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The 2021 November banzuke has dropped.

In sumo, the release of each new set of rankings invariably signals the advent of final frenetic preparations for its associated tournament.

More than that though, the banzuke, with all 650 or so wrestler’s names written in traditional calligraphy on a single large sheet of paper, gives both a unique overview of the current state of the sport and sets the stage for the plotlines that will dominate the upcoming meet.

Although sumo, like any other modern sport, has stats online with continuously updated data and clickable links, there is a particular tactile pleasure that comes with being able to hold a physical copy of the rankings created in a style that has remained virtually unchanged since the 1750s.

On the day of its release, rikishi spend hour upon hour folding the hundreds of banzuke that their stables will mail out to supporters.

Fans, meanwhile, scan the 58 centimeter by 44 centimeter sheet to see how high their favorite wrestlers have climbed, or how far they have fallen. With the relative positions of all combatants clearly laid out, it’s also easy to spot the approaching tournament’s most interesting storylines.

This month, what immediately stands out is who isn’t there.

For the first time in 14 years the name of Hakuho Sho doesn’t head up one side or the other of the banzuke’s top row. Although the legendary yokozuna missed numerous tournaments over the final few years of his career, his shikona (ring name) was always writ large at the head of sumo’s rankings.

Seeing the banzuke without his name will take some getting used to.

In the words of Swedish country music sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, though, “Time races on and you’ve just gotta keep on keeping on.” Hakuho may be gone, but up and down the rankings narratives abound.

One name back on the top row of the banzuke is certain to evoke mixed feelings.

Abi, a controversial figure who has been at the center of some high-profile scandals over the past few years, returns to the makuuchi division for the first time since July 2020.

Although his three-tournament suspension for violating COVID-19 protocols ended last March, missing those aforementioned meets dropped Abi into the sport’s third tier where, as a result of the vast majority of sumo coverage focusing on the top division, he was out of sight for many.

Since starting his comeback, the Shikoroyama stable man has been doing well in the ring and keeping his nose clean outside it, but having his name once again in large print on the banzuke with the resultant TV time that inevitably brings won’t please those who thought his disregard for the safety of fellow rikishi should have seen him kicked out of sumo entirely.

With Terunofuji on the east side being the sport’s sole extant yokozuna, it’s easy to see with just a glance why many commentators feel that the overall level of sumo has dropped in recent times. | JAPAN SUMO ASSOCIATION / VIA KYODO
With Terunofuji on the east side being the sport’s sole extant yokozuna, it’s easy to see with just a glance why many commentators feel that the overall level of sumo has dropped in recent times. | JAPAN SUMO ASSOCIATION / VIA KYODO

On a more positive note, Kiribayama sees his name in larger characters than ever before on the banzuke as the 25-year-old makes his debut at sumo’s fourth highest rank of komusubi. The young Mongolian had arguably his best tournament to date in September and reaps the rewards with a salary boost and increase in prestige.

Thanks to Hakuho’s retirement, only two men occupy higher slots than Kiribayama on the west side of the banzuke. With Terunofuji on the east side being the sport’s sole extant yokozuna, it’s easy to see with just a glance why many commentators feel that the overall level of sumo has dropped in recent times. You don’t have to go back far to see banzuke with names such as Kisenosato, Kakuryu and Harumafuji in positions now occupied by Takakeisho, Shodai and Meisei.

With plenty of young and upcoming talent in the lower divisions however, it’s unlikely the newly begun Terunofuji era will remain a one man show for an extended period of time.

Two of the men who may rise to challenge the Isegahama stable veteran are already halfway up the rankings but haven’t yet appeared on a banzuke.

Yersin Baltagulov and Purevsuren Delgerbayar, from Kazakhstan and Mongolia, respectively, kick off their professional careers this month in Fukuoka after stints in Japanese collegiate sumo that were successful enough to earn the pair advanced starting points in ozumo. Those tsukedashi ranks, although listed as makushita 15 and sandanme 100, don’t exist on the physical banzuke however, meaning that neither man will see his name in traditional characters until January.

Given their size, proven abilities and the historical success of their tsukedashi predecessors, it’s likely both Baltagulov and Delgerbayar will quickly rise up the rankings and see their new shikona in large print before long.

Another interesting facet of the banzuke is that it doesn’t just contain the names of wrestlers. Referees and ring announcers are also listed, as are hairdressers and sumo elders, among others.

Just as with wrestlers that are changing shikona, previous names are included for newly retired rikishi taking up elder stock. For the November banzuke, that means that Hakuho is listed one final time on the banzuke. In contrast to the past decade and a half however, where the yokozuna’s name was written larger than everyone else at the top of the page, for the Kyushu basho it’s in tiny script above his new Magaki oyakata name.

Those barely legible characters might provide a nice piece of trivia for anyone compiling a sumo quiz in the future, but they also ensure that the name of the greatest rikishi the sport has ever seen endures for one final banzuke.

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