As some of you sumo fans may or may not know, the current top ranked tategyoji (head referee) Kimura Shonosuke, a title not a given name, will reach the mandatory retirement age of 65 just after this basho and will oversee his final bout on senshuraku. On day 9 NHK did an interview with sumo’s current top judge. Since some of you may not be able to view the NHK broadcast we have decided to provide some general information. First a bit about gyojis in general.
Like all in the sumo profession, the gyoji enter the sumo world right around the end of junior high school, and are associated with a stable. There are two gyoji family names: Shikimori, and Kimura. Every gyoji will take one of these names as their ring name, much like a wrestler takes a shikona.
As they progress they will move up the chain, and performance is taken into account when considering promotion. Gyoji are promoted on the grounds of their poise, form, and ability to make sound calls. Too many calls reversed negatively effects the career of a gyoji. The gyoji ranks go as follows from lowest to highest: Jonokuchi, Jonidan, Sandanme, Makushita, Juryo, Makuuchi, Sanyaku, Tategyoji 2 (Shikimori Inosuke), Tategyoji 1 (Kimura Shonosuke).
Kimura Shonosuke oversees only the yokozuna dohyo iri and one bout per day (not counting playoffs), that being the musubi no ichiban (final bout of the day.) This bout will always involve the highest ranking yokozuna, or highest ranking wrestler, if there are no yokozuna. Much like the yokozuna, the title of Kimura Shonosuke is the highest honor that a gyoji can achieve. However unlike yokozuna, there can only be one Kimura Shonosuke at a time. Also unlike the yokozuna, this rank takes a lifetime to achieve.
To give you an idea of how seriously the rank is taken, chew on this: Part of the accoutrements of the top two gyoji includes a tanto (dagger), which is to be used to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) if the gyoji makes a bad call. Obviously now-a-days this rarely happens, but the gyoji may be required to submit resignation papers, upon a bad call. These papers may or may not be accepted (almost always not though.)
There are many other components to the costume a gyoji wears, i.e. shoes, or lack thereof, hats, tassels et al, all of which are slightly different depending on rank. The most noticeable would be the color of the kimono. Each rank has its own color code, the top being solid purple. The average length of service of a Kimura Shonosuke is about 8 years, with some serving as many as 25 years and some less than one year.
The current Kimura Shonosuke’s given name is Uchida Junichi. He is a member of Tatsunami-beya, and hails from Nobeoka city in Miyazaki prefecture. He made his hatsu dohyo (debut) during the Natsu Basho in 1962. Here is NHK’s stock photo from the Miyazaki jungyo in December of 1963.
The interview started out with the gyoji admitting that even after so many years he still gets nervous when he steps on the dohyo to officiate his bouts. He followed that by saying that when he was young he had an interest in sumo, but realized he was too small to be an active rikishi, but decided he still wanted to be involved in sumo, so he decided to go the road of the gyoji.
He began refereeing at the age of 16. He came up during the Rinko era when Wajima and Kitanoumi were dominant. Here is as a makushita gyoji officiating Takahanada (Takanohana)’s makushita yusho. This Kimura Shonosuke was lucky to be in sumo during a period when it’s popularity was on the rise. Chiyonofuji, Takanohana, Wakanohana and other such rikishi were making their debuts and gaining notoriety. As well as the solidification of foreign influence in sumo with Hawaiians and Mongolians rising to power.
The Tategyoji then went into his relationship with the current yokozuna Hakuho. Saying that Hakuho is an outstanding yokozuna. Complimenting Kublai not just on his fantastic sumo, but on his hinkaku (nebulous behavioral qualities on and off the dohyo). The Gyoji also talked about how nervous he was overseeing Hakuho’s bouts when he was chasing Futabayama’s legendary 69 consecutive win record.
Hakuho then said a few words on how this gyoji was his “daisempai” and that he learned a great many things from him, being in the same ichimon (heya group). Hakuho said that sumo is of course about wrestling, but also about tradition and that it was a particular honor to perfom the dohyo iri ceremony with this Kimura Shonoskue.
The interview ended with NHK showing some calligraphy by Kimura Shonosuke. As Ross stated it’s a motto of sorts: “Ketsudan isshun” meaning to make a decision in a single moment. It’s not difficult to imagine the pressure his job entails. Especially in very close matches that can decide not just the winner of a bout or a yusho, but to determine the beginning of an era, or the end of one. The continuation of a great career, or perhaps the premature end of one. Amazing all time records, or heart breaking short comings.
This Kimura Shonosuke also oversaw some of the darker times in sumo’s recent memory. Scandal after scandal has plagued sumo recently. But with Hakuho’s dominance, and still blossoming yokozuna career, and the likely promotion of a new Japanese ozeki, as well as rikishi from more and more countries joingin sumo, let us hope that we can say he also ushered in a new re-birth in sumo.
All of us here at Sumo & Stogies would like to thank the 35th Kimura Shonosuke for all his work, and to wish him a long and happy retirement with nothing but the best whisky, a good smoke or two, and always the best sumo.