler is patience. You keep making an effort to get better. Someday, you hit the wall. Then you start all over. That is the patience rikishi should have. I learned it in the last 16 months (between the two bouts with Takanohana).’
“In the Summer Basho of 2001, Musashimaru hesitated to fight the injured Takanohana because he was worried about inflicting more serious damage to his opponent’s knee,” Kariya explained. “The hesitation led to the loss.”
After the loss, Musashimaru was criticized for his “mental weakness,” while Takanohana was honored for his fighting spirit. That drove the Hawaiian to think about retirement.
“But after a week, with advice from his stablemaster, Musashimaru decided to keep fighting. But his attitude was not the same,” Kariya said. “He worked on fundamentals even harder than before and waited for Takanohana to come back. Then, finally, he had the chance to beat him after 16 months. That was how he described the way he brought himself back.”
As a longtime sumo announcer and fan, Kariya is emotional when he discusses the deaths of legendary rikishi. Some of the Showa Era’s great wrestlers, such as Kitanoumi, Chiyonofuji and Wajima, have passed away in recent years.
“It is really sad,” Kariya said. “But I believe a great wrestler has three lives in him. The first one is his own life and the second one is staying in his fans’ hearts. The last one is carried out by their disciples. The disciples succeed the great rikishi’s fighting style and philosophy. In that sense, Kitanoumi is still alive. Chiyonofuji is still alive.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5