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When Tatsuya said he wanted to get to the top of the banzuke, I'm sure he had in mind the fame and glory that would come from being a luminary of the sumo world. Wrestlers may no longer enjoy the esteem they once did in Japan, with Japan's increasingly international perspective favoring its soccer and baseball players. But sumo wrestlers still have their fans, including generous patrons who offer great material rewards. Sumo wrestlers have magazines and fan clubs devoted to them; they get love letters and marriage proposals from female admirers.

But I don't think Tatsuya was speaking exclusively from a universal desire for recognition as an athlete. From his perspective, advancement is the only escape—other than leaving sumo altogether—from what looks to me like a pretty miserable existence.

The wrestlers in the room where I sleep are all ranked highly enough so that they don't have it that bad. They have a fair amount of space for themselves. They each of their own little television. Most have their own video game console. Muriyasu has a little hi-fi system that he listens to hip-hop and reggae on while he eats huge chunks of white bread that he toasts in the red National-brand toaster oven he keeps on his shelf. The room is often a noisy cacophony, with Murayoshi's Play Station noise competing with dialogue on Saita's television, and Moriyasu's stereo playing in the background.

Most of the guys in the room are pushing 30, and a television, game console and shelf full of books and CD's may seem like minimal possessions for someone of that age. But it's a relative life of riches compared to what Tatsuya and the other seven guys who sleep downstairs have.

For one, their bedroom isn't even really a bedroom. They sleep in the same common room where meals are eaten, television is watched and banzuke are sorted. It's the same room where I sit with crossed legs most mornings watching practice. When they go to sleep at night, and again during their naptime, they have to lug their bedding out of the closet and lay it out on the floor. Then they have to stow it again when they wake up.

Since they don't have any space of their own, they don't really get to own anything. Everyone has a plastic drawer in the closet for his clothes. And most seem to own a cell phone and Gameboy, which has resulted in a wild nest of wires and chargers by the electrical outlet where they juice up their devices. But having a status that allows them virtually no space of their own, that's about all they get.

Mitsui, a somewhat older wrestler who never advanced that far and has remained on the first floor—and who now has a neck injury that keeps him from competing—tried to better his material lot. One evenening, he came home with a cheap, Chinese-made DVD player to hook up to his boxy, old portable television, so he could choose his own movies, and when to watch them, instead of relying on whatever the group happens to play on the common room television. His setup is small enough for him to stash in the closet during the day. But it's strangely heartbreaking to see him at night with electrical cords slinking under his covers, leading to his little entertainment center. He watches with a towel draped over it and his head so he can watch his movies without bothering the other wrestlers with whom he shares the floor.

A wrestler's status also shapes his day. The wrestlers downstairs are up before the guys I bunk with. They clear the common room, suit up in their mawashi, come upstairs to gently wake up their superiors—who usually go right back to sleep for a while—and then hit the practice floor. They're usually a good hour—sometimes longer—into their workout before my roommates tread onto the practice floor.

During practice, many of the low-ranked wrestlers disappear from practice floor now and then to fill the bathtub, help prepare lunch and perform tasks for the Sekitori, Kashira and Oyakata. They're also subject to the rare but blistering hostility that the more highly ranked wrestlers mete out. I haven't seen authentic violence erupt out of these generally mild-mannered guys too often, but when I do, it's truly frightening. I think its rarity and unpredictability make the violence even more threatening.

After practice, all the wrestlers follow the same basic afternoon sequence: they get their hair done, bathe, eat, then sleep. The hairdressing is done by the tokoyama, the sumo hairdresser, who arrives each morning and sets up his work area as the practice is drawing to a close. Sumo wrestlers only shampoo their hair once a week or so, an arduous process since it involves washing out the fragrant oil that the tokoyama works into their hair each day. I once saw Nakahara, probably the stable's most massive wrestler, washing his hair: he was lying naked on his side on the bathroom floor—taking up most of its area—with his head dipped in a basin of hot water to dissolve the oil.

So instead of washing their hair, the most a wrestler will do on a typical day is rinse out his hair in the kitchen sink while lunch is being prepared, then sit down on the tokoyama's mat to have his hair done. The tokoyama combs out of his hair, rubs in a palmful of oil and then uses a comb to shape his hair into a thin, oily slab, sticking straight up. He clips a bit off the end to make it even, then ties it up in the middle with a length of thick white thread. Then he uses another piece of thread to tie the topknot down to the top of the wrestler's head, with the end of his hair pointing forward.

