Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Unpredictable banzuke adds flavor to sumo

by John Gunning

For sports journalists based in Japan’s capital, no reminders are needed to know the last of the three annual non-Tokyo tournaments is just around the corner.

The decamping of the Japan Sumo Association to Fukuoka and its surroundings is lock, stock and barrel, meaning that if you want to watch training or talk face to face with a rikishi, you’ll need to fly to Kyushu from the middle of October onward.

The wrestlers’ absence has been particularly noticeable this year as there has been a flood of inquires from rugby players and journalists about watching sumo live, especially after teams have been eliminated and those involved finally have some free time.

The fact that virtually all JSA personal are already in Fukuoka has meant most of the rugby people asking have been left disappointed.

The period after the release of the banzuke rankings is when things always kick into a higher gear and focus on the upcoming tournament sharpens.

One of the most interesting parts of each banzuke day is seeing how the judging committee punished or rewarded certain records from the previous tournament.

Unlike other sports such as rugby and tennis that have a ranking system, sumo’s banzuke is not based on ELO ratings or any other algorithmic system.

Instead, 23 men literally meet in a smoke-filled room three days after each tournament and hash out the rankings for the next one.

Essentially, the banzuke is no different than power rankings for American football published in media outlets, except that in sumo’s case those same rankings determine the salaries and lifestyles of the wrestlers involved.

Just as with any subjective power ranking, shock and outrage among the fan base is an inevitable part of the reaction.

A favorite wrestler not making the three sanyaku ranks below yokozuna or being promoted to ozeki is all it takes for furious posts to be written, condemning the Japan Sumo Association.

Not that those hammering away at keyboards don’t have a point.

Sumo could easily institute a transparent and fair ranking system that would allow wrestlers, supporters and the media to know exactly how each win and loss would affect a rikishi’s rank.

Thankfully, there is no movement to do so.

The human element of the banzuke is one of the sport’s essential charms. While a wrestler may be unlucky with promotion or demotion from time to time, the nature of the sport means everyone gets what they deserve in the long run.

Even with questionable decisions, there is often enough of a margin to make either position defensible.

This time out, the biggest surprise came not so much in the order of the rikishi but the ranks they were given.

For the first time in 13 years, the judging committee decided to go with four wrestlers at the komusubi rank.

It was the fairest thing to do after Abi and Endo had winning records at komusubi last time out but Hokutofuji and Asanoyama both did enough to earn the slot.

Although sumo’s third- and fourth-highest ranks (sekiwake and komusubi) don’t have special promotion criteria like those of yokozuna and ozeki, and more than half of the current top division has been ranked in sanyaku at some stage, there is prestige, and a decent salary bump, attached to the position.

For some fans a rikishi’s position on the banzuke has more personal repercussions.

One of the oldest of the many fantasy-style sumo games online is Guess the Banzuke, where every two months sumo fans around the world try and put themselves in the shoes of the judging committee and come up with the next tournaments rankings.

While a simple game in theory, it’s quite difficult in practice, especially when the decision-makers, as they did this time out, pull a move that hasn’t been seen in almost a decade and a half.

Playing the game well requires a solid knowledge of not just current scores but also past trends.

That’s something which results in the game having a small number of players, but those that do participate are well informed and many have participated since the late 1990s.

Looking at the entry stats is a good way of seeing just how surprising each position on the banzuke is.

This tournament there were 100 players and every single one of them got the top three ranks (including east and west) right.

Scores decreased but remained high all the way down to Endo at komusubi 1 west. Seventy-six people got that correct with the remaining 24 having him at komusubi 1 east.

We can see just how much of a surprise the Hokutofuji and Asanoyama promotions were by the fact that only seven and three people respectively, out of 100, guessed those slots correctly.

That of course created a knock-on effect, but the only rikishi that no one got right was Chiyotairyu at maegashira 11 west with 95 percent of contestants expecting his 2-13 record last time out to result in a bigger fall.

Were sumo ever to switch to a more transparent and easily caculatable ranking system, games like Guess the Banzuke would disappear but more importantly the sport would lose a part of its history that’s absolutely worth keeping.

I’ve campaigned for change in many anachronistic areas of sumo, but the quirkiness of the banzuke rankings is something I believe should remain untouched.

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