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Like a leaf from the Silver Apricot Tree
The distinctive hairstyle of a professional sumo wrestler, the fan-like top-knot called oichomage, is supposed to resemble the leaf of the ginkgo tree. The kanji 銀 杏 mean "silver apricot" which is another name for the ginkgo tree, so o-icho-mage means "large ginkgo top-knot".

The sumo mage (top-knot) is not always made into the elaborate ginkgo-style. Only on special occasions the tokoyama or sumo-hairdresser creates the oichomage, using various combs and copious amounts of oil and fragrant wax. The resulting hairdo is - to my mind - very beautiful. Most of the time, though, the hair is worn in a chonmage, 丁髷, ("street top-knot"), an informal, flat "pony-tail" on top of the head.

Being allowed to wear the oichomage is one of the things that marks a sumotori's (sumo wrestler) promotion from the lower, unpaid divisions of sumo to juryo, the first salaried division1 (sumotori below juryo may only wear chonmage). Whether or not the wrestler's hair is long enough to make an oichomage at the time of promotion is quite another matter. One can only imagine how rankling it must be for a young wrestler to finally be allowed to wear oichomage - and not having long enough hair!2

Often when I think of Japanese history, pictures of samurai with long hair worn in some sort of mage or another come to mind3. Actually the "ponytail hairdo" used to be very popular among men in all walks of life, but in 1868 the Japanese government ordered every man in the empire to cut his hair short in a western style. The only exceptions to this rule were the sumotori, since their hairdo was designed to cushion blows to the head when wrestling. Thus, the mage became a sumo trademark.

  1. The divisions are, from the bottom up: maezumo (not included in the banzuke), jonokuchi, jonidan, sandanme, makushita, juryo, and makuuchi.
  2. Should a sumotori be unable to produce enough hair to form a mage, he must retire.
  3. Unlike the sumotori the samurai had shaven forheads to go with their mage. It is not quite clear why the forhead was shaved; some theories point to it having to do with wearing a helmet, while others state that it was purely a fashion thing.

My main sources are, besides being glued to the TV whenever sumo is on, www.scgroup.com/sumo, sumo.goo.ne.jp/eng, and sumoforum.net/glossary.html

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