National / Social Issues

'Little Miss Sumo' wrestles with sexism in Japan's ancient sport

by Michael Taylor

Reuters

A young wrestler dubbed “Little Miss Sumo” is fighting sexism in the ancient Japanese sport, hoping to inspire other women to step into the ring and elevate sumo to Olympic status.

Hiyori Kon is the focus of a new Netflix documentary, “Little Miss Sumo,” which tracks her attempts to take on sporting inequality in a society that lags in all manner of women’s rights.

Popularly regarded as Japan’s national sport, sumo pits two giant wrestlers, clad only in loincloths, in a test of brawn and skill waged — with crouches and charges — inside a ring floored with clay and edged with straw bales.

But the Shinto-based traditions in a sport that began more than 1,500 years ago forbids women from entering the ring because the space is regarded as sacred and any female presence is considered a pollutant.

“Even if you are faced with someone who is big and strong — it’s not something to run away from, but to engage with — like in the sumo way,” said the 22-year-old Kon when asked how other eager but wary female wrestlers should take up the sport.

“There are so many possibilities and things that sumo opens up for you. It is just a wonderful sport,” the sumo prodigy and Ritsumeikan University student in Kyoto said by phone Wednesday.

Conservative Japan lags far behind other big powers when it comes to gender equality, ranking 110th out of 149 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap report.

Long work hours favor men, politics is male-dominated, incomes are unequal and tradition favors a wife working for home and husband as her top job.

Be it groping on packed trains, sexual violence in manga or the glorification of geisha, women are subjected to widespread sexual stereotyping.

Sports are not immune — and none more so than sumo.

Last year the Japan Sumo Association, which does not let women compete professionally, had to apologize when female medics were asked to leave a sumo ring where they were treating an official who had collapsed.

The action of the referee reignited a debate about sumo’s ingrained sexism and drew sharp media criticism.

The rule that bars “unclean” women from the ring has also prevented female politicians from handing out awards there.

Most female wrestlers quit after elementary school, said Kon, who was born in the sumo-mad prefecture of Aomori.

“I began practicing sumo when I was 6,” she said. “All my brothers and sisters took part and that’s how I took an interest.”

Kon rarely lost a match — against boys and girls alike — and at university became the third woman to join the sumo club.

The trio were spotted by a filmmaker who was so intrigued by their passion, he decided to document Kon’s story.

“Of those three, maybe I looked the most sumo-like,” said a smiling Kon, who graduates in March.

“When I first saw them film, it surprised me how cool sumo looks … it (showed) the charm of sumo and it can become even more popular. It really is my life ambition to make it an Olympic sport.”

Released globally on Netflix on Monday, “Little Miss Sumo” shows growing momentum in Japan for women’s rights.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promoted policies to raise the status of women in a society that values traditional femininity.

Kon was one of two Japanese listed this month among the BBC’s 100 most inspiring and influential women for 2019. The other was Yumi Ishikawa, an actor and writer who won the support of thousands of Japanese women for her #KuToo movement to stop bosses from making women wear high heels.

Women are questioning a host of other confines, be it at work or home, and Kon said her campaign is just one more push.

“Sumo wrestling is a tool of self-expression,” said Kon. “It is something in that way can open up possibilities for people in the future.”

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