Japanese Culture Teaching Notes


The Sumo Topknot

Sumo, a symbol of Japanese culture to most of the world, leaves its patrons with no doubts about its athletes’ exertions in the ring. However, most people don’t know how much effort the supporting staff puts into the wrestlers’ appearance … specifically their hair.

During an exhibition tournament, Tokofuta, a hairdresser specifically trained to style a sumo’s hair in its distinctive topknot, demonstrated the unique hairstyle called oichomage on sumo wrestler’s hair. The name, oichomage, was named after the gingko leaf since the hair style looks similar to the shape of the leaf.

Originally, Tokofuta wanted to become a sumo wrestler. When he realized such a career was not in his future, he filled a vacancy left by a retired tokoyama, the proper name for sumo hairdressers in Japanese.

There are 53 tokoyama who belong to each of the 53 sumo stables. Stables, which literally means room, are both living and training facilities where young wrestlers train to one day become professional wrestlers.

Disciplined under an apprenticeship, tokoyama pursue their careers devoting themselves to practice how to handle wrestlers’ long hair to make mage, or topknot, for wrestlers every day.

There are two hairstyles for sumo wrestlers. One is chonmage, a simple topknot style all the wrestlers wear after they have sufficient hair length, which is about two years. The other is oichomage, which is the hairstyle only top division wrestlers are allowed to wear.

Each tokoyama has a toolbox, with four different kinds of combs made of tsuge, or boxwood, which is the highest quality; magebo, a pinned stick; hand-made string to tie wrestlers’ hair; and pomade. A tokoyama can fix a wrestlers’ hair anywhere as long as he has his toolbox.

There are many intricate procedures to make a perfect oichomage hairstyle.

“I learned the technique as I watched carefully how senior tokoyama worked on rikishi’s (wrestler’s) hair and practiced on the younger rikishi’s hair,” said Tokofuta. “Everything was kind of on-the-job training. You had to have a sharp eye to observe the difference and acquire skillful tokoyama techniques,” said Tokofuta. “It is important to find out each rikishi’s hair texture and to crumple hair well to make a good mage. Every day I practiced the basic technique on young rikishi’s hair.”

While wrestlers are relaxing or concentrating before the bout, the tokoyama’s bout actually begins. Only skillful tokoyama are allowed to do the oichomage hairstyle just like only top division wrestlers can wear it. The oichomage protects wrestlers from head injury to as it softens the impact in case the wrestler falls off from the ring, which is around 22-inches-high. Fragrant wax is used to keep the arrangement in place, and senior wrestlers wear various elaborate styles as a sign of their position in the sumo hierarchy.
There are six tokoyama ranks according to their skill and their years of service.

Upon entering the sumo profession, young wrestlers stop cutting their hair in order to fashion the traditional chonmage topknot.

Worn since ancient times, the chonmage style became defunct after the Meiji Restoration (1868) when Japanese men cut their hair by government order in the short Western style of the times. Sumo wrestlers were exempt from the order, as the traditional topknot served as head protection.

On retirement, wrestlers are transformed back to civilian status at the hair cutting ceremony. Eventually the retiree gives up his fighting name, and is thereafter referred to by his birth name.

The retiring rikishi does not only lose his career. In an elaborate ceremony called a danpatsu-shiki, supporters pay for the privilege of cutting strands of hair off a rikishi's chonmage. At the end of the ceremony, the rikishi's oyakata takes a pair of scissors and makes the final cut of the topknot. The rikishi is now retired.

Posted by ・Andrea :: 11:17 PM :: 3 Comments:

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