Gyōji usually enter the sumo world as teenagers and remain employees of the Sumo Association until they retire aged 65. There are currently a little over 40 active gyōji with an average of one in each sumo stable, though some stables have more than one and some have no gyōji.
Originally there were no official referees in sumo, if there were any close matches the emperor would determine the winner. It wasn't until the early 16th Century with the help of Oda Nobunaga that gyōji started to make an appearance.
The gyōji's principal and most obvious task is to referee bouts between two sumo wrestlers. After the yobidashi has called them into the ring, the gyōji will also call out each wrestler's name. It is the gyōji's responsibility to watch over the wrestlers as they go through the initial prebout staring contests, and then coordinate the initial charge (or tachi-ai) between the wrestlers. After he has been signaled by the shinpan (ringside judge) time keeper, the gyōji will indicate that the preparation time (four minutes for the top division) is up by saying "jikan desu, ryote wo tsuite" ("it's time, both hands down") and signal with his fan that the bout is to begin. He will sometimes add, "kamaete mattanashi!" ("prepare, no false starts!") Sometimes the gyōji will shout hakke-yoi (lit. "Go on and spar" or "Put some spirit into it") or "nokotta" ("you're still in") after a good tachi-ai. Although it is the wrestlers that ultimately determine the exact point at which the tachi-ai is initiated, if the two wrestler's breathing isn't synchronized or if one wrestler charges before they both put down their hands then the gyōji will shout "Madamada" ("Not yet!"), while raising his hand between the two wrestlers. This is referred to as a matta or a false start, and only the gyōji can call for one. If the gyōji doesn't call for a matta even if a wrestler wasn't ready he must fight. Once a matta has been ruled then the wrestlers must get back to their starting positions and try another tachi-ai.
During the bout, he is supposed to keep the wrestlers informed that the bout is still live (it is possible for a wrestler to brush his foot outside the ring without realizing it). He does this by shouting "nokotta nokotta!" (残った、残った！), roughly translated means: "You're still in it! You're still in it!" The gyōji also has the responsibility to encourage the wrestlers to get a move on when action between them has completely stopped, for instance, when both of them are locked up on each other's mawashi in the middle of the ring. He will do this by shouting "yoi hakkeyoi, eh! yoi hakkeyoi, eh!" (発気揚々, 発気揚々!). If the match is getting very long (four or five minutes) with little movement, then the gyōji may call for a mizu-iri or water break. , the gyōji will record specifically how they before the break occurred, and will put them back in exactly the same position once the break has concluded. Additionally, the gyōji may call for a small break if he needs to fix a wrestler's mawashi. Mid-match breaks are rare, but do happen. When a wrestler has apparently fallen to the clay, the gyōji is expected to determine the winner of the bout. His most obvious accessory is a solid wooden war-fan, called a gunbai which he uses in the prebout ritual and in pointing to the winner's side at the end of each bout, and will often shout "Shobu-ari" ("A decision has been reached").
The gyōji's decision as to the winner of the bout can be called into question by one of the five Shinpan or judges who sit around the ring. If they dispute the result they hold a mono-ii (lit: a talk about things) in the center of the ring, aided through an earpiece to a further two judges in a video room. They can confirm the decision of the gyōji (gunbai-dori or way of the gunbai), overturn it (sashi-chigae), or order a rematch (torinaoshi). The gyōji is not expected to take part in the discussion during a mono-ii unless asked to do so. In many cases, a match may be too close to call, or the gyōji may not have managed to get a clear view of the end of the bout. Regardless, he is still obliged to make a split second decision as to his choice of "winner". This creates pressure for a gyōji, especially considering that a reversed decision (sashi-chigae) is like a black mark. Every time a gyōji's call is over turned they must submit a written report about the ruling to the Japanese Sumo Association. Too many overturned calls and it may affect a gyōji's future career (such referees are never demoted; simply passed over for promotion). The top two gyōji (tategyōji) carry tantō (dagger) to symbolize their willingness to commit seppuku if they have their call overturned. Instead of actually committing seppuku they will instead submit letters of resignation. Most letters of resignation are not accepted, though there has been instances where they have been, instead they may simply suspend the gyōji for a number of days.
