Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones aren’t the only all-powerful “Men in Black.”
Long before the two Hollywood stars suited up, sumo’s ringside arbiters were deciding the fates of wrestlers both inside the ring and out.
The five men seated around the ring are all former wrestlers. Two shinpan, as they are known, sit on the back side, one is on the west, one on the east, and the head judge is on the front side.
While the brightly clad referee in the ring calls out the result of each fight, it is the shinpan that have the final say. If one disagrees with the referee’s decision, he will raise his hand and all five judges climb up into the ring for a conference. Instant replay is available if required, with another judge in the booth upstairs able to communicate with the head judge via an earpiece. That first started in 1969 — long before other sports adopted the practice.
The shinpan work in teams and rotate throughout the day. In the top division, they change at the midway point.
All shinpan are part of the Japan Sumo Association’s 23-man judging department. Regular members serve one-year terms and chief judges two. They meet on the Wednesday following each tournament to decide the banzuke (rankings) for the next one.
While there are certain guidelines that are (loosely) followed, each particular combination of men has its own unique eccentricities, which can lead to some very unusual promotions and demotions.
Shinpan normally maintain a stern demeanor, but I once saw an entire crew break out into fits of giggles when a young ring announcer, whose voice was breaking, struggled to get through a particular difficult wrestler’s name.
By the time the unfortunate teenager reached his third octave, one judge was literally in floods of tears laughing and could barely see what was going on for the next few bouts.