Women fight for respect in Japan’s sumo rings 

Sumo wrestling in Japan is among the world’s oldest sports, dating back at least 1,500 years. The rules are simple: Square off with an opponent in a ring lined with sand, then try to push the other person out. Another rule: Japanese professional sumo is also off-limits to women. Japanese women wrestlers who achieve champion status at international sumo events are frustrated to face prejudice back home.

Ishii Sakura’s death stare is something else.

The 18-year-old sumo champ doesn’t look enraged in the ring. She just looks at her rivals the way sharks look at food.

“My opponents say I glare at them,” Ishii said. “I exude an aura that I’m going to fight. And afterward, my opponents say, ‘You looked bigger in the ring.’”

Ishii is a light-middleweight, standing 5-foot-3-inches tall. When competing, her weight can’t top 80 kilograms, or roughly 176 pounds, though she tries to keep her weight as close to that limit as possible. Every pound adds more power. When she’s not practicing in her dojo — bulldozing competitors, male and female, right out of the ring — Ishii barbell squats metal plates over and over, turning her legs and core into iron.

Ishii is the only woman on Rikkyo University’s legendary sumo team. Her Tokyo dojo is a breeding ground for professional sumo athletes: wrestlers who go on to big money and fame, competing on the sport’s hallowed ground, Kokugikan sumo stadium, even more sacred to sumo than Madison Square Garden is to basketball.

In a fairer world, Ishii might compete there, too, after graduating. After all, she is among the most promising women in her sumo weight class, having snatched the gold medal at 2022’s World Games — a tournament for sports that haven’t yet gained full acceptance at the Olympics.

Yet, her sumo career likely has, at best, only a few years left.

The Japan Sumo Association, a quasi-governmental organization, bars women from competing professionally. It even forbids women from stepping into rings where men compete. Because of these rules, women’s sumo is obscure and misunderstood — even in Japan.

“Honestly,” Ishii said, “when I meet new people, I don’t always say I’m a sumo wrestler. People will ask, ‘Oh, do you do it naked? Because boys do it without clothes on.’”

While men only wear a loincloth in the ring, women in sumo wear the loincloth plus a T-shirt and gym shorts. Even though sumo is Japan’s de facto national sport — practiced in various forms for more than 1,500 years — the idea of women in sumo draws confused looks and laughs.

Professor Suzuki Masataka, a Keio University anthropologist who studies sumo, said the prohibition on women in professional rings comes down to menstruation. Sumo is ancient, he said, and quasi-religious beliefs have accumulated around the sport. Many believe those who menstruate can make a ring impure — and bring terrible luck to future competitors.

“It’s hard to talk about these rules and rituals nowadays because it sounds so sexist,” Suzuki said. “But sumo is a world invented by men. Leaders of the Japan Sumo Association are all male and, frankly, not educated in gender rights. When this issue comes up, they just hope it dies out so they don’t have to change tradition.”

Even if women were allowed into pro sumo, Suzuki said, it probably wouldn’t draw much of a crowd — maybe some gawkers. He said that he believes there is only one path to women’s sumo gaining acceptance in Japanese society: the sport thriving somewhere else first.

This is not such a far-fetched notion.

Sumo has a niche following in Ukraine, Poland, Brazil and parts of the United States. Especially Texas. Sabrina Pacella — who hosts the podcast “Sumo Punx” with her husband, Matt Jim (himself a sumo wrestler) — said that she believes it’s one of the fastest-growing sports in Texas.

“There’s something so pure about going into a ring with the body you were born into,” she said. “It’s such a test of balance and strength and agility.”

In the US, Pacella said, sumo crowds are gender diverse. The wrestlers, however, are mostly men — for now. 

“It’s no surprise to anyone that, in our culture, women are expected to be thin and pretty. People see sumo as a sport for fat people bumping bellies.”

Many women do fear “the people in their life will worry about them looking like a stereotypical sumo wrestler,” Pacella said. “And they don’t want that kind of heat … but I don’t know a single person in the American sumo scene who wouldn’t welcome more women into sumo.”

Developing a broad and women-inclusive sumo culture around the world is key to a dream held by many sumo fans: competitions at the Olympics.

“I would be over the moon,” Pacella said. 

But it doesn’t help that the Japan Sumo Association — the most influential and moneyed sumo organization on Earth — prevents women in the sport’s homeland from developing their skills. In Japan, women’s sumo is relegated to small, amateur competitions. It’s not a viable career path.

Ishii, outside the ring, is much more chill than her death glare would suggest. When she’s not practicing by knocking big guys off their feet, she reads Japanese comics and hangs with her dad, who puts up wallpaper for a living; the two are so inseparable that they share clothes. 

“I dress like a man anyway,” she said, “and besides, my Dad and I are the same size,” though only the younger of the two can barbell squat 100 kilograms (220 pounds) 10 times in a row.

Ishii, lacking career prospects in professional sumo, has decided to do the most with the time she has left as a collegiate athlete. Her mission is to win as many international sumo competitions as possible, “because if I win, I’ll have a bigger voice, and more people will listen to me.”

Her message to Japanese girls and women: Try to love sumo, even if the sport doesn’t always love you back.

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