A sharp rise in the number of COVID-19 cases nationwide at the start of the year forced the Japan Sumo Association to shelve its plan to hold the March tournament in Osaka.

Instead the spring meet — like the previous four basho — will take place at Ryogoku Kokugikan in Tokyo.

The move means that for the third time in the past 11 years, fans in the Kansai region will be without an official grand sumo tournament.

A match-fixing scandal in early 2011 that rocked the sport and led to the expulsion of more than twenty wrestlers and elders resulted in that year’s Osaka tournament being called off. Although with the scheduled start date having been just two days after the subsequent Great East Japan Earthquake, the meet would most likely have been unable to go ahead in any case.

Twelve months ago, just as the coronavirus pandemic was starting to have a major impact in Japan, the JSA decided to go ahead with the Osaka tournament but hold it behind closed doors. That move, although made with the safety of spectators in mind, unfortunately cost fans in Kansai a chance to see the first Nara-born champion in over a century in action.

As a result of the pandemic-enforced cancellation of the past two spring regional tours and the relocation of 2021’s March Basho to the capital, there will be at least a three-year gap between live sumo events for residents of Japan’s second-most populous region.

It’s a tough blow for those in sumo’s birthplace, but ultimately the right decision. Unlike in Tokyo and its surroundings, sumo stables maintain no permanent bases for the Osaka, Nagoya or Fukuoka meets. That means moving into temporary accommodation in shrines and similar complexes where rikishi will be in contact with non-JSA personnel. Add to that the need to take public transport right into the heart of the city (where the Osaka Prefectural Gym is located) and the risks — especially during a state of emergency — aren’t justifiable.

Still, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for those in the City of Water. Osaka is well known for its loud and passionate support, and sumo is poorer without the exuberance that fans there bring to each day of the tournament.

Supporters aren’t the only ones on whom the cancellations take a toll, either. Sumo’s teahouses — the ticket sellers that deal in premium seats and packages — are unique to each venue. While the 20 chaya located in the Kokugikan have had to deal with reduced attendances, an increase in the number of tournaments in the capital over the past year has offset that to a degree.

Osaka’s eight teahouses, meanwhile, have had no business since 2019 and, according to inside sources, some of them may not survive to see the next spring tournament. Other companies located in the Kansai region are similarly missing out on the regular income that sumo brings with it each March, dealing them a heavy blow when the pandemic has already dimmed their future prospects.

With roughly half of all rikishi in sumo having made their debuts in Osaka, and a large number hailing from the surrounding areas, the relocation of the spring meet takes away the opportunity to meet old acquaintances and indulge in some nostalgia. Few athletes enjoy food as much as those in Japan’s national sport, so missing out on a trip to the nation’s kitchen is also a cause of chagrin. Wrestlers from Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto often go misty-eyed when rhapsodizing about local delicacies such as takoyaki, okonomiyaki and kushikatsu.

Even though the March tournament will go ahead this year, the fact that it will be in Tokyo rather than Osaka means all kinds of features will be different. Everything from the number and type of trophies awarded to the eventual champion, to the kinds of souvenirs and foods available at the various stalls dotted around the venue. The Kokugikan also lacks Osaka’s brown-jacketed and stone-faced Tozaikai supporters sitting ringside with their rules against overt displays of emotion.

For fans that normally travel to Osaka in March, there will be no chance this year to visit sumo locations of note in the region including the site of the Dai-Kokugikan, and the spot in Nara where the first-ever sumo bout took place in 23 B.C.

Tokyo may be the heart of the sport these days, but Kansai is where everything got going and its separation from sumo over the past couple of years has been keenly felt.

One thing about Osaka that won’t been missed is the lack of surprise among recent champions. It’s been 18 years since Chiyotaikai became the last rikishi to win the March tournament and not make yokozuna. Hakuho, Asashoryu, Kakuryu and Kisenosato are the only wrestlers to have lifted the Emperor’s Cup there since 2003.

Given the current state of sumo, and the number of first-time title winners that the sport has seen over the past few year, that will likely soon change. With fully one quarter of the men in the top division having a title to their name, chances are good that the Spring Basho will regain its stormy reputation when it returns to its rightful location next year.

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