Le Monde du Sumo
N°14 - february 2006
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Stéphane Castella and Thierry Perran
translated by Stefano Taschini
proofread by Chad Edward

History and evolution of the tsuna since 1789

The origin of the tsuna

A shimenawa at a shinto shrine.

The Japanese word tsuna means rope, but acquired a whole new dimension in the context of the shinto religion, and therefore in that of sumo. In fact, the tsuna as we know it in sumo has its origins in the shimenawa, a sacred rope hanging across the torii (the gate at the entrance of a shinto shrine) or sometimes wrapped around a tree also at the shrine entrance. Very often it features hanging goheis, zigzag-folded paper strips that signify the presence of a kami, i.e., a shinto divinity, god or spirit.

The tsuna, worn by Asashoryu and Tanikaze.

All sumo wrestlers have dreamt of proudly wearing it around their waist some day, but very few have realized their dream. Wearing it in public is indeed the exclusive privilege of the yokozuna. It is by means of the tsuna that the grand champion achieves the status of a semi-god, thus taking part in many religious ceremonies. A few theories exist that try and explain this link between shinto and sumo.

Two legends on the tsuna and sumo

Historians do not agree on the events leading to the adoption of the tsuna into the sumo world. One theory relies on a ninth century legend, although no hard evidence supports it. Thanks to his experience and strength, a wrestler called Hajikami from Omi prefecture won all the bouts in a sumo tournament organized during a religious festival. As he could not find any more challengers, he took the tsuna from a torii and wrapped it around his waist as a handicap, declaring he would acknowledge his defeat to the wrestler who could touch the rope. Nobody was up to the task, and, always according to the legend, by wearing the tsuna, Hajikami was empowered to represent mankind’s dignity in the gods’ presence.

Akashi Shiganosuke.

A second story develops around the figure of Akashi Shiganosuke, although his existence has not been completely proven, with his astonishing size of 2.05 m for 160 kg. Having won a tournament in 1630, he adorned himself with a shimenawa as a tribute to the shrine’s kami and to the emperor, before being admitted to the presence of the latter. Almost 300 years later he would be recognized as the first yokozuna. There again the tsuna goes only to an exceptional wrestler to signify his strength and the honor of representing men before the divine, the emperor in this case.

Tsuna awarded to super-ozeki

Tsuna presented to Tanikaze and Onogawa in 1789.

Leaving legends aside, the tsuna officially entered the sumo world only towards the end of the eighteenth century. With its connotations of strength and dignity, the tsuna could only be bestowed to exceptional wrestlers and made its début in 1789, when the shogun Yoshida Oikaze granted the title of yokozuna to Tanikaze and Onogawa, two ozeki that by far dominated sumo at the time.

Tanikaze in 1789.

From a historical viewpoint, this is also the period that sees the first prints with wrestlers sporting a tsuna. Akashi Shiganosuke, Ayagawa Goroji, and Maruyama Gontazaemon, earlier wrestlers later considered to be the first three yokozuna, never appeared in prints with a tsuna.

Onogawa in 1789.

Tsuna and yokozuna dohyo-iri

Modern tsunas: Unryu style and Shiranui style (right).

At official tournaments and exhibitions, the yokozunas are presented individually to the audience, each yokozuna having his own dohyo-iri (ring entrance). In recent times two dohyo-iri styles established themselves, but historical evidence shows the existence of more styles during the Meiji era (1868 – 1912). There are unique ways of wearing the tsuna, of adorning it, and even of tying it; and, a specific tsuna style ended up associated with each presentation style, but in the end the yokozuna is entirely free to impress his personality on his dohyo-iri.

The “defensive” Unryu style

Unryu-style tsuna.

This style carries the name of the tenth yokozuna but was actually created by yokozuna Shiranui. It is considered a defensive dohyo-iri style because the yokozuna always keeps an arm close to his body as defense. The knot consists of a loop placed in the middle of the back, with the two ends of the rope cutting the loop in half upwards from the tsuna.

Yokozuna Takanohana and his Unryu-style dohyo-iri.

This style is by far the most popular among the yokozuna, and has been adopted by the most successful grand champions.

The “offensive” style Shiranui

Shiranui-style tsuna.

Ironically, this style carries the the name of the eleventh yokozuna, but was actually created by Unryu. It is considered an offensive “dohyo-iri” style because the yokozuna thrusts both arms forward as if attacking. The knot consists of two loops placed at the left and right sides of the two ends of the rope, which are oriented upwards from the tsuna.

Yokozuna Wakanohana III and his Shiranui-style dohyo-iri.

This style has the fame of bringing bad luck to its adopters in the form of injuries. This superstition has no scientific foundations, but the records seem to confirm it. You can understand the desire of an oyakata when he pushes a promising yokozuna to choose the other style.

A historical mix-up

It is Kozo Hikoyama, the most famous scholar authority in sumo, the person responsible for mixing up the names of the two styles. With no prior research, he described the dohyo-iri of the newly appointed yokozuna Tachiyama as in the style of Shiranui, whereas it was actually in the style of Unryu. On the spot, nobody dared to contradict him, and the exchanged names stuck to the styles.

Evolution of the knots

Recent (top) and older tsunas.

The tsuna naturally evolved with time. The above photograph shows how much the older tsunas at the top differ from the newer ones at the bottom. The most striking detail is the absence of symmetry in the older knots. Whichever the style, the rope ends are on one side of the knot, with the loops on the other side.

Front and back views of Hitachiyama with his tsuna.

Variation of the diamater

The tsuna of Umegatani I. Note the loop on the right.

On the above print, you clearly see that the diameter of the rope is almost uniform over the entire waist length. More recent tsunas (below) have a thicker central part, almost in the shape of a spindle.

The tsuna of Kitanoumi (above) and Takanosato (below). The x-rays show the knot structure.

The gohei

Print showing tsunas with gohei in modern and older style.

In the course of two centuries of tsuna history in sumo, the gohei hanging around the rope have also evolved considerably. They were always in number of five and made of paper, but the now standard shape of folded rectangles coexisted in the past with other forms, as attested in the 1789 print here above.

Onogawa around 1790.

It does not come as a surprise that Tanikaze and Onogawa, the first two sumo stars, chose and established their gohei style. At first, the above model, shaped as an upside-down “U”, was adopted by both wrestlers, but Tanikaze later broke away, opting for a gohei shaped like a bunch of flowers.

Tanikaze around 1790.

Three decades later, Inazuma adopted a slightly different style from Tanikaze’s. Inazuma is very likely the last yokozuna with exotic gohei, as towards the end of his career he is also portrayed in many prints wearing the classical rectangular goheis.

Inazuma around 1830.

In recent times, the tsunas seem to have crystallized in their present forms, and further evolution is not very likely, be the style Unryu or Shiranui. Nevertheless, it is up to the discretion of the yokozuna, and it could as well be that the future has still some surprises in store for us. Glory to the yokozunas, whatever their style!