The Japan Sumo Association is essentially a reactive, rather than proactive, organization.
Through the ups, downs and various scandals of the last few years, the JSA’s standard modus operandi has been to avoid making moves until public pressure essentially forced its hand.
Even then, measures taken or rules implemented have been either piecemeal or just lip service at best. When newly established committees present their findings, they are normally “taken under advisement” and rarely acted on in any significant fashion.
Not that such an approach is necessarily a bad thing. Sumo hasn’t survived and thrived this long by being as changeable as the wind.
With a history that veers more towards wait and see, rather than “let’s get ahead of this thing,” anticipating whether or not the JSA will cancel the upcoming meet in Osaka requires looking at what everyone else is doing and what the prevailing public sentiment is.
Given what we’ve seen so far from other sporting bodies in Japan, as well as Tokyo 2020 Olympic organizers, the smart money would be on the Spring Grand Sumo Tournament, which is due to get underway on March 8, not going ahead as scheduled.
With the J. League deciding to postpone all matches through March 15, the Tokyo Marathon restricting entry to elite runners and Olympic organizers canceling volunteer training and limiting test events, odds are that the JSA will come under increasing pressure to call off the upcoming meet.
The organization will discuss the matter at a meeting on March 1. With there being virtually no chance of the COVID-19 outbreak being contained by that date, proceeding with the tournament when everyone else is canceling or scaling back events in order to protect the public would seem reckless.
In the event that the meet is canceled or held behind closed doors, Kansai fans will once again be the ones to lose out.
The last sumo tournament that didn’t go ahead was also one scheduled for Osaka. That was in March of 2011 when the JSA decided to call off the Spring Basho in order to fully deal with an ongoing match-fixing scandal.
Of course, with a massive earthquake and tsunami hitting Japan the day before the tournament would have begun, odds are that the basho wouldn’t have gone ahead anyway.
It would be very unfortunate for Osaka to have been affected by the only two tournaments cancellations since 1946.
Amateur sumo is familiar with such a scenario, with the World Championships in 2009 and 2011, both of which were scheduled to take place in Alexandria, Egypt, being called off because of a flu pandemic and instability surrounding the Arab Spring, respectively.
Of course, in terms of spectators and logistics, even the World Championships pales in comparison to a professional sumo tour.
Close to 107,000 seats have already been sold for the 15 days in Osaka. Losing that revenue and taking the hit for transport, lodgings and venue rental would hit sumo hard and unlike in 2011, an additional difficulty this time would be dealing with refunds.
With e-ticketing not yet having taken hold in sumo, fans would have to physically return their paper tickets to the point of sale. That presents additional difficulties for anyone who purchased their seats through third parties or as part of a package deal.
Thousands of irate fans not only losing the once-a-year opportunity see their favorite rikishi, but also having to take time and effort to get their money back would be a major headache for the JSA.
For tournaments held outside Tokyo, stables usually move to the area a few weeks beforehand to set up practice rings and temporary lodgings. The entire organization consisting of over 750 rikishi as well as a few hundred more elders, referees and various other personnel, have already decamped lock, stock and barrel to Osaka and its surroundings.
Canceling supporter parties, paying for accommodation that won’t be used and losing a big chunk of the organization’s yearly income are all things the JSA will be keen to avoid, so there is still a possibility it may try and go ahead with the tournament and just ask for self-restraint from fans.
While that might lessen the blow in the short term, it could turn into a public relations nightmare if someone tested positive for the virus after attending the tournament, not to mention the damage the appearance of putting financial considerations and a desire to avoid inconvenience ahead of public safety would do to the JSA’s standing.
The fallout from the coronavirus outbreak and how it is being dealt with in Japan is likely to have long term repercussions. People won’t easily forget an organization failing to make their safety its top priority.
It’s a very fluid situation and one that is changing daily, so predicting exactly what will happen between now and March 1 is virtually impossible.
This time, though, the JSA would be wise to follow the lead of other sporting organizations and err on the side of caution by canceling the Osaka tournament.