A common trope found in movies and TV shows has a protagonist desperately trying (but failing) to convince authorities of the seriousness of impending danger.

The hero becomes increasingly frustrated by their inaction while watching the threat (whether from aliens, shadowy subversive organizations or supervolcanoes) grow.

It’s been hard to avoid the feeling that real life is following a similar pattern this month as a second wave of COVID-19 infections fights for newspaper headline space with business reopenings and lifting of restrictions across the country.

The sporting world has been no different — pressing on with plans to gradually increase attendance at various competitions and events.

Nippon Professional Baseball and the J. League both allowed up to 5,000 spectators at games last week. The two organizations seem set to follow government guidelines and push that figure up to 50 percent of venue capacity starting Aug. 1.

Against that backdrop the Japan Sumo Association revealed July 13 that it will sell 2,500 tickets per day for the tournament due to get underway on Sunday.

Although the JSA had ruled nothing out ahead of the announcement, the partial reopening still came as a shock, and caught many people off guard.

Few insiders had expected sumo’s governing body to allow the public back in so soon, especially with it being the only Japanese sport to have had one of its athletes die after contracting the new coronavirus.

The fact the announcement came just six days before action gets underway at the Kokugikan, and that there hadn’t been enough time to properly evaluate the impact of fan attendance at other sports, also meant that an early reopening seemed unlikely.

In contrast to soccer and baseball, which hold games in open air stadiums and large domes, sumo takes place indoors. The Kokugikan, although not small, is a much more enclosed arena than any venue used by either NPB or the J. League.

Reaction to the decision online reflected the surprise and concern expressed by many who work in the sport.

In a rare case of English and Japanese language social media platforms having concurring opinions about sumo, most people seemed happy that the tournament would go ahead but disagreed with the decision to open the doors to the general public.

Many of those commenting in Japanese wondered whether the announced protective measures would be sufficient and expressed concern over the health of both rikishi and fans.

Foreign fans seemed perplexed by the decision, especially with COVID-19 numbers in Tokyo rising rapidly over the past week.

They aren’t the only ones.

Without being privy to deliberations inside the JSA, it’s hard to know what prompted such an unexpected course of action.

It’s no surprise that the powers have been keeping a close eye on other sports and were obviously influenced by reopenings in soccer and baseball but, as mentioned above, the venues used by those sports don’t really have much in common with the Kokugikan.

With many coronavirus carriers also asymptomatic the taking of fans’ temperatures on the way into games doesn’t necessarily prevent those infected from entering the arena, and so the impact of opening up won’t really be seen for at least another couple of weeks.

The JSA decision was accompanied by an announcement that the November tournament will also take place in Tokyo. Although a wise decision, it appears to have come as a shock to the Japan Sumo Federation — the governing body for amateur sumo in the country. With the All-Japan University Championships due to take place in the Kokugikan on Nov. 7 and 8, moving the Kyushu Basho to the capital would require a change of date for one of collegiate sumo’s biggest events. According to reports in the Japanese sporting press, the JSF revealed that the JSA didn’t contact them until July 14th — the day after the decision was made public.

In a country where the principle of harmony reigns and ensuring everyone is on the same page before announcements are made is the norm, that was a very surprising piece of news and would seem to indicate the JSA decision came late, and without time to properly fill all the relevant parties in. Certainly, none of the sources that normally provide a heads-up on such things saw this coming.

With the JSA seemingly under no outside pressure to open the doors in July, it is hard to see why they would take such a risk. Financially (on the surface at least) the organization doesn’t appear to be in anything like the same kind of dire straits that other sporting bodies have found themselves in.

Perhaps it’s simply a matter of optimism within the JSA and a wish to get back to normal as soon as possible. If that were the case though why cancel the winter regional tour and announce the moving of the November tournament so far in advance? Most of the decisions made by sumo’s governing body to date have been on the conservative side and seemed to indicate a belief that COVID-19 will be with us for quite a while yet.

The sudden and unexpected decision made on July 13 is certainly a puzzle, but all one can do now is hope that it won’t backfire.

Will the July tournament be safe? No one can say that for sure, but one thing is certain — it won’t be as safe as a tournament with no fans.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.