The Haru Basho Will Happen
Sumo will take place in March.
That's usually a given, with a basho being held every other month, in the odd numbered months. But the novel coronavirus, officially COVID-19, made the status of the March tournament unclear. Today, though, the Japan Sumo Association declared the Haru basho will go forward. The strange pause around sumo (and on this website, but that's unimportant) can end.
All that being said, this will be a strange tournament to watch. No spectators will be allowed in the arena. A number of traditional activities will be curtailed around the basho. The press covering the basho will be at a remove. Most significantly, a wrestler whose temperature reaches 37.5 degrees Celsius (that's 99.5 Fahrenheit) will be declared kyujo and under no circumstances may compete.
These can seem like extreme measures, but it's a wonder they are having any tournament at all. All Japanese schools are closed, and the government has encouraged any large gatherings to be cancelled. The coronavirus is an early-stage global health crisis. In the face of such a crisis, it seems like sumo might have been able to take a small break.
Except sumo doesn't really do that. There have been only two official basho cancellations in the long history of professional sumo. The first was in May 1946, when the Kokugikan was unfit for use while undergoing renovation from war damage. The second was in March 2011, when a large match-fixing scandal had ensnared a number of sumotori. The only times when the Sumo Association has cancelled a basho has been because it could not trust the integrity of the venue or the competitors.
This tournament will be odd, but it will still be sumo. Each day, a series of matches will take place where two men in mawashi fight on a dohyo, with the winner being the wrestler who forces his opponent to the ground or out of the ring. They've been doing that for centuries, with the real recorded history of modern sumo dating to the eighteenth century. Through floods and earthquakes, the Meiji Restoration, World Wars, financial crashes, and anything else that went on in Japanese society, sumo was there in a fairly recognizable form.
The fact we can track records of sumo tournaments to the 18th century provides that sense of constancy, which is mostly illusory. Sumo has changed over the years. Even the sumo of the 1970s is a fundamentally different sport in many ways to the sumo of today. The increased popularity of university sumo, the influx of foreign rikishi, and the way it's now done for television all greatly affect the sport. But the way a basho's record seems to read the same over the years is remarkable.
Perhaps in time, maybe one year or twenty, the Haru 2020 Basho will seem just the same as any other. We'll have a yusho winner. Perhaps an Asanoyama or Shodai will have such an overwhelming performance, they earn an Ozeki promotion. Maybe Takakeisho will win a yusho, then another in May and get the ultimate promotion to Yokozuna. If those take place, then March 2020 will be looked back upon as part of a larger story among other basho.
In the moment, though, it will be strange. A kinboshi will not result in any seat cushions being thrown by the fans, because the fans won't be there to throw them. The sound of a tachiai will change. And every match will look like an early Jonidan match, when no one yet bothers to come to the arena.
At least we'll have some sumo, and Fantasy Basho will be going. Maybe some draft calculations will need to be different. Kyujo announcements might come even more often. But there will be sumo.