Courtesy of NHK

When Wakanohana got his hair cut last September, 13,000 people paid to watch. Three hundred and eighty dignitaries took turns to snip at his long black mane, which hadn' seen a pair of scissors since he became a professional sumo wrestler 13 years ago.

Following a spate of leg injuries and subsequent poor performance, Wakanohana was facing potential demotion. To save face, "Young Flower" - a direct translation of his name - retired at the age of 29, thereby forfeiting the right to wear his hair long and styled in a fancy chonmage topknot.

The chonmage was de rigueur for Japanese men until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when the government ordered all men to cut their hair to a short Western style. The exception being sumo wrestlers who, as long as they remained active, were allowed to retain the traditional topknot to protect their head when they fell. Apparently this samurai-like appearance is still considered sexually appealing by many Japanese women. As most sumo marry models and TV announcers, maybe having a topknot really is a chick-magnet .

Like all young rookies, Wakanohana started to grow his hair as soon as he entered the sumo profession. When all his hair, including the fringe, could be brushed around the back of his head and touch his chin-the standard length test-it was fixed in a chonmage topknot. Because this style is exclusive to rikishi (sumo wrestlers), the number of hairdressers able to fix a chonmage are scarce. It can take up to ten years to acquire the necessary skills to become a top tokuyama (sumo hairdresser), able to dexterously manipulate the flowing locks with various combs and copious quantities of fragrant bintsuke wax, which is used to keep even a simple, everyday topknot in place. Once a week an apprentice washes a rikishi's hair, using over half a bottle of shampoo to remove all the bintsuke wax. If the wrestler has too much thick hair, it may be necessary to shave a "monk-like" circle on the top of the head, to make it easier to keep the topknot in place.

Like sumo, tokoyama hairdressers are ranked and only those in the top two divisions are allowed to create the elaborate oichomage-style topknot that resembles a ginkgo leaf. This style is worn by senior rikishi for tournaments and special occasions, such as weddings and promotions.

From the moment a wrestler has his hair cut, he can no longer call himself a sumo or rikishi. In fact Wakanohana can no longer use his official fighting name, and from now on will now be known as Sumo Elder Fujishima - his real name is actually Masaru Hanada. And in time, his fighting name will be passed on to Wakanohana III.

After years of having your hair covered in wax, which can't be too pleasant in the summer humidity, it probably comes as a relief to have a short back and sides and wash more than once a week - even if you have to do it yourself. But in actuality, the ritual hair-cutting ceremony is an extremely moving occasion for someone who has dedicated the majority of his life to training, eating and growing his hair: Many wrestlers actually break down.

Undoubtedly, the most touching moment of Wakanohana's retirement ceremony was when fellow yokozuna (training partner), rival and brother, Takanohana, stepped into the ring to take his turn with the scissors. Resting his hands on his siblings' shoulders, the two came close to tears, which was a rare sight for the usually composed, impassive brothers. Both know that it is only a matter of time before the younger brother gets a haircut, too.

Catherine Frances

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ISSUES 248/9-