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The Banzuke

On Thursday, the same day that the gyoji with the bad combover came to sanctify the dohyo, the banzuke arrived. Banzuke—sumo ranking sheets—list everyone in the sumo universe, from wrestlers to yobidashi, each arranged according to his rank. A new banzuke usually comes out two weeks before the start of the next bimonthly sumo tournament—the exception is the banzuke whose publication precedes the January tournament, which comes out another week or so earlier to allow for the new year's holiday that virtually shuts the country down for the first week of the year.

The sheets re-rank all the wrestlers in the country based on their performance in the most recent tournament. The sumo association produces them, but the stables themselves are responsible for their distribution. Early Thursday morning, the Oyakata had driven out to the sumo association headquarters, and come back with a few big boxes of the sheets. By the time I woke up, the wrestlers—who had off from practice for the day so they could process the banzuke for distribution—were already hard at work.

They'd formed themselves into a sort of assembly line on the common room floor. It began with Kitamura, who was counting out the banzuke. He handed stacks of the sheets down the line, where other wrestlers stamped them with the stable's seal. They worked in pairs, with one wrestler flipping the pages, while another stamped. Then the sheets went to another pair of wrestlers, who stamped them with the seal for the January tournament.

The sheets' final stop was with the wrestlers who packed them up to be mailed off to the stable's patrons and supporters and anyone else who had ordered a ranking sheet. A few wrestlers were folding banzuke into neat rectangles to slide into letter-sized envelopes for those who ordered individual sheets at 50 yen—about 50 cents—each. Murayoshi was folding stacks of five, 10 and 25 into larger envelopes, while other wrestlers rolled up hundreds at a time into cylindrical packages for mass orders at 2,500 yen—25 bucks or so—for 100 sheets. Before lunch, the wrestlers had processed some 3,000 banzuke. But they would continue with them into the evening, stamping and mailing banzuke that they bought themselves to send to their own friends, families and supporters.

I sat down next to Tatsuya, who was folding up individual banzuke, to look over his shoulder at the broad, cream-colored sheets dense with black calligraphic type. It was separated into five rows that provided an almost cosmological map to the sumo universe. The most highly ranked wrestlers were listed in the largest type on the top row, with the print getting progressively finer as one's eyes moved down the banzuke. The bottom row listed the names of oyakata, kashira, yobidashi and other sumo-world associates, each group arranged according to its own ranking scheme. These rows were divided in half by narrow column that ran unbroken from top to bottom, which featured information about the upcoming tournament and listed the names of the gyoji. Those on the right side of the banzuke were designated as belonging to the western division; those on the left were marked as belonging to the eastern division. But those separations are arbitrary, with no relation to the actual location of the wrestlers or their stables.

Tatsuya pointed to the name printed horizontally on the top row in the largest type of all. "He's the yokozuna," he said. "Asashoryu."

Asashoryu is currently sumo's lone yokozuna, or grand champion. A poll of Japanese recently named him as the country's favorite non-Japanese athlete. He comes from Mongolia, a country well represented in the recent wave of high-profile foreign wrestlers, which also includes a Russian, a Bulgarian and a Georgian. There've always been a smattering of foreign wrestlers in sumo, but they were never all that successful until the string of Hawaiian wrestlers that began in the 1970's with Takamiyama, sumo's first foreign tournament champion, and ended a few years ago with the enormous Akebono, the sport's first foreign yokozuna.

The wrestlers on the top row of the banzuke are all in the makuuchi division, Tatsuya said, which includes its top ranks of yokozuna, ozeki, sekiwake and komosubi. He showed me which wrestlers on the top level of the banzuke were ozeki, one rank down from yokozuna, which included the wrestler Kaio. Kaio is often characterized as Japan's great hope for a homegrown yokozuna, but every time the title's come within his grasp, he's fumbled it.

On the second-to-the-highest row, where the lower-ranking wrestlers began to be listed, Tatsuya showed me the Sekitori's name, Ishide. It was printed in characters barely one-fourth the size of those on the row above. Finally, Tatsuya showed me his own name on the lowest level of wrestlers, which included those of jonidan rank, like himself. His name was printed in characters so fine that he had to squint and search for it among all the others.

"I want to get up here," said Tatsuya, pointing to the top row.

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