National / Social Issues

Banning women from the sumo ring: centuries-old tradition, straight-up sexism or something more complex?

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

In a life-threatening moment, Maizuru Mayor Ryozo Tatami suddenly collapsed while delivering a speech during a sumo exhibition in Kyoto.

He was having a stroke. Several men rushed to the dohyō (ring) to help, but they appeared at a loss over what to do.

Seconds later, a woman ran up from the audience and immediately started giving the mayor CPR. She probably didn’t expect her actions to spark a national debate on the controversial traditions of the sumo world.

The referee repeatedly told several women who had rushed to help the mayor to leave the ring, including the first woman — who turned out to be a nurse. The request was based on the sumo tradition banning women from entering the “sacred” ring.

Critics say the ban is based on Shinto and Buddhist beliefs that hold that women are “impure” because of menstrual blood, an idea criticized by many as sexist and outdated.

Experts recently interviewed by The Japan Times agree the tradition is outdated and may eventually go away, given the growing debate over gender issues in the nation’s male-dominated society.

But at the same time, they also urged caution to prevent oversimplification of the issue from triggering a categorical denial of Japan’s cultural traditions, saying it might hinder the public from reaching a correct understanding of the historical background behind such traditions.

“Religions and cultures are smeared with so much (sexual) discrimination that you can find it anywhere in the world,” said Chizuko Ueno, professor emeritus of sociology at University of Tokyo and a pioneer in the nation’s feminist movement.

“For example, if you conclude all the Christian countries are sexist because of the story of Adam and Eve, that’s an absurd and overly simplistic analogy,” she said.

Overseas media immediately jumped on the incident, describing it as a sign of women’s relatively low social status in male-dominated Japan. Ueno said this is typical “Orientalist” media behavior when it comes to Japan and its customs, which are often misinterpreted as symbols of the overall trend in society. Orientalism, first explained in detail in a 1978 book by Edward Said, refers to stereotype prejudice held by Western media and intellectuals that see the East as an exotic and often inferior civilization.

“My first response was, ‘Not again,’ ” Ueno said. “This (sexist) problem has been repeated many times.

“But I don’t think you should directly regard it as a symbol of the social discrimination against women in Japan. That’s an overly simplistic view,” she said.

As Ueno pointed out, this is not the first time the sumo rule has caused a public stir and been criticized as sexual discrimination.

In 1990, then-Chief Cabinet Secretary Mayumi Moriyama, the first woman to hold the position, asked the Japan Sumo Association to let her enter the ring so she could present the Prime Minister’s cup to the winner, but she was rejected.

A similar request by Osaka Gov. Fusae Ota in 2000 was also rejected.

Ueno believes Japanese women suffer greatly from sexual discrimination, as is shown in many surveys and statistics.

The World Economic Forum, for example, ranked Japan 114th out of 144 countries surveyed for its 2017 gender equality report.

Ueno said the male-only tradition observed in sumo has helped reinforce sexist attitudes toward women in Japan and should be abolished.

As far as the Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, incident goes, however, Ueno views that as a symbol of the widening gap between sumo’s male-only tradition and the reality of the sumo business, rather than a symbol of women’s continuing struggles.

In recent years, the number of enthusiastic female sumo fans has climbed drastically, giving the traditional sport a much-needed boost. “Now female fans are supporting the popularity of sumo. Sumo has already undergone a great change,” she said.

So the ban on women will “eventually be changed, and there will be no other choices. I believe it should change, too,” she said.

Ueno also said that if one is hunting for Japanese traditions that help maintain the view that women are inferior to men, they need only look to its male-only Imperial succession system. “Right at the time of her birth, a girl is already put in an inferior position” in the Imperial family because she can never sit on the throne, Ueno said.

“(Crown Princess) Masako has been put in a very tough position just because she gave birth to a girl. The value of a child differs depending on the gender. This is very clear discrimination,” Ueno said.

