Japan’s female sumo wrestlers: Meet the women changing the face of the sport

The two pre-teen girls grapple for a dozen seconds before Kajiwara ousts her rival from the ring.

At this sumo tournament, no loincloth-clad men are competing for the title of “grand champion.” Instead, girls aged between 8 and 12 are going head-to-head and step-by-step changing the future of Japan’s male-dominated national sport.

“I think if we get more girls and women in sumo then we’ll be able to level the playing field and make a living from sumo. I hope that happens,” she adds.

A soft-spoken, bespectacled 12-year-old, Kajiwara started practicing sumo alongside judo four years ago. As a defending champion of an inaugural national tournament held for girls in 2019, she’s determined to keep her title and go as far as she can with in the sport.

“There are some people who don’t get why I do sumo, but I’m not bothered by what they think. If you want to do sumo, you should do it,” she said.

But for women that’s easier said than done.

Professional sumo still excludes women from competition and ceremonies, and in recent years, several scandals have tarnished the sport’s reputation.

Furor erupted in 2018 when female medics trying to help a collapsed mayor were ordered out of the sumo ring in Kyoto prefecture. Many read the incident as a reflection of the treatment of women in patriarchal Japan, which is ranked 120 out of 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Index.

Superwomen and show business

Despite the challenges, experts say changing attitudes in Japan are paving a future for girls and women in sumo.

Professional sumo or Ozumo is an ancient practice dating back over 1,500 years. A practice exclusively for men and traditionally performed at shrines in Japan to pray for bountiful harvests, the sport’s rigid ceremony has remained largely unchanged for centuries.

The actual bouts often last mere seconds, and much of the time, the two wrestlers face off in the dohyo — a raised clay dais. Women can’t enter this ring as they are considered impure in Shinto belief because they menstruate.
Sumo wrestler Tochinoshin of Georgia (right) battles Takayasu of Japan (left) during the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament in Tokyo on May 26, 2019.

Despite the barriers, women’s sumo has been around since the sport’s early days, according to Eiko Kaneda, a professor at the Nippon Sport Science University in Tokyo, Japan.

For instance, in the second-oldest book of Japanese history called “the Chronicles of Japan,” an eighth-century account describes how Emperor Yuuryaku called on minor female officials to perform sumo, Kaneda writes in a study published in the International Journal of the History of Sport.

A well-known literary work known as the “Ukiyo-zoushi” published in the Edo era (1603 to 1867) even alludes to a sumo bout between a woman and a blind man.

And though women’s sumo was briefly banned in 1873, it was revived a few years later and even went global in the 1930s when an event geared to show off female sumo wrestlers’ strength went to Hawaii in the 1930s, according to Kaneda.

Sumo wrestlers try to push each other out of the ring or "dohyo" during a training session at a stable in Tokyo.

She says traditional women’s sumo wasn’t just a form of entertainment but highlighted a belief in the wrestler’s superwoman-like qualities. There are records, she writes, of women sumo wrestlers enlisted to do everything from pray for rainfall in Akita prefecture (as their alleged impurity could invoke the anger of the gods) to celebrating auspicious events, such as weddings, in Kyushu.

Between the 1940s and 1950s, sumo was even considered a form of underground erotica where women’s bodies were objectified as they performed in bars clad only in loincloths, said Chie Ikkai, a professor at Gunma Women’s University.

Opportunities for girls

Fast-forward to the 21st century and in a dimly-lit local gym on the outskirts of Tokyo, boys and girls aged between eight and 12 spar together, tussling and bumping heads.

Miki Ouike, a wrestling coach, takes pride in having so many girls in his class but says a general lack of sumo clubs across Japan means that many girls who do it train in judo and wrestling.

His star pupil is 12-year-old Nikori Hara. She won her regional sumo competition and was preparing to compete at the second girls’ national Wanpaku tournament.

Girls who compete in the Wanpaku national elementary girls tournament also come from judo and wrestling backgrounds.

That tournament opened to girls for the first time in 2019, over three decades after it was first held for boys of the same age group.

