YAMAGATA – Female sumo wrestlers wearing “mawashi” belts over their underwear once competed in tournaments throughout Japan, Taiwan and Hawaii, a popular entertainment until it disappeared in the 1960s.
But women’s sumo is attracting attention again.
A biography of a former ozeki, the top rank for women wresters, was published last year. In addition, novelist Akira Hayasaka plans to stage a play on female sumo wrestlers, and a university in Yamagata Prefecture, where women’s sumo originated, is promoting studies on its roots.
“Female wrestlers wore light makeup, so they looked not only gallant but also beautiful. They were like present-day Takarazuka (female theatrical troupe) stars,” Hayasaka said.
He still remembers a women’s sumo tournament he watched under a tent on a vacant lot in Ehime Prefecture around 1941, when he was a student in elementary school.
The trained women wrestlers fought in tournaments and “gonin nuki” matches, in which a wrestler beat five rivals in succession.
They also entertained audiences by staging popular shows called “hajikara” in which a wrestler would try to lift a bale of rice with her teeth or in events where steamed rice was pounded onto her abdomen into dough used for rice cakes.
In the early 20th century, pictures of women sumo wrestlers sold like hot cakes, and at one time women’s sumo was more popular than the male version.
But out of consideration for men’s sumo, there was no yokozuna (grand champion) in women’s sumo.
Women’s sumo is believed to have been created by Heishiro Ishiyama, an entertainment promoter in Tendo, Yamagata Prefecture, in 1880.
“The wrestlers took pride in competing in the sacred national sport, even though they were women,” said Kunihiko Ishiyama, 65, the promoter’s grandson.
Last year, Yasuo Endo, 57, who runs a “chanko” (sumo wrestlers’ stew) restaurant in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, published a biography of his mother, ozeki Wakamidori, through the Asahi Shimbun Publishing Co.
“I wanted to let it be known that my mother was the first woman to go up on the sumo ring, which was exclusively for men,” he said.
Matsuno Miura, 90, a former women’s ozeki, still lives in the city of Tendo.
“I wrestled for about 10 years. I injured my leg in a hajikara, but I am proud of having been a woman wrestler,” Miura said.
The sumo world today is closed to women, with a persistent prejudice against them, and many people related to women’s sumo remain tight-lipped about the sport.
But Koichi Sato, a history expert who lectures on women’s sumo at Tohoku University of Art and Design in Yamagata Prefecture, said it is time to give women’s sumo its due.