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Nicolas Schuler
Many thanks to Thierry Perran for his valuable help on numerous translations from Japanese!
translated by Julien Griffon
proofread by John Gunning

How to read a banzuke ?

The banzuke (or banzuke-hyo) is a calligraphied document drawn up after each tournament, giving the positions of the fighters, depending on the results of each participant. But it also contains the full list of gyoji (referees) and oyakata (masters). By extension, banzuke is also the name used for the ranking itself.

It is set by an assembly (banzuke hensei iinkai), composed of the 23 members of the shimpan-bu: the 20 shimpan (judges) and the 3 kanji (supervisors). They gather especially for that purpose a few days after the tournament. Their task is to give no less than the 800 fighters belonging to the 6 divisions of sumo new positions. No rule indicates precisely the place a rikishi will occupy the next session; the only basic rule governing the banzuke is the following one: "a kashi-koshi (more victories than defeats during the former tournament) means a promotion, whereas a make-koshi (the opposite) forces the rikishi down the ranking. The wider the gap between wins and losses, the greater rise or fall in position". Of course, like any other rule, there are exceptions to this one… but this is out of the focus of this article!

During the assembly, led by a gyoji, the discussion goes from the top of the previous ranking down to the apprentices in the jonokuchi division. The gyoji writes on a paper roll (maki) the new rank of each rikishi. After the meeting, once each position is assigned, they place the precious roll into a safe for it to be kept secret until it is revealed to the public, several weeks later, on the Monday, 13 days before the beginning of the next tournament.
Actually, the safe gets opened one week before for the gyoji to draw up the final version of the ranking. He spends one entire day tracing the characters composing the names of the fighters, with a particular style called negishi-ryu. He uses black ink and a traditional Japanese sheet of paper (washi), 108cm large by 78cm wide. Many tenths of thousand smaller copies (58cm x 44cm) are then printed and provided to the different schools, where they are folded and sent to the sponsors and "friends" of the establishment. A number of them is also provided to the shops on the site where the basho takes place, where one can buy them only during the tournament.

Some people consider the banzuke-hyo to be art pieces. Still, a sumo lover who does not have any knowledge in Japanese language will not be able to read them. For lack of a full "translation", here is a few elements that will help getting familiarised with the layout of these rankings.

Reading is from right to left and from the top to the bottom.

(note: unless otherwise mentioned, every graphical extract comes from the banzuke of the Nagoya basho 2004)

East is on the right, opposite to the rankings written using Latin writing, where it is on the left. This comes from the difference in ways of reading: left to right for western civilisations, right to left for the Japanese. Thanks to this trick, the reader always starts reading from the East side, considered as the greatest.

(only the East side of each division is displayed in the following of the article, the West side presenting the same characteristics)

One notices, with little attention, that the thickness of the tracing decreases when going to the left, that is to say when going towards the lower rank.

First column's writing is the biggest, as it is the place of the yokozuna. The writing of the four columns at its left, featuring two ozeki, a sekiwake and a komusubi, are slightly smaller. Finally, all the maegashira are written a little smaller again.

Short explanations on the functions inside the Nihon Sumo Kyokai…
The "general public" does not usually know the terms used to name the functions of the oyakata in the NSK. That is why a quick explanation will prove useful.
By decreasing order of importance, there are:
RIJICHO: head manager, chairman of the Japanese Sumo Association (Nihon Sumo Kyokai);
RIJI: managers;
KANJI: supervisors;
SHIMPAN: judges;
YAKUIN TAIGU: delegates;
I-IN: members of the comity;
SHUNIN: supervisors;
TOSHIYORI: simple oyakata;
JUN-TOSHIYORI: temporary toshiyori.
Translations are of course inaccurate (since difficult to transpose), and the real functions vary, depending on each individual. These titles are more like ranks, knowing that all of them own one of these toshiyori, or "senior name", key to gain access to the NSK.

A few possible variations in the layout of the banzuke

The layout slightly changes from time to time, here are two examples of banzuke where some elements change.

Generally speaking, in the ranking of the wrestlers, each rank presents two positions: one on the East side and another one on the West side.
For fighters over maegashira (komusubi, sekiwake, ozeki and yokozuna), the same rule applies, although exceptions occur regularly.
That is why one can frequently notice one or two (or even three) extra-fighters for one rank (currently, 4 wrestlers own the title of ozeki, that is to say 2 additional ones).
Nowadays, these additional wrestlers fit inside the frame of the banzuke, but in the past, until 1995, their names appeared in boxes located out of the frame.
Considering our example, coming from the Nagoya basho in July 1979, we represented the top of the ranking in the table below.


The main positions were respectively called "sei-yokozuna" (for Wakanohana and Kitanoumi), and "sei-ozeki" (for Mienoumi and Takanohana).
But each of these ranks had a third occupant, and Wajima and Asahikuni were respectively named "haridashi yokozuna" and "haridashi ozeki". And their rank, origin and name were written outside the outer extremity of their respective sides ont the banzuke.

Some arrangements are also noticeable for some categories, less obvious than the example below. On the banzukze for the 2003 Nagoya basho, the shimpan were not represented (they actually had no "dedicated slot" but appeared as NSK members anyway). Instead the yodibashi, sewanin and wakaimonogashira figured in the lower part of the middle column, like in the previous example.

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