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Stylist for the big guys
The fan-like top knot - the oichomage - of a sumo wrestler is an elaborate and tricky work of art.1 It is only created for formal occasions, such as sumo tournaments or other public appearances. The rest of the time a simple chonmage is worn. And to do the hair of the sumotori the heya (the training school) relies on the services of a hairdresser: a tokoyama.2

The tokoyama are employed by Nihon Sumo Kyokai (Japan Sumo Association), but they live in the heya alongside the sumo wrestlers. Not all heya have "their own" tokoyama; the larger the heya, the more tokoyama. The smaller heya may have to do without. Traditionally the tokoyama were arranged under the ichimon3 (the district or group to which the heya belong), and the heya still help each other out so no sumotori (sumo wrestler) will have to do his own hair.

The tokoyama are arranged in a strict hierarchy, from tokoyama 5-to through 1-to, and, lastly, toku-to: the master tokoyama. Lower ranked tokoyama will assist a more experienced tokoyama in his daily work, doing chores like cleaning and maintaining the combs and strings. It is a lot like the tsukebito system, where wrestlers ranked lower than juryo4 will act as helpers and assistants to the wrestlers in juryo and makuuchi. Going from raw apprentice (5-to) to actually being allowed to style a chonmage (4-to) will take three years. The next ten years will be spent perfecting the chonmage, and practicing the oichomage. Only then will the tokoyama be considered skilled enough to try his hands on an actual Ginkgo leaf topknot. After this, climbing through the ranks will be a slow and ardous task. Suffice it to say, that it can take up to 45 years to reach the rank of toku-to tokoyama.

A high ranked tokoyama will have more or less his5 own style. Initially he will have picked up the style of his tutors, but through the years he will have refined and developed it into a style of his own. Although it must be said that the differences are so subtle that it would be pretty much impossible to discern one style from another - for a layman, at any rate.

Every tokoyama has his own toolbox, containing the things he needs when styling the sumotori's hair. There are four sukigushi (combs) made from the finest tsuge (boxwood); bintsuke oil (fragrant chamomile oil) and wax for the hair; magebo (a 'pinned stick') used for forming and styling the mage, and hand made moto-yui (string made from paper) to tie the mage. As long as the tokoyama has his toolbox, he can fix the wrestlers' hair anywhere. A skilled tokoyama will be able to handle all kinds of hair - wawy, coarse, fine, or curly - and make it behave. His aim is to make a beautiful mage that will last, even through a rough sumo bout.

  1. "O icho mage" means "large ginkgo top-knot". The shape is supposed to resemble the leaf of the ginkgo tree.
  2. Tokoyama also create the large and intricate hair-do's of Kabuki players.
  3. There are currently five ichimon, dividing the 50+ heya between them.
  4. The divisions are, from the bottom up: maezumo (not included in the banzuke), jonokuchi, jonidan, sandanme, makushita, juryo, and makuuchi.
  5. The tokoyama will always be a man. There is, as yet, no place for women in professional sumo. Sumo has its roots in shintoism which is adamant that women are impure because of their period.

My sources are, besides being glued to the TV whenever sumo is on, http://www.scgroup.com/sumo and http://sumo.goo.ne.jp/eng.
Fot this wu http://tintinculture.blogspot.com/2005/03/sumo-topknot.html has been very helpful, as has http://www.banzuke.com/98-4/msg00757.html

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