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  • Photography:Cameron Allan Mckean
  • Photography:Cameron Allan Mckean

Yasushi Nishimura: Binding a tradition together everyday with string

, 2013/12/27

It’s just after lunchtime on a hot day during Tokyo’s rainy season. We have entered the ground floor of the Sumo stable that Yasushi Nishimura works in. His thin legs lead us up a stairwell, past offices, a clay Sumo ring, a communal kitchen and bathroom, to a large tatami room on the top floor. The sound of a single fan moving back and forth is occasionally drowned out with sub-bass snoring. There are a dozen Sumo wrestlers spread out around the room, sleeping on futons in their underpants; it’s too hot for clothes. “When I first started working here, I used to sleep over there,” Yasushi points to a corner of the sprawling tatami room. For eleven years he lived here as a full-time Sumo hairdresser, a ‘Tokoyama’, and he still comes back everyday to make the characteristic folded knot of hair, known as a ‘Chonmage’, which is part of the uniform of Sumo wrestlers. In Edo times wearing the Chonmage was a sign of your social status, and favoured by the Samurai. But the style was banned by the Meiji Government in 1876 in an effort to modernise and reduce the Samurai’s power. Sumo wrestlers were the only people officially allowed to keep the style. Now, the Sumo Association employs a number of professional Tokoyama to take care of the wrestlers hair, both for tournaments (when very elaborate and technical versions of Chomage are made) and also while Sumo are training. Yasushi story as a Tokoyama begins when he was 15 and came to Tokyo from Nagasaki. Three months after seeing his first Sumo match, in 1966, he began work. The word ‘hairdresser’ doesn’t really convey the importance of what he does. The Chonmage is an echo from those old Edo times, symbolically connecting Sumo with traditional Japan. It’s part of the Sumo’s identity. If it wasn’t for their traditional hairstyles, the Sumo napping around us might be mistaken for overweight men, lazily snoring their lives away. In fact, they’ve already trained for five hours and Yasushi has already cut and made all their Chonmage’s. Today, as he did on every other day, he opened his small metal toolbox, and took out an assortment of tools: combs, a metal spike, some everyday, a length of string and Binzuke oil, which gives the Sumo’s hair their characteristic shine. He cut the strings binding the previous days hair and then carefully worked the Sumo’s long hair. Scissors cut any stray hairs, oil was applied (“but not too much, that’s not my style,” he says), the hair was carefully folded and re-bound with string. “When I began I was doing this for around 100 wrestlers per day,” he says. To prove it he shows us his hands. They’re both covered in callouses; his left hand has even changed shape from the intensive and repetitive work. He is almost wearing his craft on his body, “now I don’t need to think about working with the hair,” he says, “my body just knows how to do it.”
 
This story originally appeared in PAPERSKY’s ARGENTINA | ART Issue (no.43)

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