Framing Japan as a land of contrasts is undoubtedly a cliche, but there is no denying that the everyday juxtaposition of the ancient and modern is one of this country’s more striking aspects, as well as a major driver of inbound tourism.
While ancient buildings dotted among glittering skyscrapers may not be a sight unique to Tokyo, 17th century clothing still being commonly worn on the streets of a 21st century metropolis certainly is.
Japan’s living history is always front and center, and it can easily be found in any of the countless small workshops and studios that still produce clothing, food and crafts using methods unchanged for centuries.
Sumo takes this notion to the nth degree — there is a staggering incongruity in a professional modern-day sport almost wholly relying on training methods developed around the time William Shakespeare was writing “Hamlet.”
As recent events have shown, there are aspects of sumo desperately in need of modernization, but the sport as a whole is attractive to many precisely because of its unchanging nature.
Whether it’s the elaborate costumes worn by referees or the stoic samurai-like manner with which wrestlers accept both victory and defeat, sumo’s pageantry and ceremony are vital to its continued popularity.
From the 24/7 nature of life in a stable to the mawashi belt being the sole item of clothing worn in a bout, numerous aspects of sumo are also without parallel in the wider world of sport.
One of the most visible and unique of those facets is the banzuke.
Of course, many kinds of sports have rankings. Games as diverse as tennis, rugby and chess list their participants in order. What sets sumo’s banzuke apart though is not just the vague nature of its construction, but also the fact that at each and every tournament the new rankings are written down with intricate stylized calligraphy, printed and distributed to stables. Fans can also preorder those ranking sheets online (for ¥55, or about $0.50, each) and have them delivered to any Japanese address on the morning of release.
Banzuke have been produced since the mid-1700s. Owning one is like having an immutable and beautiful snapshot of a particular moment in sumo history. A single sheet of paper not only shows the relative positions of 700 or so men, but also lets you know what kind of clothing and footwear each one is allowed to use, and how much they earn — or indeed if they earn anything at all. With the origin of a rikishi written above his name, it’s also possible to observe trends such as the foreign domination of sumo a decade ago at a glance.
Dynasties rise and fall, and a look at this week’s newly released banzuke shows that there are roughly half as many rikishi of non-Japanese origin in the top division as in 2011. Origin of course is the operative word as, despite the fact that they acquired Japanese citizenship years ago, men like Hakuho and Kaisei are still written as hailing from Mongolia and Brazil, respectively.
Tochinoshin is a rare case in having his origin changed on the banzuke. Since May 2015, it’s been the katakana spelling of Georgia — thanks to the Foreign Ministry making a change in how it refers to the Caucasian nation. Prior to that the former ozeki, as well as Kokkai, Gagamaru, and Tsukasaumi, were all shown as hailing from “Gurujia” — which is the Russian name for that country.
Even more striking than the place of origin is the fact that, for the first time since September 2012, the rank of yokozuna appears just once on the banzuke. Kakuryu’s retirement means that Hakuho becomes the first ever grand champion to find himself alone at the peak of the sport for a second time in a career.
The highest rank on the left (west) side of the banzuke sheet is that of ozeki. Takakeisho holds down that particular slot, but the presence of Terunofuji in equally bold letters right next to him is a visual reminder of just how incredible the Isegahama man’s comeback has been.
In ever decreasing font sizes, the names of hundreds of wrestlers lie between Terunofuji’s current elevated location and the spot way down the banzuke that he occupied just over two years ago. In that lowly division, 10 men are squashed into the same width as that used to write the name of sumo’s newest ozeki.
The physical banzuke for this May, or at least one aspect connected to its sale, may also be illustrative of the financial hit the Japan Sumo Association has taken over the past year as a result of COVID-19’s impact on ticket sales.
Since the JSA first offered them for sale online, large quantities of banzuke have been delivered rolled and securely packed in cardboard boxes. This time out, however, they were sent in far flimsier — and perhaps cheaper — paper and bubble wrap. No explanation was given for the change, but it’s not hard to imagine the JSA is beginning to look for ways to save money given the situation thus far and the looming uncertainty over the May and July tournaments.
As with all promotions of note, Terunofuji was photographed holding the banzuke and pointing to his new rank. One thing that makes a banzuke particularly attractive as a souvenir is the fact that the sheet Terunofuji is holding is exactly the same as the one anyone can buy. The original hand-drawn page is four times larger, but only one copy of that exists. For everyone else, whether yokozuna or regular fan, the banzuke is the same.
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