Even when one of sumo’s six annual grand tournaments isn’t taking place, Ryogoku’s legacy as the sport’s home is still usually enough to draw tourists from around the world looking to chow down on some chanko nabe offered at one of the numerous restaurants in the area or visit the nearby Edo Tokyo Museum.
Others will make their way to the sumo stables dotting eastern Tokyo, hoping to glimpse wrestlers smashing into each other during an early morning training session.
To see the area so empty on the day of a tournament is unsettling. But that’s exactly what it is at midday on Thursday, just an hour before the gates open at Ryogoku Kokugikan for Day 5 of the ongoing Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament.
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Just beyond the gates at JR Ryogoku Station, a lone souvenir cart hawks sumo-themed T-shirts and magnets. The nearby Ryogoku Edo Noren building, which houses a replica sumo ring surrounded by shops and restaurants, has a handful of visitors, most resting on socially distanced benches.
A staffer at the facility’s tourist information desk, pointing to the shops that have been closed since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down virtually all inbound travel, says that foot traffic is down “50-70 percent” compared to a pre-pandemic basho.
Outside Ryogoku Kokugikan, staff hold signs discouraging fans from waiting outside to greet wrestlers, who arrive by taxi and private car in kimono and face masks before quietly disappearing through an official entrance.
There are far fewer of them than usual. According to Mainichi, 67 wrestlers — the most in 10 years — were absent from the Autumn Basho’s Sept. 13 opening day. That included 24 from Tamanoi stable, which was hit with a cluster infection shortly before the tournament, as well as yokozuna Hakuho and Kakuryu, who have both struggled with injuries in recent years.
Basho tickets are usually so popular that they are sold via lottery; the most desperate of fans (including no small number of tourists) will gather outside Kokugikan from sunrise in the hopes of acquiring one from the day-of pool.
But even sumo’s notoriously loyal fan base seems rattled by the risk posed by the coronavirus in a closed arena, despite the Kokugikan’s doors being opened for ventilation. Even with capacity reduced from over 10,000 to just 2,500, tickets for most of the tournament are readily available. First-floor masu seki (box seats) that would normally fit two or even four fans have all been reduced to single occupancy, and on Thursday there were wide swaths of empty chairs in the upper level.
Once the clock hits 1 p.m., the physically distanced line of diehards hoping to catch the second-division jūryō bouts are ushered inside. Past disinfectant stations, thermographic cameras and face-shielded ticket takers, the arena itself is nearly devoid of activity. Most food and merchandise stands have been shuttered for the tournament, and the few that remain open are nearly completely sealed off by protective plastic sheeting. Only cold yakitori skewers are available at bentō box stalls that would normally have lines stretching around the corner.
Around the arena are more reminders for fans to follow anti-infection rules that have become common at sporting events in Japan — no cheering, no drinking, wash hands frequently, wear masks and maintain social distance.
In the COVID-19 age, Japan’s most traditional sport has been transformed into something resembling one of its most traditional arts — noh theater. The outfits, trappings and deliberate movements are all there, but gone is the raucous atmosphere in which a day could end with a hail of seat cushions tossed into the ring following a lower-ranked wrestler’s upset win over a yokozuna.
Without anyone sitting in the floor seats — save for a couple photographers surely grateful for the elbow room — it’s easier to focus on what happens in the ring as well around it. Attendants dart back and forth with the cushions that wrestlers sit on before their bouts. Others stand at the entrance with sponsor banners — far fewer than you’d normally see before the most-anticipated matches. During an intermission to sweep the dohyō, four of those banners promote the “rainbow mark,” a symbol used in Tokyo to promote businesses making strenuous efforts to protect customers from the virus.
With fans spread apart throughout the arena, which is scheduled to host the boxing competition at next year’s Tokyo Olympics, the excited conversation that would normally take place between bouts is reduced to near-silence. The gyōji’s (referee’s) recitation of each card echoes throughout the venue, as does every wrestler’s stomp, grunt and thigh slap.
The bouts themselves go off without a hitch to the sounds of the referee’s shouts, the shutter clicks of photographers camped out on the second floor, and occasional applause from the fans in response to spirited comebacks or tense standoffs. A komusubi showdown between Okinoumi and Endo draws the biggest gasps of the afternoon as each fighter briefly lifts the other off the clay in turn, only for Okinoumi to cede his ground at the edge of the ring and step out after 40 seconds that feel like an eternity.
Pint-sized Enho, a fan favorite since reaching the top division at just 95 kg, earns a hearty round of applause with his first win of the tournament by spinning around Ryuden several times before forcing the Yamanashi Prefecture native over the straw.
Without either yokozuna in the house, the biggest star of the day is ozeki Asanoyama, who started his basho poorly with three straight losses. As dozens of fans hold up towels bearing his name across the arena, the man tapped by many to be the next grand champion bulldozes Tamawashi to improve his record to 2-3.
The announcer advises fans on the second floor to wait 10 minutes before exiting to avoid crowding at the doors. In reality, it takes 5 before the first floor has cleared out. A couple dozen attendees stop at the trophy case in the entrance hall, taking selfies with the Emperor’s Cup and the President’s Cup presented to Asanoyama by Donald Trump in 2019. By 6:30 p.m Kokugikan is shrouded in darkness and few linger outside.
Once this basho ends, it will be just weeks before the November tournament — traditionally held in Fukuoka — will take place at the same arena. By then, the Japan Sumo Association could consider raising its attendance limit, following in the footsteps of the country’s baseball and soccer leagues this weekend.
But until Kokugikan is once again packed to the rafters and the shouts of fans can be heard from the concourses, sumo will continue to reflect Japan as it lurches through the ongoing crisis now deep into its eighth month — clinging to the familiarity and comfort of ritual, but begging for a return to normalcy.