Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Unsung yobidashi keep sumo running smoothly

by John Gunning

Who spends the most time in a sumo ring?

Wrestlers? Nope.

Referees? Uh-uh.

As any veteran fan can tell you, it is of course the yobidashi.

Sumo’s ‘ring announcers’ not only maintain the dohyo but also build the thing in the first place.

Over the course of three days in the lead up to a tournament, all 44 (currently) yobidashi pound and sculpt several tons of clay into the familiar raised-ring shape.

Once finished, and with the meet under way, the lower-ranking yobidashi spend most of the 15 days from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on or around the ring doing a multitude of tasks.

Ever present but largely unnoticed, the various responsibilities they have could fill an entire column in and of themselves.

First and foremost, though, is living up to their job title — yobidashi literally means to call out or beckon.

Wearing traditional workmen’s clothing and holding the folding fan that is seen as the symbol of their profession, yobidashi step up on the ring and call out the wrestler’s names in a sing-song voice.

The fan is plain white and its purpose is to prevent spittle falling on the sacred surface of the dohyo.

Look closely, though, and you’ll also see yobidashi keep a tiny cheat sheet with the wrestler’s shikona (fighting names) tucked away in their other hand. With hundreds of wrestlers in the association and shikona changing regularly, yobidashi learn early on to do a quick double check before mounting the ring.

During a tournament, the yobidashi are also officially responsible for carrying advertising banners, keeping the power water, power paper and salt stocked, sweeping the ring, handing towels to wrestlers and drumming to announce the start and end of the day’s activities.

They are also tasked with doing whatever odd jobs or errands may arise. Whenever a ringside judge wants his glasses fetched or food or cigarettes from the local convenience store, the yobidashi is the first person he calls.

It’s not like yobidashi get handsomely rewarded for their efforts either.

The highest ranked tate-yobidashi only receives a monthly salary of about ¥360,000 to ¥400,000.

While that’s roughly equivalent to the average salary in Japan as a whole, it must be remembered that the tate-yobidashi is a person at the top of his profession. He is the sole holder of his title with 45-50 years experience.

That’s still a fortune, however, compared to the paltry ¥14,000 a month a new recruit earns. Even taking into account the fact that food and board are provided, the compensation yobidashi receive for the amount of work they do is stunningly low.

The obvious question is what motivates men to take up such poorly paid and tough work?

Like rikishi themselves, yobidashi’s reasons for joining sumo are varied.

Some loved the sport and wanted to be wrestlers but just didn’t have the physical tools to succeed.

One such man is Tasuke (yobidashi only use one name) of Yamahibiki Stable. Although a talented amateur at junior high school level, he didn’t meet the stricter height requirements in place in the 1990s and so chose to become a yobidashi.

I can personally attest to his abilities, as a Tasuke-led yobidashi team defeated the NHK World side I was a part of to take the title in a special tournament organized by the Japan Sumo Association in 2012.

He and I both had 6-0 individual records in that event. Seeing how talented he was, I’m glad the scheduling didn’t have us meet, allowing me to finish my career on a high.

Other yobidashi, like Keisuke of Shibatayama Stable, ended up in sumo the same way many wrestlers do. The Kanazawa native was at a loose end after finishing compulsory education when a family friend with connections to the stablemaster offered him a career path in a sport to which he previously had no ties.

Tsurutaro of Nishikido Stable is one of four brothers who joined sumo, but the only one that wasn’t a wrestler.

Not that that makes his life any more comfortable.

Yobidashi are subject to the same strict hierarchical rules that govern wrestler’s lives. Unlike rikishi, who control their own fate in the ring, however, yobidashi can only climb the ranks with time. It’s not uncommon to see men in their mid 30s living in stables in situations not dissimilar to 15 year old kids — sharing a room with 10 other men and keeping all their possessions in a plastic box.

Keisuke once told me he joined sumo partly as a way to get out of his hometown and see the world. He didn’t realize he would have such little time off, and even when on regional tours the schedule would be so packed that he would see little beyond the venue or his hotel.

A longtime die-hard fan of rock group Red Hot Chili Peppers, to his chagrin he has never been able to get time off when they toured Japan.

Just as with wrestlers, though, the higher you rise the more freedom you have, and after more than a decade and a half in the sport, the 35-year-old has finally reached a stage where he has been able to move out into his own apartment and get some freedom.

Keisuke, thanks to his good looks, has actually always been one of the better-known yobidashi. Back when Mixi was Japan’s dominant social network, there were several groups devoted to him with the largest having hundreds of members.

As the social media landscape has grown, so has the profile of many of the previously invisible yobidashi.

One of the more well known these days is Teruya. A soccer fanatic like fellow Isegahama Stable man Terutsuyoshi, Teruya has used his new-found fame to connect with players at his beloved Nagoya Grampus, as well as secure tickets for Japan games.

Considering how hard the yobidashi work and for how little thanks, it’s good to see the men without whom sumo couldn’t function finally get some recognition.