Breaking Down The Wall Of Kanji

Every time the new banzuke is published, we start seeing pictures of proud rikishi pointing out their position on what seems to be a big wall of Kanji.

Abi, newly promoted to Makuuchi

That, of course, is the official “banzuke-hyo”, or “banzuke table”. Here in Tachiai we frequently use part of it to head banzuke-related posts. So, let’s break down that wall:


Traditionally, Japanese is written top to bottom and right-to-left. This means that the Makuuchi entries – which are at the top of the banzuke – are written with the Yokozuna on the right and Maegashira 16-17 on the left.

[West is on the left of the Banzuke-hyo and the more prestigious East is on the right, as you’d expect from looking at a compass. When you see a banzuke written out in English, they’ll normally be swapped, with East on the left. –PinkMawashi]

At the top is the rank, followed by place of origin, and then full shikona (including first name). Here are the entries for Hakuho and Kisenosato, zoomed:


kisenosato-in-banzukeYokozuna entries have a width of about 2.8cm. Ozeki entries – 2.5 cm. Sekiwake and Komusubi – 2.1 cm. The remaining width of the frame is divided evenly into the number of maegashira on that side.

The names are always written justified top and bottom. The calligrapher tries to leave a slightly larger space between the “surname” and the “given name”. In the image above, you can see Kagayaki’s entry, fifth from the left. He has only one kanji in his surname (輝), and two kanji in his given name (大士), so it stands out, having more white space than the ones around it.

Curiously, everybody below san-yaku on the banzuke is Maegashira! In particular, you can see “Maegashira” as the rank for each Juryo member. For Makushita and below, there is the character “同” (“do” = “ditto”) written in the rank position. And that character itself is shortened for sandanme and below. In this context, the “maegashira” means “ahead of the mae-zumo and off-banzuke guys” [Maegashira (前頭) literally translates as “those ahead” –PinkMawashi].

The bottom frame, excluding Jonokuchi, consists of members of the NSK. The big boxes on the East and West are for toshiyori of various ranks. The smaller boxes are for other members, such as sewanin, coaches, yobidashi and tokoyama.

The leftmost two boxes on the bottom left contain formulae in old Japanese. The second from the left says “In addition to the rikishi in this banzuke there are ones who do maezumo”. The leftmost evokes a thousand years of blessing.

So what about the middle column? The biggest, most impressive characters on the print – 蒙御免 – merely mean “Approved”. This is a vestige from the Edo period, when every sumo performance had to get approval from the shogunate.

This is followed by the date, length and place of the basho. Below them, the list of gyoji. The title of that is “行司” (“gyoji”), but if you take a look closely, you’ll see that the word is written right-to-left – the same way sekitori names are written on their akeni (the traditional luggage box every sekitori gets).

Right to left: o-ki-noumi

This holds true for every title in the banzuke-hyo – shimpan, riji, shunin. Anything that’s written in a single row is written right-to-left.

After the gyoji come the shimpan. Finally, “Nihon sumo kyokai” with details about the NSK.

Outside the frame, on the bottom left, there’s the date of publication and “all rights reserved”. And this is actually what gets written first! After drawing the frames, the calligrapher – a gyoji – writes the whole thing generally in reverse order – from left to right, from bottom to top, starting with that humble copyright notice, and ending with the East Yokozuna 1.

18 thoughts on “Breaking Down The Wall Of Kanji

  1. I couldn’t like this post fast enough! You are a treasure trove.

    I do have a question though, or rather a request for confirmation. When the rikishi is from Japan, they list origin by prefecture, correct? I can’t read Japanese one lick, but I can compare the entries of the guys I know.

  2. Do what is the one that has all the mini color drawings of the rikishi?

    Like in the post right below this one.

  3. Thankyou so much for this!
    I was actually sent a banzuke from the November Basho with my sumo tickets. It is the first time I have ever held one and I spent a lot of time trying to figure it out.
    Then I ran around work showing everyone, trying to make new Sumo fans 😉

    • I did just as you did but my family still unfamiliar with my hobby watching sumo. For them, the banzuke looks strange but unique… nothing else. 😢 I guess i might be the only sumo fan probably in my area. (East java, indonesia). Wish you have a better luck dude!

  4. The patience and skill that goes into producing the banzuke is startling, especially for a lazy Weterner like me who does his “writing” by tapping a keyboard.

    Now I have a suggestion: how about some articles which explain what the wrestlers names mean. I know that the kanji can be read in more than one way so it won’t usually be as simple as X means Y. Google translate has improved but I can’t quite believe that the best translation of Gagamaru (臥牙丸) is “Rabbit doll”!

    • Hehe. Japanese names are a problem. While most Japanese surname have meanings (e.g. “Kitamura” = 北村 = “North village”), given names sometimes do and sometimes don’t. Parents give them for the sound, and pick good-looking kanji, and sometimes the kanji’s meaning really doesn’t matter.

      Shikona are even more complicated, as they are sometimes made of a part that’s taken from the name of the stablemaster, sometimes have a part that’s traditional in that stable, and though they try to make sense when they add the extra part, it’s hard to know the exact meaning unless the stablemaster declared it explicitly when he introduced the name. So you end up with, for example, 千代丸 – Chiyomaru – with “Chiyo” meaning “a thousand generations”, or “eternal” in short, and “maru” being “round, whole”. So he is eternally round. OK, probably officially “eternally whole”. But you know he is really eternally round.

      In Gagamaru’s case, apparently they did the given name trick. That is, picked the name for its sound, and picked arbitrary nice-looking kanji to go along with it. The reason for the “Gaga” is that this is what his mother wanted to call him originally, and how he was called since he was a boy. The meaning of the characters are “prostrate” and “tusk”, which of course have nothing to do with anything. As for the “maru”, I suppose, once again, that this is the same double-entendre. But in this case both would sound funny to English-speaking ears. He is either a “round Gaga” or a “complete Gaga”. :-)

      Anyway, the thing is that it would be hard to write a complete article about it because it would be too much guesswork, unless I can go from stable to stable and interview either the rikishi or his shisho (assuming it’s the original shisho. Can’t ask Chiyonofuji if he decided to call Chiyomaru “Eternally round” on purpose any longer…).

      • I have been able to find a couple of examples from articles published when a wrestler either adopts a new shikona or gets promoted. Kagayaki (輝) is “shine” or “glitter” which might explain the gold belt, but actually comes from the name of the express train which runs from his native Kanazawa to Tokyo. Seiro 青狼 is “blue wolf” which apart from being beyond cool is apparently a character in Mongolian folklore.

        I wrote the Wikipedia articles for those two so I had to do a bit of digging.

        • Mongolian wrestlers often get really cool shikona. “Asashoryu” and “Asasekiryu” – “Morning blue dragon” and “Morning red dragon”. “Hakuho sho” – “Soaring white phoenix”. “Kakuryu” – “Crane Dragon”. “Shotenro” – “Soaring Sirius” (or “Soaring sky wolf”).

          And then, there was Harumafuji’s original shikona, “Ama” = “Cheap Horse”… or “Rash horse”. OK, let’s assume it’s “Relaxed horse”.

  5. The Jonokuchi and Jonidan wrestlers need a microscope to read their names ))).Thank you for this post ,Herouth.

  6. Thank you, this is brilliant.

    I’ve added a couple of my own notes to the post to clarify some things – feel free to take them back out if you feel they detract.


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