In Japan’s ancient Shinto religion, purity comes before morality. Indeed, purity is morality. Women are impure. They menstruate and bear children. The exclusion of women from certain religious and ceremonial functions went unquestioned for millennia. It no longer does — but it is not extinct either. The nation was reminded of this in the city of Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, on April 4, when, during a tour of the provinces by sumo wrestlers, the city’s 66-year-old mayor, Ryozo Tatami, collapsed due to a subarachnoid hemorrhage while greeting the audience.

Among those who rushed into the dohyō (sumo ring) to assist Tatami were two female medical professionals. (While their faces clearly appeared in photos and videos, their names have so far been kept out of the news.) Soon afterward the referee ordered, via the public address system, “Josei wa dohyō kara orite kudasai” (“Women, please leave the ring”).

Tradition dictates that the sumo ring adheres to the old proscription of nyonin kinsei (females prohibited) and, to repair possible “damage,” attendants subsequently performed a purification ritual, festooning the straw ring with heaping piles of salt.

The incident in Maizuru rekindled an ongoing debate about where to draw the lines — if lines need to be drawn — between “gender separation,” which is supposedly OK, and “discrimination,” which is not.

“If the women had complied with the order to exit the ring, it’s possible the mayor might have died,” an unnamed sports reporter remarked to Shukan Taishu (April 30). “Since complying with that order would be akin to leaving him for dead, it’s natural that demanding the women leave the ring would be criticized.”

Japan Sumo Association Chairman Hakkaku later apologized, conceding that “the referee … made an inappropriate response because the situation could have been life-threatening.” He also thanked the women “for giving first-aid treatment.”

A female impersonator who goes by the stage name “Matsuko Deluxe” told MX TV that “if the young referee who made the announcement believes, from the bottom of his heart, that the ring is a ‘godly place’ from which women should be banned, then it can’t be helped. But at the very least, the people who make such judgments ought to demonstrate a little subtlety.”

At least one subsequent event has already fallen casualty to the controversy. The Hochi Sports newspaper (April 12) reported that organizers of the regional Mount Fuji-Shizuoka sumo tournament, scheduled for April 8, had been requested by the Sumo Association to exclude girls — who had previously been allowed to take part — from its “Chibikko Sumo” event for children.

In this regard, Yasuko Ikenobo, a former politician who since 2014 has served as chairperson of the seven-member council that serves as the Sumo Association’s key decision-making body, said in a telephone interview broadcast on Fuji TV: “I suppose there are parts than can be changed, and parts that don’t need to be changed, and to think about such things from now is a good thing. First, though, I’d like to see a woman become prime minister.”

Actually sumo has been grappling with this issue on and off for decades. Interestingly, the “Sumo Daijiten” (“Dictionary of Sumo”), a comprehensive reference work of nearly 500 pages published under the supervision of the Sumo Association, contains five entries concerning the once-popular but now-defunct onna-zumo — sumo competition by females — but no entry on banning women from the ring.

On April 9, the “Hiru Nan Desu” afternoon variety program on Nihon TV devoted nearly an hour covering the current controversy, looking back on the social history of banning women. Women were once, for instance, not allowed to enter tunnels while under construction or perform in kabuki dramas. The premodern Tokugawa government banned women from the stage in the early 17th century. Yet another proscription was to work as a sushi chef. And still another was climbing Mount Fuji. Indeed it was not until 1869 that Fanny Parkes, wife of British Ambassador Harry Parkes, openly climbed the mountain. Nearby residents no doubt shook their heads in bewilderment and braced for an eruption, which has yet to occur.

J-Cast News (April 10) reported that only last year Ferrari’s Japan distributor rented out Ryogoku Sumo Hall to promote its car atop an actual-size model of a sumo ring. Why didn’t anyone protest this “desecration” of the dohyō?

A spokesperson for the automaker told J-Cast News: “The dohyō used for the event was not a real one, but a model. The event company had informed the Sumo Association of its plan, and no particular objections were raised.”

Shukan Taishu magazine used the Maizuru incident to lambaste sumo for numerous other anmoku no okite (tacit laws) that have nothing to do with allowing females into the ring. They include what is essentially a ban on foreign travel.

“Previously wrestlers were required to submit an application before going overseas, but following last November’s Kyushu Tournament, the association stopped issuing permission, resulting in an effective ban,” explained a sumo journalist. “It’s a pity that foreign wrestlers can’t make return visits to their home countries even during the new year.”

In addition, there are said to be “three big taboos” among practitioners of the sport: “stealing,” “smoking” and the “exposing of secrets.” The third refers to violence inside the sumo stable or other scandalous acts.

“Even though the Sumo Association is conducting a survey among all active wrestlers concerning violence, because of this code of silence, there’s no chance of anything coming out,” the aforementioned sumo reporter said.

While it appears that the Sumo Association has become increasingly sensitive to criticism from the public, it hasn’t had much luck at adopting an effective system for crisis management.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.