Le Monde du Sumo
N°20 - february 2007
(Click on the picture to download
the full french issue, with pictures,...)

Nicolas Schuler
translated by Yann Hamon
proofread by Susan Lyon

Sumo's different jobs

In the sumo world, as in many other organisations, there are different categories of people.
First of all, obviously, is the wrestlers. They hold centre stage, and they represent the image of sumo. Sumo news is primarily made up of their tournament results, their ratings, their injuries. Everything is related to them. Essentially, they
are sumo.
Then comes the management staff, the ones who are pulling the strings: the Japanese Sumo Association, the Nihon Sumo Kyokai. Less in the public eye, these executives sometimes make statements to the press, and they don't miss an opportunity to fuel a discord or scandal here or there.
Finally come those who are working behind the scenes: those who are never interviewed, those about whom nobody ever talks, but whose existence and contribution to sumo are absolutely necessary for everything to go well.

And it is these people, whose existence is known by everyone without really knowing who they are, on whom we have decided to concentrate, with a series of articles focusing on each of these "sumo jobs".

Part 1: The Tokoyama

Some of information presented in this article comes from the interview with tokoyama Tokosei. These two articles complete one another, so we suggest to read both!

An old fashion

When you meet someone in an alley in Tokyo, how can you be certain that the person in front of you is a rikishi? His huge body? No, because some rikishi, especially the younger ones, do not have exceptional weights yet. So how do you tell? Simple: you look at his hairstyle!

Indeed, there are very few sports in which people pay as much attention to their hairstyle as in sumo. This tradition, as many others in sumo, is several centuries old. During the Edo era, the chon-mage was the hairstyle which was proudly worn by the samurai; the top of the head was shaved, and the long hair was tied up and swept to the top of the head.

But, prepared to send Japan into the modern era, the Meiji emperor decided to abolish the feudal clans and their samurai at the end of the 19th Century, and so wearing a chon-mage was symbolically prohibited by imperial decree from this period on.

However, as he was passionately interested in sumo, the Meiji emperor conceded an exception for the professional sumo wrestlers, the rikishi.

Nowadays, this practice continues, and includes two different aspects: an aesthetic one for which there is no use trying to explain, but also a practical one, because the mass of hair which is swept to the top of the head can help the rikishi to absorb some of the impact they have to bear when they rush at each other at the tachi-ai, at the beginning of the bout.

The creation of this hairstyle requires very high technical skills, and it would be totally inappropriate to compare it with a simple bun. Moreover, considering the high number of rikishi in the Nihon Sumo Kyokai, and knowing that each of them has to have their hair dressed at least once a day, it is obvious that the presence of real professionals is necessary. As true experts in hairdressing, the tokoyama are in charge of this.

Tokoyama and sumo

Each of them has a specific name, just as wrestlers. This name, as the one of their profession, has the character toko for prefix, the first kanji of one of the Japanese words meaning "hairdresser". Every tokoyama belongs to a heya. Some heya can even have up to three tokoyama, especially those heya that have so many rikishi that it would mean too much work for a single man.

But in contrast, some smaller heya have no tokoyama at all. That's not a big problem, though, because tokoyama can be lent by one heya to another; when he has finished with his own wrestlers, a tokoyama can go to another heya that needs some help. In the worst circumstances, if there isn't an available tokoyama, the rikishi can sometimes do it by themselves, for their easiest hairstyle. But these temporary replacements are just for everyday life, because as soon as a rikishi has to make a public appearance, during tournaments for instance, it is compulsory to employ a real tokoyama.

Even if they belong to a heya, the tokoyama remain employees of the Nihon Sumo Kyokai, which pays their salaries. Currently, there are 52 tokoyama, and the maximum number is limited to 55. However, this limit has increased during the past few years, as it was 35 during the 1980's, and 45 during the 1990's. This increase is not only because of the increase in the number of heya, but also because of the relocation of some heya outside of Tokyo, which results in the need for more tokoyama.

Another limit, but a firmly rooted one this time, is the age for retirement: 65. This age limit, though, doesn't concern only the tokoyama, but every member of Nihon Sumo Kyokai's staff. We'll have several opportunities to bring that point up again in our incoming articles!

But before thinking about retirement, you obviously have to get started!
The candidates are recruited very early, between the age of 15 and 18. Some of them apply for the job by themselves, in a heya, without any specific training. Some others already have some experience in the sumo world, in which they had started a wrestling career. But, because of inadequate achievements, or because of serious injuries, they have decided to put an end to their wrestling career. So, wishing to stay in the sumo world, it seemed to them that the tokoyama profession was a good compromise.

