Only yokozuna Hakuho's hairdresser knows for sure how difficult it is to arrange his topknot, before sending him out to do battle in the highest levels of sumo.
“Yokozunas always get closeups on TV, so we can’t mess up his hair. I feel nervous every day,” says Tokohachi, Hakuho's hairdresser.
Hairdressers such as Tokohachi, called "tokoyama," are a vital part of the sumo world.
They set the wrestlers’ hair into the perfect “mage” or a traditional topknot and oil. These hairdressers may be the least conspicuous, but most important staff members in the sumo world. They are finally getting their due recognition today.
Tokoyama did not have their names listed on the professional sumo ranking list banzuke for 251 years since the style of a vertical one-sheet banzuke was incorporated in 1757. That style is still in use today.
Since the New Year’s tournament of 2008, however, the names of the top “special-ranked” hairdressers have finally been listed on the bottom left-hand corner of the sumo ranking list. This year, the names of the “grade one” (the second best rank) hairdressers’ names have been added to the list.
“Without the traditional sumo haircut, sumo wrestlers are not sumo wrestlers. It’s our job to give sumo wrestlers the look they need,” says Tokoyasu, 61, a hairdresser who goes by the nickname of “Yasu.” The Nagasaki native--whose real name is Yasushi Nishimura and works for the Dewanoumi Stable--was promoted to the “special rank" at the first tournament of this year.
Tokoyasu’s first ambition was to become a sumo wrestler. He joined a sumo stable in the spring of 1966 after graduating from junior high school. Thanks to his 175-cm frame, he was told he could be a wrestler if he put on some weight. But he couldn’t gain extra poundage no matter how hard he tried.
Because of his size, he couldn’t aspire to be a "yobidashi" summoner, who reads out the names of the wrestlers, or a "gyoji" referee, who determines the winners of the bouts. Smaller men are preferred in these positions to make the sumo wrestlers look bigger.
So he became a tokoyama.
Like Tokoyasu, many hairdressers initially aim to be a sumo wrestler. Kakuryu, who was recently promoted to ozeki, was so small when he first joined the Izutsu Stable that stablemaster Izutsu had planned to train him as a hairdresser. Many hairdressers are reportedly introduced to jobs by supporters of each stable.
The only job of a tokoyama is to tie a wrestler’s hair. It sounds easy, but there are currently about 660 sumo wrestlers. Fifty-three tokoyama fix wrestlers’ hair each day, averaging 12 to 13 wrestlers each. After fixing the hair of wrestlers they are in charge of after practice, tokoyama are free to do as they wish. But the pay reflects the minimal work. Many hairdressers initially struggle to live on their starting salary of a mere 140,000 yen ($1,750) a month.
Tokohachi, 57, is a grade one hairdresser. The Yokohama native, whose real name is Akira Kato and works at the Miyagino Stable, has been doing most of Hakuho’s "oicho"-- the official hairstyle when wrestlers step into the ring of a grand sumo tournament -- ever since the lone yokozuna became a new juryo (second highest division).
When someone other than Tokohachi touches Hakuho’s hair, perhaps during a tour, they often say they didn’t expect it to be this difficult to do the grand champion’s hair.
“My hair is soft, just like my body,” Hakuho says. In addition to his fine hair, the yokozuna has wavy hair in the back. So forming an ooicho the normal way would result in the insides collapsing.
To deal with Hakuho’s hair, Tokohachi ties it in a specific location to avoid the wavy part.
Interestingly, Tokohachi says he can tell Hakuho’s physical condition by looking at his hair.
“When he’s in good condition, the yokozuna’s hair is getting glow from the latter half of a tournament. I can predict if he’s in good enough condition to win a tournament. My predictions were wrong only once,” boasts Tokohachi.
When a sumo wrestler passes by, they give off a unique smell, from the hair oil they use. Wrestlers only wash their hair five or six times a month. When they don’t wash their hair, they simply wash out the sand that got in their hair during training, add hair oil, and comb their hair back.
That fragrance can’t be maintained without ample hair oil. Wrestlers often pay about 5,000 yen every two months to hairdressers to pay for the hair oil. Sekitori, sumo wrestlers in the top two divisions, often pay this cost for all their assistants. Because the hairdressers have contact with wrestlers every day, they often know the wrestlers better than their stablemasters.
But no matter how hard a tokoyama works to put the wrestlers’ hair into an oicho, the hairstyle falls apart in several seconds after a fierce bout begins. It’s a delicate art that doesn’t last, but most tokoyama take pride in what they do.
“We are proud of being able to put some glamour into the sumo wrestlers’ looks. We hope that fans will look at the wrestlers’ oicho as well as the bouts,” says one hairdresser.
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