Pandemics & Sumo – The 1918 Flu

More than a century before COVID-19 disrupted societies across the globe, the H1N1 flu pandemic of 1918 sickened millions. Sometimes referred to as the “Spanish Flu”, infected an estimated 500 million people, killing somewhere between 15 and 50 million. In response to the early days of the outbreak, the Japan Sumo Association modified the format of the Haru basho. There were no fans in the arena, and the entire basho took on a quite eerie and unsettling aesthetic as all matches were conducted in silence.

But I wondered – how did the Sumo Association handle the 1918 influenza? Now from the web site Unseen Japan, this article describing the events of more than a century ago. I was amazed to find that in Japan, the 1918 influenza outbreak was know as the “sumo flu”! The flu may have been transmitted via a group of about 20 rikishi who had visited Taiwan in spring of 1918, and sickened several heya. Upon returning, they became ill with a disease that doctors had not seen before, and several required hospitalization. Three of the rikishi died of the illness, including Komusubi Masagoiwa who became ill and died in a Taichung hospital on 5 April.

By the time of the May tournament, there were a large number of famous / kanban rikishi who were absent from the tournament due to the illness, to quote “The Influenza Pandemic in Japan, 1918 1920 :The First World War between Humankind and a Virus” –

Two other wrestlers died after showing the same symptoms, and several others including three Tokyo wrestlers as well as several Osaka wrestlers were hospitalized and did not accompany the other wrestlers for the return home. There had been no previous record of such a large number of wrestlers falling ill on tour and some reports say that more than 20 wrestlers were sick. Although there is no certain evidence, judging from the information above, the possibility is high that the ailment that struck the sumo wrestlers in Taiwan was influenza.

[…]

The outbreak in Tokyo that spring came to be known as the “sumo flu.” The Kokugikan sumo arena in Ryōgoku had been burned to the ground in a fire the previous year (1917) at the time the chrysanthemum festival was held there in November. For the Tokyo Grand Sumo summer tournament in May the following year, an arena along with tent-covered spectator seating were temporarily set up at Yasukuni Shrine, but when there was a heavy rain, the arena was unusable and the tent leaked, so it was decided to hold the tournament on a total of ten fine-weather days, as had traditionally been done before the Ryōgoku Kokugikan arena was first built in 1909. Grand Sumo and the baseball tournament among a group of six universities in Tokyo were popular public attractions, and enjoyment of sumo in the heyday of the newly promoted grand champion Tochigiyama in particular was a national pastime. The fact that the tournament had to be held in a tent and that so many of the wrestlers were absent with the flu caught people by surprise. As I shall describe in detail in Chapter 8, many of the wrestlers had developed fevers and were unable to train adequately, so the flu that went around that year came to be known as the “sumo flu.” Many of the wrestlers had fevers and were unable to appear in the tournament, but there were no deaths.

With the release of the May banzuke just under a week away, we are left wondering if the current state of emergency in Japan will preclude the Natsu basho in Tokyo, or if we will once again see competition in front of an empty stadium. Tean Tachiai first and foremost hope that all rikishi in sumo can manage to stay healthy and avoid being sickened by COVID-19.

2 thoughts on “Pandemics & Sumo – The 1918 Flu

  1. Nice piece. Despite the grim subject matter, it’s interesting to learn something entirely new about sumo history and something I doubt I would have ever thought to find out myself. Thanks!

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