Sport is often a microcosm of life, with what takes place on the field of play — or in the coach's office — regularly reflecting overall trends in a particular country.

Sumo is no different. Just as the initial wave of fear over COVID-19 was gradually replaced by habituation and an increasing casualness amongst a large section of the general population, and “Stay at Home” morphed into “Go To," so too did spectator-free and canceled tournaments give way to those with an increasing number of fans in attendance.

The results of becoming accustomed to danger are clear to see in the headlines. COVID-19 case numbers nationally continue to reach new heights, and the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) has had to deal with several outbreaks of the disease — including one that put its biggest star, yokozuna Hakuho, out of action.

Against that backdrop, and with Tokyo and three adjacent prefectures entering a state of emergency, the January tournament at the Ryogoku Kokugikan gets underway this weekend.

The challenge for the JSA, as for the government, is to find ways to reduce the risk of infection while keeping the show on the road and avoiding financial disaster.

Of course, shutting everything down and imposing stricter quarantine rules would be the best solution from a public health point of view, but economic pressures mean such a move is almost certain not to happen either at a national or sumo level.

Even a return to the kind of empty arena tournament seen in March is highly unlikely given that the JSA’s 2020 finances were reportedly ¥5.5 billion ($53 million) in the red.

With infections breaking out at several stables, the Japan Sumo Association did however decide to put a halt to ticket sales for January and test all wrestlers and other stable members ahead of the upcoming meet.

The latter move is a welcome one but the former will have little practical effect as most sales had already taken place, and the existing 5,000-person daily limit on spectators complies with the threshold recommended by the government.

With the health of participants and fans alike uppermost in everyone’s minds and a COVID-19 situation that changes daily, the usual discussion of how things will go in the ring during the tournament has been somewhat lost in the mix.

The first basho of 2021 is a crucial one for several wrestlers, though, and — as we have seen in the past — once the action gets underway it quickly takes center stage and sidelines other topics.

With a top-two finish in the January meet, Ozeki Takakeisho could become sumo's next yokozuna. | JAPAN SUMO ASSOCIATION / VIA KYODO
With a top-two finish in the January meet, Ozeki Takakeisho could become sumo’s next yokozuna. | JAPAN SUMO ASSOCIATION / VIA KYODO

Despite neither of the two current yokozuna taking part in the tournament, the sport’s highest rank will still be in the spotlight. The Yokozuna Deliberation Council, an advisory panel that has a say in matters pertaining to grand champions, issued a rare warning to both Hakuho and Kakuryu at the end of last year and left few in doubt that if either failed to compete in January, retirement recommendations would be forthcoming.

Hakuho contracting COVID-19 of course creates an entirely different situation, and the Miyagino stable man will likely be absent in January without fear of censure.

Kakuryu’s situation, as a yokozuna at least, is more acute. The veteran has made it to day 15 just once since his last championship in July of 2019, and his Michinoku stable announced on Friday that he would not be participating in the New Year tournament, extending his streak of absences to four straight meets.

Nothing in training reports or interviews over the past few weeks had inspired confidence that he will be able to survive as an active rikishi past January. With his Japanese citizenship application finally having been approved after a long and nerve-wracking wait, Kakuryu is now eligible to stay in sumo as an elder after retirement — and it’d be a surprise if that doesn’t happen in the near future.

The 35-year-old has long been overshadowed by his three fellow Mongolian yokozuna (Asashoryu, Hakuho and Harumafuji) in terms of achievement, popularity and newspaper headlines, but Kakuryu’s career, taken in a wider historical context, is better than it might seem at first glance.

Six Emperor’s Cups, especially in a time when arguably the greatest rikishi ever was active, put him ahead of many yokozuna, and while his quiet demeanor might not get most fans fired up, it’s exactly the type of dignity someone at the rank is supposed to display.

The soft-spoken and cerebral Ulaanbaatar native will almost certainly make a good stablemaster when he does hang up his mawashi belt, but should that happen this month many in the sport would be disappointed to see him finish his career without a flourish.

Takakeisho trains at Tokiwayama stable on Dec. 10. | POOL / VIA KYODO
Takakeisho trains at Tokiwayama stable on Dec. 10. | POOL / VIA KYODO

Even if Kakuryu does call it quits, he could very well be replaced at the yokozuna level with the next set of rankings.

Unthinkable as it might have seemed at the end of last summer, ozeki Takakeisho is on the cusp of promotion to sumo’s highest rank.

The cannonball-esque youngster has been hot since the start of September, and the manner of his second championship last time out was particularly impressive. After a crushing and emphatic loss to Terunofuji on the final day that drew the giant Mongolian level, forcing a playoff between the pair for the Emperor’s Cup, Takakeisho quickly put what could have been a momentum-killing loss behind him and blasted the komusubi straight back and out of the ring in the title decider.

Lifting silverware in November means Takakeisho has a very good chance of bucking the trend and making yokozuna in his first attempt at promotion. Nothing in sumo happens in a vacuum and with both current incumbents at the very end of their careers, a solid runner-up performance for Takakeisho in January should be enough to see him get the white rope. Nothing in the rules of sumo says that there has to be a yokozuna but a banzuke without one isn’t something that anyone connected to the sport wants to see.

While Takakeisho’s chances of attaining at least a runner-up position in the upcoming tournament are boosted by the absences of Hakuho and Kakuryu, the odds of him taking back-to-back titles aren’t all that great.

As good as he has been over the past few months, maintaining that level of performance for a pusher-thruster is always a challenge. Takakeisho’s style of sumo doesn’t offer the kind of fall-back options open to men who are more adept on the belt. If his timing is off even a little at the initial charge, the four or five losses that would kill his promotion chances could easily come before the final weekend.

Another obstacle for Takakeisho is the fact that, unlike in years gone by, there are now many more credible challengers for silverware in the top division. Just because the yokozuna are out or in poor condition doesn't mean the championship is there for the taking, as it would have been in the past.

The number of men who know what it takes to lift the Emperors Cup is in double digits, and while the likes of Tamawashi or Tokushoryu are long shots to reattain such heights, Asanoyama, Shodai, Terunofuji and Mitakeumi are former champions who could easily be so again. Takayasu or Hokutofuji lifting silverware for the first time wouldn’t be a huge surprise either.

Yokozuna Kakuryu, who will miss his fourth straight basho, could retire soon after finally receiving Japanese citizenship. | POOL / VIA KYODO
Yokozuna Kakuryu, who will miss his fourth straight basho, could retire soon after finally receiving Japanese citizenship. | POOL / VIA KYODO

With so many front-runners present, picking a dark horse candidate can be difficult. But 21-year-old Kotoshoho has been nothing but impressive since making his top-division debut last year.

The Sadogatake stable youngster will have his toughest challenge to date in January and, at a career high rank of maegashira 3, will likely face all the top wrestlers over the 15 days. Kotoshoho isn’t yet a finished product and inexperience still shows in some of his bouts, but all the ingredients are there for a long and successful career. If he can get off to a hot start in January, anything is possible.

Uncertainty is the key word when it comes to sumo currently. The impossible-to-predict action in the ring is matched by a fingers-crossed approach outside it.

The hope for all those involved in the sport, as well as any who follow it, is that everything goes as smoothly as it has over the past few tournaments. The countermeasures and guidelines for those attending sumo appear to have worked for the most part — though it’s impossible to know whether or not there were fans at tournaments who subsequently tested positive but didn’t inform the JSA.

With daily infections in Japan in early January rising to many times the numbers recorded during the September and November tournaments, the upcoming meet figures to be a nervous one not just for those in the ring but also the fans in attendance each day.

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