This topknot hairstyle—the chonmage—was once worn by all samurai and urban Japanese, before the modernizing regime that came to power at the end of the nineteenth century prohibited it. These new rulers, under the Meiji emperor, thought topknots made Japan look backwards to the rest of the world. But because of the esteemed place in Japanese culture sumo already had by this time, the wrestlers were permitted to keep their chonmage.

The Sekitori gets his hair done first, followed by those who rank immediately below him. The lowest-ranked often won't get their hair done until hours after practice.

Bathing is also done in order of seniority, with the Oyakata getting his bath first, then the Sekitori, then the Kashira, then my roommates and others of their rank. The low-ranked guys, of course, go last. While waiting for their own baths, though, they help bathe, dress and serve food to the Oyakata, Kashira and Sekitori.

I actually don't think the Oyakata and Kashira have anyone sponging them down in the bathroom, but they do have someone standing by to hand them their towels on the way out and lay out their clothes for them. One afternoon, the Kashira dressed after his bath in the room where I sleep and I watched the young wrestler Ishikawa hand him each article of clothing as he needed it.

I also don't think all the young wrestlers have to bathe the Sekitori. Because of his rank, the Sekitori has tsukebito, attendants, that the Oyakata chooses for him from among the wrestlers. The Sekitori's tsukebito often change with the publication of a new banzuke. Before Thursday's banzuke, the Sekitori had three tsukebito: Nakahara and Kitamura, who are both just one rank below him, and Batto, the low-ranking Mongolian. Since then, Batto was rotated out of service, with Kazuya and Matsunaga taking his place.

The Sekitori used to call on Batto, and now calls on Kazuya, for most everyday tasks, including giving him his baths. So most of the wrestlers are off the hook on for that assignment, but one never knows when he'll be asked to fill in. The Sekitori's lowest-ranking tsukebito also stand by the ring holding a towel for him while he practices, but at actual tournaments, I've heard, this task goes to the makushita-ranked Nakahara or Kitamura. It's apparently unbecoming to have a mere jonidan hand you your towel in public.

At any rate, after offering each varying degrees of help with their baths, the low-ranked wrestlers serve the Sekitori and the Kashira their meals (the Oyakata eats with his family in his apartment). While they're doing this, the higher-ranked wrestlers, who'd been laying low while their superiors bathe, take their own baths. Then they eat while the lowest-ranked finally get a chance to bathe.

When the high-ranked wrestlers and I are finishing lunch and on our way upstairs for our afternoon snooze, usually a little before two o'clock, the lowest-ranked are just starting lunch. So they have to eat, clear out the common room and wash the dishes before they can lay out their bedding and go to sleep themselves.

They also finish their naps earlier than my high-ranked roommates and I. We usually wake up shortly after 4 p.m., when one of the wrestlers from downstairs comes up to empty our trashcans and sweep our floor. Then the guys up here kill time—watching television, fooling with cell phones, catching a few more winks—while the guys downstairs are cooking dinner, sweeping the common-room floor, washing the mawashi and towels used during practice, and scrubbing the hallway and toilets.

When dinner's ready, a low-ranking guy comes upstairs to call us down to eat. The low-ranked aren't permitted to serve themselves until their superiors have either taken their portions, or passed on the opportunity. The Sekitori eats alone in his room, where he's served by his tsukebito.

Immediately following dinner, the low-ranked are on dish duty again. But their responsibilities don't necessarily end there. Their superiors are constantly sending individual wrestlers out on snack runs to convenience stores or fast-food restaurants and other errands.

Wrestlers ranks even determine what they can wear. The lowest-ranked wrestlers—the jonokuchi and jonidan—are only aloud out in geta, which are big, awkward wooden sandals. Those with higher ranks—sandanme and up—can wear soft sandals with bamboo soles. High-ranked wrestlers can wear colorful belts over their kimono, while low-ranked ones are stuck with black sashes. Low-ranked wrestlers, unlike their high-ranked counterparts, aren't even allowed to wear a coat over their kimono.

These sumptuary regulations are, however, largely irrelevant in practice, since low ranked wrestlers are generally too busy with their responsibilities around the stable to go too far away, and their sweat clothes and flip-flops are sufficient for the errands they run around the neighborhood.

NEXT: High and Low