She also pointed out that male-only succession is an “invented tradition” that was introduced by a modern government as recently as the Meiji Era, which began in 1868.

In fact, the Meiji government enacted the Imperial House Law in 1889, which for the first time in history officially stipulated only male heirs can ascend the Imperial throne. Before that, the official family records showed eight women served as ruling empresses 10 times between 592 to 1770.

Sumo experts also say the off-limit rule against women, too, is a relatively “new” tradition of the ancient sport, which some say dates back more than 1,300 years. The taboo excluding women from the dohyō is implicit knowledge and has never become a written rule. It was probably established sometime between the late 17th century and early 20th century because the first historical record of the dohyō is found in a document produced in 1699, experts say.

Masataka Suzuki, professor emeritus of cultural anthropology at Keio University, pointed out that during that period many ceremonies and taboos were gradually created to “dignify” the main professional sumo league now known as Ozumo.

The tradition excluding females from the “sacred” ring was created through the process of that dignification, he said. The taboo, however, was only applied to the professional league. Women were otherwise allowed to play sumo matches held at shrines during local festivals, Suzuki said.

Sumo-related ceremonies are often said to be linked to Shinto, including those to purify the dohyō and invite gods there before a tournament begins. But according to Suzuki, the concept of Shinto itself was artificially invented by the central government during the Meiji Era to create a modern state centered on nationalism and the Imperial system. Before that, a syncretization of Buddhist and indigenous gods — some of them later refined into Shinto gods — was the dominant religion in Japan. Thus the origin of many of what are now described as “Shinto traditions” cannot be clearly explained, Suzuki said.

The dignification of the professional sumo league was meanwhile further promoted in the 1920s and 1930s, when war-linked nationalism based on state-sponsored Shintoism was on the rise.

That’s the reason the roof over the main dohyō of Tokyo’s Kokugikan hall was replaced in 1931 with that of a Shinto shrine style, which is similar to the one at Ise Shrine in Mie Prefecture, Suzuki said.

Ise Shrine enshrines the goddess said to be the ancestor of the Imperial family. Sumo was “used as a means to enhance national prestige” at that time, Suzuki said.

On the other hand, the style of some of today’s sumo-related ceremonies appears to be based on indigenous traditions older than those of modern Shinto, Suzuki also pointed out.

For example, the dohyō for the Ozumo tournament is built every time from scratch before the start of a regular tournament, with “pure soil” taken from certain sacred locations. While building the dohyō, various ceremonies are held to “purify” the ring and “invite” indigenous gods of soil and rice there, Suzuki said.

So anyone who hasn’t “purified” themselves in advance is not allowed to enter the ring. According to tradition, only sumo wrestlers and referees are allowed to enter it, Suzuki explained.

Today, at the end of a regular Ozumo tournament, a closing ceremony is held to “send off” the gods from the dohyō after the trophy-awarding ceremony is finished within the ring.

If this order of the two events is reversed, there would be no problems in inviting female government officials to the trophy-award ceremony because at that time, with the gods gone, the dohyō is no longer a “sacred” area, Suzuki said.

Suzuki’s proposal for a resolution, however, may not be persuasive for women advocating gender equality and rejecting any tradition based on the idea that women are “impure” and should not be allowed to enter a “sacred” place.

On Saturday Japan Sumo Association issued a statement denying that the off-limit rule is based on the discriminatory idea that women are “impure,” although mainstream scholars and feminism activists believe otherwise.

“Much of the reason for the taboo banning women’s entry is attributed to the idea that women are impure. But the Japan Sumo Association has hidden that and instead maintained that it is ‘tradition’ and ‘culture,’ ” read a statement issued by a women’s group on April 6.

“We file a protest with the Japan Sumo Association and demand that it fundamentally revise the ‘No Women Admitted’ policy, which is based on no scientific reasons,” the group said.

The statement can be read at the following website: wan.or.jp/article/show/7796