SUMO ABC (71) / Retired sumo referee shows determination to uphold his profession’s highest standards

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Junichi Uchida on Sept. 20, 2011, as Kimura Shonosuke

By Shuji Miki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterFollowing installment No. 69 of this column on Jan. 24, I’d like to write about gyoji referees in grand sumo tournaments once again.

Many sumo fans may have simple questions such as: Why do gyoji belong to stables just like rikishi wrestlers do? Can gyoji fairly and neutrally judge bouts under these circumstances? Does their judgment tend to favor wrestlers who belong to the same stable as them?

I interviewed Junichi Uchida, 71, who served as the 35th Kimura Shonosuke, the highest rank of gyoji, about what is going on behind all this.

“We gyoji are also judged. When there is an objection to one of our calls from ringside sumo judges and the call turns out to be wrong, our performance rating declines, or we receive a gyoji kuroboshi [black mark],” Uchida said. “On top of that, we must declare the winner at the very moment the match is over. We have no time to think nor are we allowed to hover [over the decision],” he said, adding that it’s impossible to make a call favorable to specific wrestlers.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    The 35th Kimura Shonosuke, Uchida, speaks during an interview in late January.

His commitment as a sumo referee is somewhat unique. Uchida, who hails from Nobeoka, Miyazaki Prefecture, admired yokozuna Wakanohana I. He became a sumo referee at age 15, but his promotion didn’t come easily. He was 37 years old when he was promoted to gyoji of the juryo second-tier division, even though the standard age for such a promotion is said to be around 30.

Through 22 years of apprenticeship, Uchida said he learned that gyoji are “asked to be healthy and mentally balanced in order to make solid referee calls.” Although he enjoyed alcohol, he gave it up at age 40 and remained continuously sober until he retired at 65.

When he was promoted to Shikimori Inosuke, or tate gyoji chief referee, Uchida said, “I told my wife that I will quit gyoji if I committed a kuroboshi twice in one tournament.”

It is said that one shiroboshi, or winning mark, for rikishi can spell the difference between sending their life to heaven or hell. Uchida’s comment and attitude show his determination not to judge such crucial bouts with a half-hearted attitude.

Uchida had assumed the heavy responsibilities of tate gyoji for about 4½ years as both Inosuke and Shonosuke. During that time, he made no wrong calls. That’s what he’s proud of.

“I sharpened my skill in determining winners through watching wrestlers practice in their stables. The dohyo ring in local tours has been a venue for fighting [for me]. No one can really teach you how to do your job.

“We’re craftsmen. The only way to acquire our skill is to learn from the way our senior gyoji do judging,” he said.

— Miki is a sumo expert.

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