December 14, 2001

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Women's sumo wrestles with tradition

Crouching at opposite sides of a clay-floored ring, muscles taut and bodies glistening with sweat, the two sumo wrestlers stare each other down.

Then, grunting with effort, they lunge furiously, colliding with resounding thwacks, red-faced and panting. They grapple and flail until one falls to the floor with a painful-sounding thud.

It's a typical practice session for Japan's signature sport -- except the two wrestlers are women, defying more than a thousand years of tradition that forbids females from even setting foot in a sumo ring lest their presence pollute it.

The ultimate goal of this growing band of enthusiasts is to get women's sumo, which has already spread overseas and has competitors in at least 17 countries, into the Olympic games.

Women Sumo wrestlers practice "I like sumo because it's a real test of strength against strength," said Satomi Ishigaya, a 20-year-old student at Tokyo's Nihon University and a veteran wrestler who came to sumo after several years in judo.

"Each bout takes place very quickly, so you know quite soon if you win or lose."

Adds teammate Mina Saito: "It's good because the outcome is quite clear-cut."


Sumo, at its simplest, is a sport in which two contestants enter a clay ring and meet head-on in a charge, then use their weight and skill to try to bring the other down or force each other out of the circle.

For women, though, more than half the battle is outside the ring as they grapple for a chance to even take part in the tradition-proud sport, said to have begun some 1,300 years ago.

Women's sumo only started as an official sport five years ago. It is strictly amateur, unlike the male version, which takes place at both the amateur and professional "grand sumo" levels.

But officials connected with women's sumo see it as key to the sport's future.

"It was decided to set up women's sumo because the number of men in amateur sumo is dropping," said Tomoko Fukushima, an official at the New Sumo Federation, which oversees women's sumo.

"Also, we want to get sumo recognised as an Olympic sport, and to do that, both men and women must take part."

Such egalitarianism runs contrary to many of sumo's basic traditions, which have links to Japan's ancient Shinto religion that places a heavy emphasis on purity.

According to Shinto beliefs, a woman is made impure by her menstrual cycles, meaning she should not even touch the sumo ring, let alone fight in it -- a rule true in professional sumo even today.

This was graphically shown last year when Fusae Ota, the first female governor of the western metropolis of Osaka, asked to step into the ring to present a trophy to the winner of the annual Osaka sumo tournament, as her male predecessors had done.

Her quest failed, though, with sumo mandarins citing tradition. A repeat attempt this year also came to nothing.

The Nihon University wrestlers had mixed feelings about this.

"It's custom, so it's unavoidable," said Tamami Iwai. "But it would be nice if they could eliminate this sort of discrimination so we could all do sumo equally."


Inevitably, though, there are differences.

Noted sumo traditions include the fact that male grapplers wear nothing more than an intricately wound "mawashi" belt similar to a loin cloth for their fights.

While women also wear the mawashi, a belt some seven to eight metres long wound tightly around the lower body, it goes over a leotard and, sometimes, lycra shorts.

Otherwise, the five women on the Nihon University team lead a life much like that of their male counterparts at the school, an amateur sumo powerhouse that has produced several professional wrestlers.

Each day after classes, they undergo a gruelling regime of stretches and repetitions of sumo moves, then practice bouts and "collision training" -- charging and pushing another wrestler across the ring until both parties are red-faced and sweating.

"Training is definitely the hardest part of sumo," said Yumi Asai. That was a sentiment with which all ruefully agreed.

After training comes a dinner of "chanko" -- a high-calorie stew typical of the sumo world made specially to help eaters gain weight -- with the male wrestlers.

Even so, the women are almost laughably light compared with the men, ranging from 63 kg to 80 kg.

In professional sumo, the average wrestler tips the scales at 148 kg, with some as high as 239 kg or even more.


Despite the difficulties, women's sumo is gaining popularity both at home and abroad.

According to the New Sumo Federation, there are currently some 300 women sumo competitors in Japan -- many of whom had backgrounds in judo before taking up the sport -- and at least 17 foreign countries have organisations as well.

At the October International Sumo Grand Championships held in northern Japan, men and women from 34 nations took part. It was the first time the competition included women.

"I'd say that women's sumo almost seems more popular overseas," Fukushima, at the New Sumo Federation, said.

"In Japan, the traditional image is too strong, and women think they must be fat, or wear only the mawashi, in order to do it."

At the competition, though, the Japanese women more than upheld national pride, winning a number of medals.

Among them was Ishigaya, who fought off competitors from Norway and Russia to take a gold medal in her weight class.

"The best part of sumo," said Ishigaya, "is when I win."

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