Ouike said that word still hasn’t traveled widely about the existence of girl sumo competitions. “It’s a shame more girls don’t know that there are opportunities for them to try out sumo wrestling,” he said to CNN.

For girls wanting to try the sport, they usually start by joining unisex sumo clubs at school or within their communities. If they want to keep up with sumo, they join one of the handful of universities in Japan which welcome women in their sumo clubs, according to Hiyori Kon, a member of Japan’s national team.

As a child, Kon trained at local clubs in Aichi prefecture in northern Japan then joined the Ritsumeikan University sumo club in Kyoto prefecture.

Observers say the girls seem less afraid of going head-to-head than boys during bouts.

Today, she works at a Japanese company in Aichi prefecture and competes internationally as an amateur female sumo wrestler. She wants more women to be able to keep up sumo but says that sometimes male coaches don’t always understand how to respond to aspiring female sumo wrestlers.

At this year’s Wanpaku elementary girls’ tournament, Kon attended as emcee, providing commentary on the wrestlers’ techniques as crowds of excited parents and curious onlookers cheered on competitors.

Viewership for sumo has waned over the past two decades as it competes with Japan’s other two major spectator sports: baseball and soccer.

But that’s prompted Japan’s Sumo Association to get creative. Last October, it announced a partnership with Pokemon Inc., which saw mascots like Pikachu parading about Wanpaku to appeal to newer, younger audiences.
The inaugural Wanpaku national elementary girls tournament was first held in 2019.

During the national Wanpaku competition, all the girls wore a mawashi, or loincloth, over spandex shorts and leggings and tournament-issued T-shirts, color-coded by age group. Such tournaments show just how far Japan’s sumo scene has evolved, said Kon.

“Japanese society has become more supportive of women’s sumo. This is the second year we have held the ‘Women’s Wanpaku Sumo’ and I’m proud we went from zero, to one and now two tournaments,” Kon told CNN Sport.

Previously, girls who had won through regional qualifying events could not get through to the national finals as that event was held in Tokyo’s Ryogoku Kokugikan. It’s known as the spiritual home of the sport that hosts the Spring, Summer and Autumn professional sumo tournaments — and women can’t enter its dohyo.

Future

Sumo can be a lucrative profession, but currently, salaries are paid only to professional sumo wrestlers in the top two of its six divisions. Sumo wrestlers with the title yokozuna, who are at the top of the division, can earn a basic salary of around $25,000 per month on top of prize money.

While the sumo wrestling world does not take offense to women competing at the amateur level, economic opportunity is not yet available for women, according to John Gunning, a former amateur sumo wrestler.

Kon says her dream isn’t to see women enter into the ranks of Ozumo. Instead, she wants them to have the option of earning a living from sumo — just like men.

“Women’s sumo is seen as a minor sport, and Japan’s national women’s team can’t set up a training camp due to lack of funds,” said Kon. “The main question is how can we establish a league and make amateur sumo professional.”

With a junior and senior world championship for women up and running, increasing the number of girls and women in sumo wrestling is essential to become an Olympic sport.

In 2018, the International Olympic Committee recognized sumo as a sport, but it is not yet an event at the Games. Still, amateur wrestlers like Kon hope that the next generation of female wrestlers will have a larger stage to compete on.

Senna Kajiwara (second from the right) poses for a photograph with her peers after winning another title.

Back at Wanpaku, after almost two years without competitions amid the pandemic, tensions were high.

As girls practiced with their parents and coaches on the sidelines, some spectators tell CNN that girls seem less fearful about going head-to-head in the ring. Others say that as boys and men outnumber girls and women at clubs, they worry about their daughters participating in sumo.

Kajiwara, the defending champion, says she has no fear in the ring.

After looking like she was on the brink of defeat, she turned her luck around, clinching the 2021 “Grand Champion” trophy for girls aged 12.

Next year, she’ll be too old to compete at Wanpaku but has set her sights on attending a junior high school outside of her hometown in Hyogo prefecture where she can keep practicing the ancient sport.

“Doing sumo teaches you never to give up and to toughen up,” said Kajiwara.