Sumo In The COVID-19 Era – Where Do We Go From Here?

Much to the delight of the sumo world, the Haru Basho was able to go all 15 days without being canceled due to a rikishi contracting COVID-19. Before the start of the tournament, I went on record saying that I thought they would not make it past day 9, but I was thankfully wrong. The stables broke camp in Osaka, and retreated to Tokyo. With the spring jungyo tour canceled, the rikishi have 6 weeks to train, and where needed, heal up. Given the way that Japan in general and the heya specifically work, it is possible to sequester an entire sumo stable, as we saw in Osaka. While this limits the risk of contracting the virus, we can assume the risk is not zero.

But fans are wondering (Team Tachiai including) what the plan is for the remaining 4 tournaments in the 2020 calendar year. We have already witnessed the unprecedented 1 year delay in the summer Olympic Games, scheduled for Tokyo 2020. One indication was the sumo association departing from tradition (Hey, it can happen!) by not putting the Natsu tickets on sale immediately following the conclusion of Haru in Osaka. It would seem that the Japan Sumo Association, along with the rest of the world, do not expect things to be quite back to normal yet in mid May. We think there are a few options that make some degree of sense.

  1. Cancel the remaining tournaments of 2020 – The most drastic action would be to cease public competition. This would allow the NSK to focus on rikishi health and safety, and preserving the talent in place today. New recruits would have a long period of time to train and prepare for their first basho. This would absolutely devastate the association and the stables financially, as it would continue to isolate the supporter groups and fan clubs from interacting (a source of revenue) with the stables. I think this option would be the most unlikely.
  2. Only conduct the 2 remaining Tokyo tournaments – This would allow the stables and the association to eliminate any infection risk from travel to venues in Nagoya and Kumamoto, while still providing sumo to the public. The logistics of picking up the stables and re-homing them in distant cities would eliminated, but the number of tournaments remaining in 2020 would be cut in half. The time between them would pace out to 3½ months each, giving the rikishi a lot of time to train and heal. The net effect would be something that many readers here have expressed a strong desire to see – more time between competition for rest, recovery and improvement. Subsequent tournaments would be conducted under the same rules as Osaka – no public, but ample TV coverage. This would still be a financial blow the the association and the stables, as the sequestration of the rikishi would necessarily continue.
  3. Conduct the remaining 4 tournaments in Tokyo – This would allow the NSK to keep their schedule and their TV commitments, but would remove the logistical need (with its associated risk) of moving the stables to Nagoya and Kumamoto. There would be some impact to those host cities, but it is possible that could be dealt with over subsequent years. This would allow competition to happen every 2 months, and provide a welcome sporting event for the public, who still faces a long summer with no baseball, no soccer and limited activities in nature. The remaining 4 basho would be conducted under the same rules as Osaka – no public, but ample TV coverage. This would still be a financial blow to the association and the stables, as the sequestration of the rikishi would necessarily continue, and there would be no interactions with the supporting groups and fan clubs that are a source of much needed money for the stables.

What are your thoughts? Please feel free to chime in in the comments.

21 thoughts on “Sumo In The COVID-19 Era – Where Do We Go From Here?

  1. An interesting one Bruce and clearly depends to a great degree on the extent to which COVID-19 is being controlled in Japan. I think there’s a lot of sense in holding all 4 tournaments at the Kokugikan, there’s no point taking sumo on tour if the fans can’t go. Plus would they bother putting up all of the temporary stands in Nagoya and Fukuoka purely for aesthetics? I assume they had already done all the work in Osaka when the decision was made to hold behind closed doors

  2. Hopefully the may basho is the only one affected and either it is canceled or carries out the same way as the March tournament, then hopefully things are better and the rest of the 3 tournaments are carried out normally. Trying to be optimist

  3. One consideration would be whether the Kokugikan is not rented out during July and November. The calendar on the NSK’s home page doesn’t seem to go that far, but events are booked a long time in advance and it can’t be assumed they will be cancelled (they may be held without spectators as well, etc.)

    We’ll see what they decide about May. Currently they have three options – cancel, closed doors, or limited admissions (e.g. spectators spaced 2 meters apart). I think the latter is unlikely, but it was mentioned in the press as an option.

    Tokyo is currently the main infection hub in Japan, and it seems to be heading for some measures of distancing (at the moment, Japan is pretty much business-as-usual, but governor Koike asked Tokyo residents to stay at home this weekend). So it may be that returning to Tokyo was actually a bad move (not that they could avoid it. BTW, not all heya are back yet).

    • Tokyo isn’t business as usual. It isn’t completely locked down, like some places in the west, but the majority of bars and restaurants will be closed, Starbucks, Bic Camera, big shopping mals, cinemas etc. will all be closed.
      So far it’s only planned for the weekend. The main goal is to limit the instream from surrounding prefectures for the weekend. tv comments have been very critical about young people, where many don’t care much, so especially those places get shut down. Could be that this extends for longer.
      I think Osaka and Hyogo had similar restrictions already one or two weeks ago. The government apparently believes the weekends to be specially critical.

