The Banzuke

2017 Nagoya (July) Banzuke
2017 Nagoya (July) Banzuke

Grand Sumo tournaments rightly get the lion’s share of attention given to sumo, but there is much more to the sport. A lot goes on in the period between each basho. One matter of interest to many fans, but often shrouded in mystery, is the creation of the new banzuke – the list detailing what rank each rikishi will be fighting at in the following tournament.

Unlike many other official sports rankings, and sometimes to the consternation of fans, the banzuke is not based on an impartial mathematical formula. However, it is far from arbitrary, mainly due to the moderating effect of there being a large number of people responsible for its creation. Those people are better known for their other, more public role: They are the black-clad oyakata (sumo elders) seated around the dohyo during tournaments. The judging department is made up of 23 members, comprising the chief judge (typically a former yokozuna or ozeki), his two deputies, and 20 regular oyakata, who meet on the Wednesday following each tournament to deliberate over and decide the ranking for each of the nearly 700 rikishi in professional Sumo.

 Ringside judges make up the 23 man group that decides the rankings- John Gunning, Inside Sport: Japan, March 18, 2016
Ringside judges make up the 23 man group that decides the rankings- John Gunning, Inside Sport: Japan, March 18, 2016

Fundamentally, the making of a banzuke is constrained by only three rules: A rikishi with a winning record (8 or more wins) should not fall, a rikishi with a losing record (7 or fewer wins) should not rise, and better combinations of rank and record should stay ahead of worse ones. For instance, a 9-6 record should not put one rikishi ahead of another who was higher-ranked and also scored 9 or more wins.

Certain exceptions apply at the very top of the banzuke in the sanyaku ranks, where a winning record may see a rikishi get moved to a lesser spot within his rank if the other competitors did even better, and by necessity also at the very bottom of the banzuke in the jonokuchi division, where it is possible to move up with losing records, especially when there is a large intake of new recruits.

In addition, the yokozuna and ozeki ranks are not determined by the results of just one tournament: To reach yokozuna requires excellence, most often defined as back-to-back championship-level or equivalent results, while promotions to ozeki are based on a series of strong (though not necessarily dominant) performances, usually totaling around 33 wins in three consecutive tournaments. Takayasu cleared that mark in the most recent three basho and has freshly been promoted to Sumo’s second-highest rank. On the flipside, demotion from the ozeki rank beckons after two consecutive losing records. Yokozuna have no specific target to maintain but are expected to retire of their own volition, should their results cease to be respectable.

Kakuryu poses with a banzuke after his promotion to yokozuna - John Gunning, Inside Sport: Japan, April 24, 2014
Kakuryu poses with a banzuke after his promotion to yokozuna - John Gunning, Inside Sport: Japan, April 24, 2014

All ranks below ozeki can be gained and lost after every basho. In practice there is a relatively consistent approach by the committee despite the lack of firm rules. One based largely on the idea that each win above kachikoshi in the makuuchi and juryo divisions is “worth” roughly the equivalent of two ranks. The ideal movement of a rikishi corresponds to the difference between his wins and losses: A 9-6 record should result in a promotion of about 3 ranks (say, from maegashira 5 to maegashira 2), a 10-5 record should yield 5 ranks of upwards movement, and so on, and likewise on the losing side.

Of course, the devil is in the details – many times a strict application of these numbers would lead to unoccupied spots in one area and overcrowding in another. It is up to the committee to resolve these logjams, making it unavoidable that some rikishi will get treated generously or harshly from time to time, depending on space available. The thinking behind these decisions is not shared with the public, and certain placements may appear inconsistent from one banzuke to the next, or even within the same ranking. However, this is just the natural consequence of having 23 men, all with their own personalities and interests, decide a ranking by deliberation and voting.

It is nonetheless possible to spot certain long-term trends, especially concerning one question: What should be favoured when a particular section of the banzuke needs to be untangled – winning records or losing ones? As with many aspects of Sumo, careful attention to detail can open up a world beyond the dohyo action.

For what it is worth, the current committee appears to be giving the benefit of the doubt to losing performances much of the time. For example, while very rarely seen in other eras, it has become common of late for rikishi to not get demoted at all with 7-8 scores if there are no strong winning records to push them aside. Tochinoshin, Ishiura and Daishomaru were all beneficiaries of that at their respective maegashira ranks on the banzuke for the recent Natsu basho, while winning rikishi such as Ura (who went 8-7 in the same area in the preceding Haru tournament) ended up at slightly lower ranks than one might have expected to see.

Such trends are subject to the make-up of the committee, naturally. Its composition undergoes significant changes every other year, as the biennial leadership elections in the Sumo Association typically result in around one-third to one-half of the judging committee members getting reassigned to other departments, and their replacements may well have slightly variant ideas about how to handle the making of the banzuke. Of course, any individual ranking may still defy those apparent trends if the committee members happen to be in the mood for something different. It’s all part and parcel of the slightly maddening fun of following the banzuke, and trying to predict the committee’s decisions has been a staple of Sumo fandom both in Japan and abroad for years.

