The Ryogoku Kokugikan was the setting for two of the most significant pieces of sumo news this week.
First up was the (limited) resumption of training between wrestlers from different stables at the arena’s practice rings.
For the first time in seven months, top-rankers were able to spar with their main rivals — something invaluable to rikishi such as Asanoyama and Mitakeumi, who train in stables without any opponents of a comparable level. Both men had been forced to prepare for the July and September tournaments whilst going against wrestlers from at least two divisions lower.
There will also be more fans in attendance at the Kokugikan next month than at the previous two meets. The Japan Sumo Association announced a doubling of the previous cap to 5,000 daily for the November tournament.
While the Kokugikan itself got no more than a cursory mention in either report, its importance to the JSA, and the vital role it has played as the organization tries to navigate its way through the ongoing pandemic cannot be overstated.
As other sports scrambled to organize bubbles or institute safety measures at a variety of venues, sumo was able to lock down a schedule for the entire year with little to no trouble.
A sporting body owning its own full-size arena isn’t all that common, but it is something that has allowed the JSA to easily switch tournaments scheduled for other cities to its home base in the capital.
In many, if not most, cases, basketball, rugby, soccer and other sports in Japan play their games in arenas and stadiums that the teams or leagues in question do not own. While it’s cheaper to rent, and more flexible in normal times, over the past year governing bodies trying to safely negotiate the return of fans and rearrange schedules have encountered additional headaches because stadium owners have varying requirements that must be met, and suitable dates at those venues may already be booked out by other sports.
The Kokugikan, of course, is also used for non-sumo events. The flexible layout and large floor space mean everything from professional wrestling to music concerts to Ferrari’s 70th-anniversary celebration have taken place at the iconic venue. While that may come as a surprise to some, the Kokugikan has never experienced a Beatles at the Budokan-type backlash for allowing its hallowed halls to be used for more prosaic purposes.
At the end of the day, the JSA is the owner of the building and the sole decider of what events take place there. As a result, if the Kokugikan is needed for a sumo tournament, then that takes precedence, and other events have to be rescheduled.
Being able to use the Kokugikan’s main arena whenever needed isn’t the only thing that has allowed the JSA to create a tightly controlled bubble of sorts either. The building also houses the association’s offices, function rooms, clinic, school, kitchens and pretty much everything else needed for the day-to-day running of sumo.
Basically, there is no need for anyone in the JSA to travel to another location to conduct business.
That bubble also extends to the building’s surroundings as well. Sumo is ingrained in the fabric of the Ryogoku area, and roughly half of the sport’s 44 stables are within walking distance of the Kokugikan.
When you combine that with the JSA having the power to completely lock down the movements of its roughly 1,000-strong membership, then it’s easy to see why sumo has been able to hold indoor tournaments with a few thousand fans in attendance since July.
In line with what’s happening elsewhere in Japan, those attendances are set to see a significant rise in the near future. Even with 5,000 fans present, however, the Kokugikan will still be at less than 50% capacity. Two people per box, rather than one as seen in July and September, also means that the audience size will be the same as that mooted for the boxing tournament at next year’s Olympic Games.
Coincidentally a government-approved trial allowing Yokohama Stadium to be filled to near capacity as a test event ahead of the upcoming Olympiad is due to take place shortly before the November sumo tournament.
With the government and Tokyo 2020 organizers seemingly determined to push ahead with hosting the Olympics and Paralympics next summer, having a sporting meet with 5,000 fans in attendance go smoothly will be a big boost to their cause. There is no suggestion that it’s the reason for the increase in numbers, but the upcoming basho is certain be watched closely by those with an interest in seeing the Olympics go ahead.
The November meet will, by the way, be the third of four straight tournaments held at the Ryogoku Kokugikan. That’s the longest streak in one location since 1944, a time when the previous building to hold the name was still standing.
The JSA is planning to resume holding regional meets with the Osaka tournament in March next year.
If COVID-19 is resurgent, however, and that becomes impossible, the JSA will have the fall back option of the Kokugikan — a building sumo fans are fortunate exists.
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