In addition to refereeing matches, gyōji have a number of other responsibilities. Before a tournament begins one of the top gyoji tategyoji and two other gyōji acting as Shinto priests will perform the dohyō matsuri (lit. ring festival) where they will concentrate and purifies the ring. They also officially lead the ring entering ceremonies. During a tournament they announce the following day's matchups. They also are responsible for keeping the records of wrestlers' results, and determining the technique used by a particular wrestler in winning a bout. At the end of the tournament one gyōji will stand in the center of the ring and will be tossed into the air by lower ranked wrestlers as a way of sending off the kami (deities). The gyōji also serve as moderators for ranking and match-combination conferences. Before a tournament they draw up an ornate ranking list called a banzuke written in a special calligraphic style called negishi-ryu. It can take a gyōji up to 10 years to qualify to write the banzuke, and can take up to three gyōji three days to finish writing the Ita bazuke which is much larger and rests outside the stadium. The Ita banzuke had been used as a promotional billboard during the Edo Peroid. All gyōji are also associated with one of the sumo training stables throughout their career and have many individual duties in assisting their stablemaster such as performing clerical work. Additionally, the tategyōji both serve on the deliberation council which is the governing council in the Japanese Sumō Association.
Career progression is based on a ranking system similar in name to that used for sumo wrestlers (see sumo). The rank nominally represents the rank of wrestler that they are qualified to referee for. The biggest factor in determining promotion of a gyōji is seniority. However, this is not always the sole factor, others include accuracy in refereeing, good voice projection, leadership qualities, calligraphy skill, speed, and agility. These are the skills at the heart of the profession and are passed down by senior gyōji to junior gyōji. While they aren't demoted, they may be passed over for promotion if they have had too many of their calls reversed.
- tate-gyōji chief gyōji
Top gyōji (makushita ranked and above) are assigned tsukebito, or personal attendants in their stable, just as top wrestlers (sekitori) are. These may be junior referees or lower-ranked wrestlers. There is a superstition in the sumo world that a wrestler serving a gyōji will not go on to have a successful career.
Gyōji normally join around the age of 19. They are then given a three-year apprenticeship though they may still be promoted during that time. On average it takes a gyōji 15 years to be promoted to officiating juryo matches. It takes another 15 years to be promoted to officiating makuuchi matches. The tategyōji (top two gyōji) usually have anywhere from 40 to 50 years of experience. 
Like the sumo wrestlers, gyōji ranked at makushita level and below wear a much simpler outfit than those ranked above them. It is made of cotton rather than silk and is about knee length. The outfit also incorporates a number of rosettes (kikutoji), and tassels (fusa) which are normally green, but can be black in colour. Within the dohyō (ring) they are also expected to go barefoot.
On promotion to lowest senior rank of jūryō the gyōji will change into the more elaborate full length silk outfit. The kikutoji and fusa on his outfit will also change to be green and white. He is also entitled to wear tabi on his feet.
As he moves further up the ranks there are additional small changes:
Makuuchi ranked gyōji merely need to change the colour of the kikutoji and fusa to red and white.
As described above, the two holders of the topmost rank, equivalent to yokozuna and ōzeki, are the tate-gyōji. The kikutoji and fusa are purple and white for the lower-ranked tate-gyōji (Shikimori Inosuke) and solid purple for the higher-ranked one (Kimura Shonosuke). Furthermore, both the top two gyōji carry a tantō (a dagger) visible in the belt of the outfit. This is supposed to represent the seriousness of the decisions they must make in determining the outcome of a bout, and their preparedness to commit seppuku if they make a mistake. In reality if one of the two top-ranked gyōji has his decision as to the victor of a bout overturned by the judges then he is expected to tender his resignation instead. However, the resignation is generally rejected by the Chairman of the Japan Sumo Association. A tate-gyōji's submission of his resignation can usually be regarded as simply a gesture of apology from one of the highest-ranked referees for his mistake. There have, however, been rare cases where the resignation has been accepted, or where the gyōji concerned has been suspended from duty for a short period.
