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As with standard Japanese names, a shikona consists of a 'surname' and a 'given' name, and the full name is written surname first. However, the given name is rarely used outside formal or ceremonial occasions. Thus, the former yokozuna Asashōryū Akinori is usually referred to as simply Asashōryū. When addressing a sumo wrestler of the makuuchi or jūryō divisions, the suffix -zeki (関) should be used instead of the usual Japanese -san. The given name is often the wrestler's actual name, although foreign wrestlers are invariably given a Japanese name.
While a shikona can be the wrestler's own surname, most upper-division rikishi have a shikona different from their surname. A typical shikona consists of two or three kanji, rarely just one or more than three. Often, part of the name comes from the wrestler's master, a place name (such as the name of a province, a river, or a sea), the name of a weapon, an item identified with Japanese tradition (like a koto (琴) or nishiki (錦)), or a term indicating superiority. Often, waka (若, "young") indicates a wrestler whose father was also in sumo; in this case, the meaning is junior.
Wrestlers can change their shikona, often to mark significant rise in rank, but sometimes in the hope of a change in fortune after poor performance. Takahanada, son of former ōzeki Takanohana (貴乃花), changed his name to Takanohana (貴ノ花) when he himself was promoted to ōzeki, and subsequently changed the characters to 貴乃花. More recently Kotoōshū, whose performance has been disappointing since promotion to ōzeki, subtly changed the last character of his name, 琴欧州 becoming 琴欧洲, in a bid for better results. The shikona of veteran ōzeki Kaiō (魁皇) was originally set to be read Kaikō when he adopted it, but Kaiō was ultimately used as the pronunciation instead as it was felt to be a stronger-sounding name.
Many foreign rikishi are given shikona that give a clue as to their origin: the names of Russian brothers Rohō (露鵬) and Hakurozan (白露山) both contained the character 露, which is an abbreviation for Russia; Kotoōshū (琴欧州), a Bulgarian, the first European to reach the makuuchi (top) division, contains the characters 欧州, meaning Europe. Another notable example is the American Henry Armstrong Miller, who wrestled under the shikona Sentoryū (戦闘竜), which means fighting war dragon but is also homophonous with St. Louis, his city of origin.