      • Yeah, I meant as in “the current situation”. I know they are increasing closure during the weekend. Frankly, sitting here in Tel-Aviv, where we are not allowed to move more than 100m from our homes except to buy essentials, everything that can’t be delivered is closed down, and there is phone surveillance on locations where confirmed cases have been, and police is authorized to stop people who congregate… I’d say currently Tokyo is business-as-usual.

    • I’m struggling to think of any type of non-sumo event whose promoters would be booking the Kokugikan main hall (which isn’t exactly cheap) and then hold the event without masses of people involved, either attendees or audience. If the overall COVID-19 situation is still dire enough in July or even November that moving the regional basho to Tokyo needs to happen, I’d be extremely surprised if the NSK had any trouble securing Kokugikan availability for it.

  4. Well I sure hope they don’t call off the whole year now. If rikishis start testing positive then it’s different, but until then, more no crowds bashos please..
    I really like the “only natsu and aki” option, well repaired, rested rikishis sounds great and also it would increase the chance of Hakuo making it to the Olympics 😊

  5. I believe your 2nd option is very unlikely. I doubt they will change the calendar at all. Maybe they skip tournaments outside Tokyo, or get all remaining tournaments to Tokyo, but why change schedule? That’s something you would have to decide early and can’t really turn back later, even if the situation were to relax. Personally I believe that thy will go basho by basho. Any plan you make now could be void in 3 month time or maybe there is a medical treatment by summer, which would relax the situation a lot.

    I guess staying in Tokyo will save money, so if you are in a tight situation, that probably makes a lot of sense. The Kokugikan belongs to the NSK, doesn’t it? Not to mention travel cost.

  6. Like Savaros, I think this has to be decided basho-by-basho. The situation is simply too fluid and unpredictable for long-term decision-making (other than canceling events like the Olympics where it’s already clear it won’t be practical to hold them safely).

    • I would assume it will be decided basho by basho. I see a number of comments decided to rebut an implied “master plan” for the remainder of the year. It’s possible to guess the NSK may have put together a contingency plan, but the question at the end of the post (what do you think?) was more along the lines of how our readers thought the remainder of the sumo year would unfold.

      But I did ask an open ended question!

  7. Interesting ideas but they all have long-term decision making at their core. I see the Kyokai taking it on a basho-by-basho basis. I think it’s possible we’ll see a cancellation in May but with no decision made about July onwards. Sumo isn’t the Olympics. They don’t have thousands of people flying in from all over the world to worry about. It’s a closed environment, relatively easy to keep isolated. I see no reason for them to plan a whole year right now. They could have a loose idea of cancelling May with the contingency of holding the remaining basho in Tokyo instead.

    • Yeah. The NSK prefers to work reactively rather than proactively even at the best of times, I would be rather surprised to see decisions about anything but Natsu basho in the next few weeks. The comprehensive plans for the entire rest of the year that are suggested in the article feel a bit like trying to provide answers to a question nobody is asking.

      • Nah, it was more along the lines of – “If this pandemic continues, what do our readers think will happen to the remaining 4 tournaments.”

        • Well, you started out with “But fans are wondering (Team Tachiai including) what the plan is for the remaining 4 tournaments in the 2020 calendar year.” Given that any notion of a “season” – calendar year or otherwise – simply doesn’t apply to sumo, that was a rather odd angle to take, even moreso with “plan” in the singular. There’s just nothing to wonder about the next four tournaments collectively.

  8. Off-topic: can I get a shout-out for my boy ex-Sokokurai, now Arashio oyakata? The apex of his career was was a 12-3 jun-yusho from M10w in January 2017 that earned him the only sansho of his career, a Technique prize. On the way to that record he bested Mitakeumi, Takanoiwa, and Takayasu, each of whom posted 11-4 records and also won special prizes.

    • He’s the rikishi whose shikona inspired my own. Being based in China I always kept an eye on the only China-born sekitori. I’m glad he’s found himself a permanent home in sumo.

    • Wow, I didn’t realise until just now that during his period of involuntary retirement in 2012 – after the match fixing scandal and before his reinstatement in 2013 – he was working as a chicken farmer in Fukoka, but was still trying to stay in shape by working out with the local rugby team.
      Makes his return to form and that jun-yusho all the more impressive.

  9. Since I don’t live in Japan, my comment partakes of some ignorance, but I’m guessing that, come May and July, Japanese fans will be starved for sports events in general. Will baseball and soccer teams be competing? If not, then there could be broad support for keeping the basho going, even from fans who are not normally interested in sumo. The March experience will be seen as positive, and a model for the rest of the year.

    • I have not been following this at all, but soccer originally postponed all matches till mid march and hasn’t resumed since then. Baseball did the preseaon without spectators, but I recently saw some news which seemed to indicate that at least 3 players have been tested positive. I hold no particular interest in baseball and this was only at a glance passing by, but I doubt there will be any games any time soon.

      Tokyo is currently the hotspot of corona spread in Japan, so weather or not a may tournament will be possible under similar conditions probably depends on the situation in May here.

      Today Shimura Ken, one of the most popular comedians in Japan, died due to Covid-19.


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