As with virtually all positions in the Sumo Association, including the wrestlers and the oyakata, the gyōji take on a professional name, which can change as they are promoted. From around the 16th Century and until the end of the Edo period these professional names were taken from a number of influential noble families associated with sumo, such as Kimura, Shikimori, Yoshida, Iwai, Kise and Nagase. Gyōji associated with these families derived their professional names from them. Over time however, noble families' influence on sumo waned until eventually only two "family" professional names remained, Kimura and Shikimori, with the titles having lost their connection with the families to which they were originally tied. The Kimura and Shikimori families date as far back as the early 18th Century.
In modern times, all gyōji will take either the family name Kimura (木村) or Shikimori (式守) as their professional name, depending on the tradition of the stable that they join. There are exceptions to this naming convention, but they are rare. The professional name Kimura outnumbers the name Shikimori by about 3 to 1. Additionally there are different styles to how a gyōji will hold his gunbai depending on which family he is in. The Kimura family hold their gunbai with their palm and figures faced up, while the Shikimori will hold their's with their palm and figures faced down. The Kimura family is also seen as slightly more prestigious than the Shikimori family. Gyōji will at first use their own given name as their personal/second name which follows Kimura or Shikimori. Later, as they rise through the ranks and begin officiating higher divisions, one of the two family names and a personal name together as a set title is passed down. This will either be passed down from a senior gyōji (often a mentor) or the junior gyōji will receive one of a number of established gyōji professional names that is currently unused. This naming convention can be seen when looking at a list of gyōji such as on a banzuke, where younger, lower-ranked gyōji have modern sounding personal/second names, while higher ranked ones have antiquated sounding second names that have been passed down for generations. It is also not uncommon for gyōji to switch between families as they are being promoted through the ranks. Rising through the ranks is based largely on seniority, but the accuracy of an individual gyōji's decisions and his bearing on the dohyō are also determining factors.
At the top of the gyōji hierarchy are two fixed positions called tate-gyōji which always take the names Kimura Shōnosuke (木村庄之助) and Shikimori Inosuke (式守伊之助), the higher ranked and lower ranked tate-gyōji respectively. They officiate over only the top few bouts in san'yaku, near the end of a tournament day. Both of these professional names have the longest history and have been passed down through the most generations of gyōji. It is normally the practice that when the higher ranking Kimura Shōnosuke retires at 65, he is succeeded by the second ranking Shikimori Inosuke after a certain interval.
- 37th Kimura Shōnosuke, real name: Saburō Hatakeyama, member of Tomozuna stable, November 2013 to March 2015 (his retirement).
- 40th Shikimori Inosuke, real name: Itsuo Nouchi, member of Miyagino stable, March 2013 to May 2018. Shikimori was suspended for three tournaments in January 2018 for sexually harassing a junior referee. The Japan Sumo Association accepted his resignation in May 2018 when the suspension concluded.
There are currently no tate-gyōji (as of the July 2018 basho).
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- Newton, Clyde (1994). Dynamic Sumo. Kodansha International. p. 22.
- Newton, Clyde (1994). Dynamic Sumo. Tokyo: Kodansha International. p. 23.
- "Grand Sumo: The Beauty of Tradition". YouTube.
- "Sumo: Top referee to resign over sexual harassment scandal". english.kyodonews.net. Kyodo News. 13 January 2018. Retrieved 13 January 2018.
Media related to Gyōji at Wikimedia Commons