As soon as he becomes a tokoyama, the young candidate is in the same boat as the young wrestlers: the heya takes charge of him, and he'll live in the heya until he has reached a sufficient level, or until his wedding (always subject to his oyakata's consent!). Then a long apprenticeship begins, based on observation and practice. There isn't any school for the young hairdressers, so each of them has to learn on the job. The older tokoyama will teach them the basics, like comb handling, but for everything else, the apprentices will have to learn by themselves, carefully observing how the older tokoyama do things.

As for the rikishi, there is a hierarchy for the tokoyama, but the difference is that the only way to climb the ladder is promotion by seniority. There are six tokoyama ranks, the 5th is the lowest, and the highest is called "supreme" rank. As an indication, Tokosei told us that a tokoyama needs about twenty years of practice to reach the second rank. And don't think reaching the supreme rank until you're very close to retirement!

As every good craftsman, the tokoyama has a number of tools at his disposal, all provided by the Nihon Sumo Kyokai. The tokoyama uses four different kinds of combs, more or less thin, for the different steps of the hairdressing process. The name of the awl is mage-bo, and it is mostly used for making oicho-mage, in order to give some bulk to the hairstyle base.
Another necessary tool, the thin paper string, called motoyui, is used by tokoyama to tie up the hair, and so to improve the "standing" of their work. But with one hand already holding the hair, it is difficult to tie the knot. That's why they use their teeth as a "third hand", in order to keep the fixed end of the string in position, while the free hand takes charge of the knot. The scissors are used to cut the string surplus, as well as the end of the hair, to give a sleeker look. Finally, for the hair to stand well, the secret of hairdressing masters lies in a perfumed chamomile oil, called bintsuke.

The "simple" hairstyle: the chon-mage

The first technique a tokoyama has to acquire is the chon-mage one. It's the basic hairstyle, worn by all the wrestlers when they practice, and also during everyday life. In fact, it's forbidden for them to make any public appearance with another hairstyle! Most rikishi, those belonging to the four non-salaried divisions, also wear a chon-mage during their tournaments' official bouts.

The youngest wrestlers are an exception, though, because they have not been in the sumo world for a sufficient time for their hair to get long enough to make a chon-mage, and so they're allowed to fight with loose hair.

It takes about five minutes to make a chon-mage, and here is what it's like in the end:

(complete demonstration at the end of the article)

The "complicated" hairstyle: the oicho-mage

For their bouts and during other official appearances, in temples for instance, the sekitori (who are the salaried wrestlers, belonging to the highest two divisions) are allowed to wear a much more complex hairstyle, the oicho-mage. Imitating the shape of the ginkgo leaf, the oicho-mage is extremely difficult to make.

Learning this technique requires several years of training, and only the experienced tokoyama are allowed to take care of one of these high-ranked wrestlers' hair. After a while, a great rapport can grow between the wrestler and his hairdresser, to such a point that the tokoyama is able to feel the shape or stress state of his "client", just through his hair.

One of the techniques used for making an oicho-mage consists in shaving (or greatly thinning) all the top of the head; this enables the tokoyama to sweep the hairs more easily and to knot them.

It takes between 10 and 15 minutes to make a nice oicho-mage, when it's done by an experienced tokoyama. Here is the result:

(complete demonstration at the end of the article)

A great symbol

Finally, there isn't any better way to show the significance of a rikishi's hairstyle than the time when a rikishi retires from professional sumo. Indeed, when he puts an end to his career, and if he has reached an "honourable" rank at a certain time, a wrestler organises a ceremony during which his nearest and dearest (sometimes several dozens of people) take turns cutting, hair by hair, what was making him a rikishi: his oicho-mage. From this time on, he will not be a wrestler any more, and when you next meet him on the street, you're not going to think to yourself anymore, "this big guy must be a sumo wrestler"!

A big Thank You to Tokosei, Tokotatsu and Harumi Hotta for their precious contribution to this article!

Download Le Monde du Sumo n°20 to get more information on this subject:
table of active tokoyama as of February 2007;
also demonstration of chon-mage making on Kaisenryu and oicho-mage making on Kaio, by tokoyama Tokosei, as photographed by Mrs. Hotta.
(Understandable without speaking French)