Otake oyakata with Osunaarashi after his promotion to juryo was announced - John Gunning, Inside Sport: Japan, May 29, 2013
Otake oyakata with Osunaarashi after his promotion to juryo was announced - John Gunning, Inside Sport: Japan, May 29, 2013

What happens after the committee meeting? Rikishi attaining major promotions – to yokozuna, ozeki, or to the juryo division – are immediately notified of their good fortune, and their promotions made public. This is to give them enough time to prepare promotion events, get kesho mawashi made etc. etc. The remainder of the ranking decisions is kept under wraps for the next few weeks until the official publication, normally 13 days before the start of the tournament. In the meantime, a skilled referee will spend approximately one week writing out a large master version of the new banzuke in traditional calligraphy, twice as high and twice as wide as the eventual printed rendering.

- Pierre Wohlleben: July 1st 2017


A Tale Of Two Rikishi (And Their Parents)

 

When yokozuna Hakuho was interviewed ringside on Sunday, after wrapping up his first title in a year, he congratulated the people of the Philippines on the imminent promotion of Takayasu to ozeki. It was a nice nod to the Taganoura stable man’s mother who hails from an island in the south of the country.

Television cameras later showed Takayasu’s parents applauding the comment as well as Hakuho’s wife and children celebrating the day 15 win that sealed the yokozuna’s record thirteenth perfect tournament.

Both men have in the past credited family as being responsible for a large part of their success, and a point that sometimes gets lost in a sea of training session and injury reports is just how significant a solid support structure is to a rikishi’s prosperity.

For foreign wrestlers in particular, finding themselves in a strange land at a young age, separated from peers and unable to speak the language, family takes on an even greater importance. Parents and spouses become islands in a turbulent ocean of intense physical training, constant mental pressure and never-ending media scrutiny.

Indeed the just-completed natsu basho may have had an entirely different outcome were it not for Hakuho’s wife and father. In 2015, after overtaking the legendary Taiho in career tournament titles, the yokozuna was struggling to find motivation to continue his career. Admitting that he had come close to quitting he said it was his wife that had convinced him to stay on, and he found the motivation he needed in his father’s career records. Hakuho’s father, Jigjidiin Monkhbat is an Olympic medalist who also won six Naadam championships in Mongolian wrestling. Since Naadam is held only once a year and sumo basho six times, Hakuho reasoned that 36 yusho would be equal to what his father achieved. And while sumo isn’t an Olympic sport, the yokozuna knows that if he can hold on until 2020 he may be able to “participate” in them - as Akebono did in the 1998 Nagano Olympics – by performing a ring entering ceremony.

Even if Hakuho is no longer around as yokozuna three years from now, don’t bet against sumo’s newest ozeki reaching the rank by then.

A close examination of Takayasu’s record since joining sumo reveals a career path very similar to yokozuna Kakuryu. Both men are well-rounded rikishi that, while not spectacular in any one department, are solid in all of them. It’d be no surprise to see Takayasu with the white rope around his waist in 2020.  Needing ten wins this past tournament to ensure promotion to sumo’s second-highest rank, the Ibaraki native stormed out to an 11-2 record before dropping his last two fights. That focus and ability to ignore the pressure was something that was evident from a young age. When he was 15 Takayasu decided to dedicate himself to sumo telling his mother “we won’t be able to meet every day but let’s persevere”. He knew it would be difficult as they were particularly close. “Ever since my business and life became successful while I was pregnant with him I’ve called him my lucky baby” Bebelita Takayasu told The Japan Times on Tuesday. “Even now I text him daily when I wake up or before going to sleep. Just simple things like how is his day or what did he have for lunch. I don’t talk to him about sumo. If I am worried about him he always tells me ‘daijyobu’ – it’s ok”.

Takayasu may have been born and raised in Japan but his close relationship with his mother means he takes an active part in helping her native country. After promotion to sekitori he began regularly donating money to help orphans as well as buying uniforms and textbooks for elementary school kids there.

It’s no surprise that when he took up the sport, Takayasu chose Taganoura (then known as Naruto) beya. Sumo stables generally are closer to families than they are to sports teams but some, like the Chiba-based outfit are particularly tight-knit. The former stablemaster, who passed away in 2011, didn’t allow his apprentices to train at other heya (normally a common sumo practice) or even to socialize with outside rikishi. As a result Takayasu, Kisenosato, and the other wrestlers in the stable developed a very tight brother-like bond. That bond and family-like support has allowed Kisenosato and Takayasu to focus on their sumo, ignore outside distractions and maximize their potential.

That was illustrated by Kisenosato’s championship victory in the March tournament, which he achieved in his debut basho at sumo’s top rank. It’s rare for newly promoted yokozuna to win their first tournament as they are generally exhausted and distracted by overwhelming levels of media attention in the preceding two months.

That’s something that Takayasu will have to face now that his new rank is official. Yesterday morning he had his promotion announcement at a central Tokyo hotel and he’ll have countless interviews, functions and parties to attend between now and July 9th when the Nagoya basho gets underway. His mother of course will provide him with a consistent non-sumo oasis and “big brother” Kisenosato will be able to advise him on how best to pace himself and handle the increased attention.

Both men should be in good condition and ready when the entire sumo world relocates to central Japan in late June. Standing in their way will be that other family man, Hakuho. The legendary champion, refreshed and revitalized has already passed the mark his father set, but seems to be gaining new motivation as a parent himself. Indeed with his own son having already put on a mawashi and competed, perhaps these family ties will stretch into another generation.

- John Gunning: May 30th 2017