Sumo wrestlers attend the spring grand sumo tournament held behind closed doors due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus, in Edion Arena, Osaka, on Sunday. Sumo's spring tournament began behind closed doors, the latest big event in Japan to be hit by the coronavirus less than five months before the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: AFP / STR / Jiji Press

The Japanese national newspaper Asahi Shimbun runs a daily front-page column called “Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” written by the senior editors. Despite its very Western, positively Enlightenment name, the column’s theme is usually something topical and quintessentially Japanese: literature, poetry, the flowers that are blooming or the fish that are jumping today, or some historical event.

The paper is left of center, so sometimes the column offers allegorical or even direct criticism of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration. Whatever the topic, the editors of the column are erudite and their writing, both terse and eloquent, is the hallmark of the Asahi.

Monday’s topic was the unusual Sumo Spring Basho, which started Sunday evening to an empty Edion Arena in Osaka because of the coronavirus epidemic. My quick translation for your amusement (and for my mental training) follows. The only background information you need is that the Japanese word for a cold is kaze, but the word kaze written with different characters means “wind.”

“The great middle-Edo period rikishi Tanikaze once boasted, ‘No one can take me down in the ring, so if you ever want to see me on my back, you’ll have to come visit me when I have a cold.’

“In 1784, Tanikaze [‘wind in the valley’] was in fact laid low by a cold. The press of the day nicknamed the cold the ‘Tanikaze.’ According to Yu Fujikawa’s book The History of Disease in Japan, the cold that Tanikaze contracted was most likely a virulent strain of influenza.

“Tanikaze recovered and went on to win basho after basho, attaining tremendous popularity, but later in his career he caught influenza again and perished suddenly. The people of the Edo period [1603-1868] were flabbergasted that a reigning yokozuna [grand champion] could succumb so quickly.

“‘Long ago it was believed that when rikishi performed the traditional shiko before a basho, they had the power to crush evil spirits into the sand of the dohyo under their feet.’  So began Sunday’s greeting speech of current Sumo Association chairman Nobuyoshi Hakkaku [formerly Yokozuna Hokutoumi] – which brings to a reader’s mind the long historical relationship between Sumo rikishi and infectious diseases.

“With the storm of [the] coronavirus raging around us, the Spring Basho opened Sunday with no audience,” the anonymous Asahi writer continued. “From reporter colleagues who were there to cover Day One, I hear that Ryogoku Kokugikan was shrouded in an eerie silence. There were no cheers and no screams. When Yokozuna Hakuho performed his dohyo-iri, the sound of his feet sliding in the sand and the hiss of his exhalation could be heard up into the bleachers.

“It was two weeks ago that the Abe-appointed council of experts sounded the alarm, saying, ‘Japan is at a crossroads – the next two weeks will see the coronavirus either subside or spread rapidly.’

“Today, in every town and village of the country, schools are closed, sporting events are canceled, people are searching for masks and switching to off-peak commuting. When will we see the fruits of all this effort?

“The unprecedented ‘audience-less basho’ will run until March 22nd. All we can do is hope that these anxious days will end by Senshu-Raku.”

PS: A glossary (I think you don’t need this but just in case):

Shiko: The ritual performance when the rikishi lifts one heel to the side high over his head and stomps down on the ground.

Dohyo-iri: The longer, more ornamental performance performed by the yokozuna before their bouts begin.

Senshu-Raku: The last day of the basho.

Vox populi, vox dei (I mustn’t forget that no one studies Latin any more): The voice of the people is the voice of God.

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Peter Jaeger

Educated as a Japan scholar, New York native Peter Jaeger is a writer, translator and veteran of 30 years in Tokyo financial markets.