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Professional sumo is divided into six ranked divisions. Wrestlers are promoted and demoted within and between these divisions based on the merit of their win/loss records in official tournaments. For more information see kachi-koshi and make-koshi. Wrestlers are also ranked within each division. The higher a wrestler's rank within a division is, the stronger the general level of opponents he will have to face becomes. According to tradition, each rank is further subdivided into East and West, with East being slightly more prestigious, and ranked slightly higher than its West counterpart. The divisions, ranked in order of hierarchy from highest to lowest, are as follows:
Makuuchi (幕内), or makunouchi (幕の内), is the top division. It is fixed at 42 wrestlers who are ranked according to their performance in previous tournaments. At the top of the division are the "titleholders", or "champions" called the san'yaku comprising yokozuna, ōzeki, sekiwake and komusubi. There are typically 8–12 wrestlers in these ranks with the remainder, called maegashira, ranked in numerical order from 1 downwards. This is the only division that is featured on standard NHK's live coverage of sumo tournaments and is broadcast bilingually. The latter part of the lower divisions is shown on satellite coverage.
The name makuuchi literally means "inside the curtain", a reference to the early period of professional sumo, when the top ranked wrestlers were able to sit in a curtained off area prior to appearing for their bouts. Makuuchi can also refer to the top two divisions makuuchi and jūryō as a whole, as the wrestlers in these divisions are salaried and considered fully salaried professionals as opposed to "in training".
Jūryō (十両), is the second highest division, and is fixed at 28 wrestlers. The name literally means "ten ryō"', which was at one time the income a wrestler ranked in this division could expect to receive. The official name of the second division is actually jūmaime (十枚目), meaning "tenth placing" and can be heard in official announcements and seen in some publications, but within and outside the sumo world it is almost universally known as jūryō. Wrestlers in the jūryō and the makuuchi division above are known as sekitori. Jūryō wrestlers, like those in the top makuuchi division, receive a regular monthly salary as well as other perks associated with having become a sekitori, or a member of the two upper divisions in sumo. Sumo wrestlers ranked in the divisions below jūryō are considered to be in training and receive a small allowance instead of a salary.
Jūryō wrestlers, along with their makuuchi counterparts, are the only professional sumo wrestlers who compete in a full fifteen bouts per official tournament. In the case of injuries with makuuchi wrestlers pulling out, jūryō wrestlers near the top of the division may find themselves in the occasional matchup with a top-division wrestler. Such jūryō-makuuchi matchups are also not uncommon towards the end of a sumo tournament, in order to better establish promotion and relegation of individuals between the two divisions.
Once a wrestler is promoted to jūryō, he is considered a professional with significant salary and privileges. As such, promotions to jūryō are announced just a few days after a preceding tournament, whereas other rankings are not announced for several weeks.
Makushita (幕下) is the third highest division. Prior to the creation of the jūryō division, this division was only one below the topmost makuuchi division (meaning inside the curtain). Hence makushita, literally meaning "below (shita) the curtain (maku)".
In the current system, there are 120 wrestlers in the division (60 ranked on the East and 60 on the West side of the banzuke). Unlike the sekitori ranks above them, wrestlers compete only seven times during a tournament.
It is often considered that holding the rank of makushita is the first step toward becoming a professional (sekitori ranked) sumo wrestler. Furthermore, it can be regarded as the most heavily contested division, with younger sumo wrestlers on their way up competing with those older sumo wrestlers who have dropped from jūryō and are determined to regain the higher rank. A key incentive is the difference between being ranked in the topmost makushita slot versus the lowest jūryō rank, which has been likened to being that between heaven and hell: A wrestler ranked at makushita or lower is expected to carry out chores for the stable and any sekitori within it, whereas the jūryō wrestler will be served upon. Similarly, the jūryō wrestler receives a comfortable monthly salary, whereas a wrestler below makushita still only receives a small living allowance.
Winning all seven matches in a tournament grants an unconditional advance to the jūryō division if one is ranked within the top thirty wrestlers of the division. For any other member of the division a 7–0 record will guarantee promotion to within the top thirty members, so two successive 7–0 records will allow a makushita wrestler to advance to jūryō.
Those in the uppermost ranks of the division and thus slated for a possible advancement may have a match with those in jūryō, either as one of the seven matches they are expected to compete in, or occasionally in addition to the matches they have already had. This eighth match is sometimes required as a result of tournament withdrawals due to injury of sekitori, and is usually given to makushita wrestler who have achieved a 3–4 or worse record in their regular seven bouts. It is ignored if one loses and counted if one wins, making it a true bonus bout for a makushita wrestler. In such a match-up the makushita wrestler will have his hair fashioned into a full oicho-mage as sekitori do but continues to wear his plain cotton mawashi.
The term makushita, can also be used to refer to all four divisions as a whole that are below jūryō, as these four divisions are considered wrestlers that are still in training.
Sandanme (三段目) is the fourth highest division. This level represents the first break point in the treatment a wrestler receives as he rises up the ranks. From sandanme he is allowed a better quality of dress, most notably he no longer needs to wear geta on his feet and can wear a form of overcoat over his yukata. However, the wrestlers are still considered to be in training, receiving only an allowance rather than a salary.
There is typically a set number of 200 wrestlers in sandanme and as with the other divisions below jūryō, wrestlers only compete in seven bouts, held roughly every other day.
Jonidan (序二段) is the fifth highest division. Unlike the divisions above it, there is no fixed number of wrestlers in the division although it is usually the largest division in any given tournament, with commonly around 200–250 wrestlers ranked within it. As a result of the numbers, and the fact that, as with the other lower divisions, the wrestlers fight only seven times during a tournament, a play-off tournament on the last day is normally required to determine the division champion.
Wrestlers in this division are forbidden from wearing overcoats over their thin cotton yukata, even in winter, and must wear geta on their feet. They often also pick up many of the more mundane chores within the training stable in which they live.
Jonokuchi (序ノ口 or 序の口) is the lowest division. All wrestlers, apart from those who have had successful amateur careers and are given special dispensation to enter makushita or sandanme directly, start in this division. In addition to the new wrestlers the division tends to consist of other recent recruits to sumo wrestling as well as some older wrestlers who have fallen to the bottom of the ranks due to prolonged injury.
A new wrestler's initial position in the jonokuchi division is determined by his performance in maezumō, a tournament held among new wrestlers at the time of the grand tournament before they are ranked for the first time. The jonokuchi division varies in size and typically includes between 40 and 90 wrestlers, with the high mark being reached for each May tournament as the number of recruits appearing in maezumō is generally largest during the preceding March tournament, when the Japanese school year ends. As with the other lower divisions, wrestlers only compete in seven bouts over the course of the tournament. Jonokuchi is the only division in which wrestlers are semi-regularly promoted even with a losing record; promotions to the next highest jonidan division with a losing record are especially common for the May tournament when there is the large influx of new recruits.
The word jonokuchi is also used as an expression to describe when something has just begun.