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One of the most eagerly anticipated aspects of each sumo tournament is the release of the new banzuke rankings.

Containing the names of all 650 or so men in the sport’s six divisions, as well as various elders, referees, ring announcers and hairdressers, the banzuke dictates not only where a rikishi stands in relation to his peers, but also many aspects of his life over the following two months.

The excitement and apprehension felt by wrestlers as they scan the banzuke for their names is a direct result of the vagueness of the judging criteria.

Sumo — unlike international rugby, for example — has no built-in ranking formula that allows positions following wins and losses to be known ahead of a contest.

Japan’s national sport, although generally sticking to established guidelines, relies mostly on a human element to determine how performances in the previous tournament should be rewarded or punished.

The unpredictability of those decisions creates its own unique tension, and has even spawned one of the internet’s longest running sumo games, with the utilitarian moniker of “Guess the Banzuke.”

With the release of each new set of rankings comes the inevitable incredulity as fans try to decipher the reasoning behind seemingly over-generous promotions or harsh demotions.

Given that the banzuke is essentially a Power Ranking list that actually matters, it’s no surprise that reactions online are often vociferous.

Sumo has seen an explosion of international interest over the past few years, and every two months a new batch of fans wants answers to the same questions.

Ozeki Shodai holds up the new banzuke ranking sheet on Monday at Tokitsukaze stable. | JAPAN SUMO ASSOCIATION / VIA KYODO
Ozeki Shodai holds up the new banzuke ranking sheet on Monday at Tokitsukaze stable. | JAPAN SUMO ASSOCIATION / VIA KYODO

The banzuke’s division into east and west (with wrestlers on the former considered a half-rank higher) is often a cause of confusion — especially as rikishi can be arbitrarily assigned to either side of the arena on any given day.

The use of east and west, and the primacy of one over the other has several possible explanations — most of which tie into ancient East Asian history.

There are plenty of theories involving the seating position of an Emperor in relation to the rising sun, but the relation between those ideas to sumo in general — and to the banzuke in particular — feels tenuous at best.

The actual most likely explanation for why east is considered higher is much more prosaic. In 1890, when rikishi generally occupied the same side of the banzuke every tournament, Nishinoumi was slated to be ranked behind a younger ozeki who hadn’t received the (then-honorific) title of yokozuna. Unhappy with the situation, Nishinoumi demanded that his yokozuna designation be written on the banzuke. Once that happened, yokozuna came to be seen as an actual rank separate to ozeki, and since the only extant yokozuna over the following six years was always east-ranked, that side of the banzuke came to be seen as pre-eminent.

In the early 1900s when the first Kokugikan was opened, east and west sides of the banzuke began competing in a team tournament with the victorious team getting the flag that is now given to the Emperor’s Cup winner.

Although the banzuke has been around for centuries it’s gone through several evolutions. In the 1700s it was written horizontally on two separate sheets of paper, more closely resembling a modern-day fight card than a list of all the current rikishi. Wrestlers would appear and disappear from the banzuke depending on whether or not they were scheduled to compete.

As the banzuke became more formalized so too did the style in which it was written.

A form of calligraphy unique to sumo developed. Using thick strokes, the amount of white space between lines is minimized. This is to mimic (and hope for) packed venues — something made impossible these days by attendance caps and social distancing measures.

The line outside the Kokugikan to get the physical banzuke at 6:00 a.m. on the day of release is something else that COVID-19 has put paid to, but the JSA has compensated with a preorder and delivery service that has freshly printed banzuke arriving in mailboxes the same morning.

There are more people ordering the banzuke than might be imagined. Half a million copies are printed for most tournaments these days, but that number has reached as many as 700,000 in the past.

The convoluted history and opaque method of arrangement makes a banzuke one of sumo’s most fascinating souvenirs. The symmetry and uniqueness of its appearance also make it an ideal gift, as well as a great conversation piece to hang in one’s home.

For sumo insiders, release day has also been an opportune time to have longer text chats with younger rikishi who are bored of spending the whole day folding banzuke and putting them in envelopes addressed to stable sponsors.

The November 2020 banzuke contains a few decisions that could raise eyebrows, but nothing really head scratching. Terunofuji making his debut at komusubi years after reaching sekiwake and ozeki is an interesting piece of trivia, and seeing many of the sport’s young rising stars at career-high ranks near the top of the banzuke is a confirmation that the long-mooted generational shift is approaching full bloom.

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