SUMO/ For referees, the heavy work comes outside the ring

November 26, 2011

By NORIYASU NUKUI / Staff Writer

It's a job in which promotions lead to better footwear and the chance to carry a blade for self-disembowelment. Calligraphy experience is a plus, as are clerical skills, public announcing and the ability to appear short.

This is the life of a gyoji, the sumo match referee, a person who is often seen but little understood.

Toshihiro Yamazaki, a 63-year-old gyoji, said his career started before he really knew what was going on.

"When I noticed what was happening, it was too late to turn down the offer," says Yamazaki, a native of Makurazaki, Kagoshima Prefecture, and a member of the Izutsu stable.

On Oct. 31, he was promoted to the highest gyoji rank, meaning he also received a new gyoji name, changing from the 38th Shikimori Inosuke to the 36th Kimura Shonosuke.

Yamazaki was a fan of hometown sumo hero Tsurugamine, who later became stablemaster Izutsu. In December in his third year of junior high, Yamazaki was invited to meet Tsurugamine when the wrestler was touring the area.

"But I didn't get to meet him," Yamazaki recalls. "Instead, they took me to the gyoji."

On the way home, Yamazaki was told a gyoji position had been secured for him. His parents and teachers had known. Only Yamazaki had been kept in the dark.

After becoming a disciple, Yamazaki joined group activities at the "gyoji stable," which closed in 1973. From morning to night he attended to the senior gyoji.

"They drank all night and wouldn't let us go," he says. "They made us sit in the seiza position with our feet tucked underneath on the wooden floor. So after I was a novice, I only grew 3 centimeters."

He stands 165 centimeters tall, but one talent of a gyoji is to appear short to make the wrestlers seem larger.

Sumo has a limit of 45 gyoji. About half are introduced by intermediaries while the rest apply of their own accord. The starting monthly salary is 140,000 yen ($1,800).

Until they marry, gyoji live in their stable's housing and do not need to worry about food, shelter or clothing. Only a serious person trusted by the stablemaster can be a gyoji.

In addition to refereeing in the ring, the job involves making public announcements during tournaments, acting as a clerk during meetings, serving as a secretary for the stablemaster, and handling tasks such as drafting letters for the stable.

According to Yamazaki, a gyoji generally wants to quit on three occasions.

"The first time you'll just think the work is tough," he says. "The second is when you feel inferior to your successful schoolmates. The last time is when you become pessimistic because you start to ask yourself, 'Hey old-timer, when are you gonna get to the juryo class (the position considered full-fledged gyoji)?'"

A gyoji is barefoot in the ring until reaching the juryo division. Once, a child asked Yamazaki if he was cold.

"It was tough. But it's a seniority system, so you can't move up when there's someone above you," he says. "I was counting down the days until my senior retired."

At around the age of 35 a gyoji moves up to the juryo division and gets to wear tabi, which are split-toe socks. Upon reaching the sanyaku ranks, a gyoji is allowed a pair of flat sandals called zori and a small wooden case called an inro, which has a family emblem engraved.

Head referees Inosuke and Shonosuke carry a short dagger, which represents their readiness to slash their bellies if they issue an erroneous decision. Even today, it is customary for a head referee who makes a bad decision to file papers on whether he should resign to the Japan Sumo Association before the day is out.

The first thing a gyoji learns is the sumoji style of calligraphy, starting with the five characters that mean mountain (yama), river (kawa), sea (umi), brocade (nishiki) and flower (hana), often used in wrestlers' names.

"I practiced with the TV schedules of old newspapers," Yamazaki says. "The lines dividing the columns were just right."

Only a skilled calligrapher who can be trusted to keep quiet can do the work of writing the banzukehyo (a list of sumo wrestlers according to rank). The list is kept secret until announced. Original banzukehyo sell for 50 yen per copy.

Two assistants perform thorough checks, and the calligrapher takes about a week to write it up. Until Yamazaki was promoted to Inosuke, he spent around seven years as the calligrapher.

"You have to use a fine brush that's practically trash because it's worn out and only has a few hairs left on it to write the hair-thin characters of the jonokuchi (lowest ranked) wrestlers," he says.

The calligrapher today is Kimura Keinosuke, a 50-year-old native of Tokyo and a member of the Kokonoe stable. His real name is Yuji Horasawa.

"I've never once thought it a fun job," Keinosuke says. "The responsibility is too heavy."

The stage names of the wrestlers on the current banzukehyo are written by Keinosuke.

By NORIYASU NUKUI / Staff Writer
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