Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Japan slow to offer support to women's sumo

by John Gunning

“It’s not only boys who can practice and enjoy sumo. There are girls that like sumo too. I hope someday women can become pros.”

Those were the words of elementary school student Rie Ishibashi, on the day she made history by becoming the first-ever fifth grade female yokozuna at the inaugural Wanpaku girls national finals, held at Okudo Sogo Sports Center in Tokyo’s Katsushika Ward on Sunday.

At the same event, Shinka Shimabukuro from Okinawa won the sixth grade championship, while Chiaki Kajiwara took home the fourth grade title.

The three young wrestlers were part of a 180-strong contingent of girls from all over Japan who had won through regional qualifiers and earned the right to appear at the historic meet.

Girls have competed in local Wanpaku tournaments for years, but prior to 2019 even had they defeated all the boys in their area, they were still banned from the national final, as that event is traditionally held in the Ryogoku Kokugikan — a venue that does not allow women onto its dohyo.

With the Kokugikan undergoing renovation work ahead of the 2020 Olympics, when it will host the boxing competition, the much larger boys Wanpaku finals was also forced to find an alternative venue this year.

That competition took place at Sumida City Gymnasium in Kinshicho, in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward, on Aug. 4.

Those renovations at the Kokugikan, by the way, are focused on making the arena barrier free. For half the population, however, existing barriers will remain in place even after the Olympics.

Women’s boxing has been part of the world’s largest sporting spectacle since the 2012 London Games, and 2020 will see an expanded competition with competitors in five weight classes battling it out at the home of sumo in July and August of next year.

Once everyone has packed up and gone home, and the traditional clay and sand ring rises up from its underground chamber to resume its place in the center of the stadium, things will go back to the way they were, and women will continue to be banned from even touching the scared surface.

Two and a half years after the furious national backlash and international derision that came in the wake of an incident where women trying to save the life of a man who had collapsed on the dohyo were told by Japan Sumo Association staff to leave the ring, the JSA policy of letting outrage blow itself out seems to have worked once again.

A few halfhearted efforts at consultations and discussions were followed by a quietly released statement that essentially indicated nothing would change for the foreseeable future.

The dichotomy of course is that while the powers that be in the JSA show no signs of letting go of outmoded ways of thinking, the organization is also a major supporter and official partner of Wanpaku sumo, with every national finals having numerous oyakata (stablemaster) and rikishi in attendance.

That’s hardly surprising in and of itself as youth level tournaments are excellent scouting and recruiting opportunities, and bringing all the best underage talent into one location right in the heart of the sumo world saves stablemasters a lot of time, money and effort traveling around the country.

Ishibashi’s dreams of women in the professional ranks are a long way off, so naturally the inaugural girls Wanpaku finals didn’t draw the same kind of interest from JSA personnel.

Which isn’t to say there weren’t big names in attendance.

Kon Hiyori and Miku Yamanaka, two longtime stars of the Japan national team who both have medaled at multiple World Championships, provided color commentary on the event’s live broadcast, which was streamed on YouTube.

That broadcast, like the event itself had a very small audience, but the value of both is immense.

Over the past 15 years, Japan has won just three gold medals in individual competition at the Women’s World Championships and finished atop the team tournament podium just twice in the 12 times that event has been held.

Russia and Ukraine have been utterly dominant, and for Japan to break that hegemony, a much wider pool of young athletes is needed.

It’s not just Japan that stands to benefit from a successful and expanding girls Wanpaku competition.

If amateur sumo is ever to realize its dream of participating in the Olympic Games, the women’s version of the sport needs to grow, both in terms of profile and participants.

Eastern European nations may be preeminent in the ring but Japan, by virtue of being the home of the sport and the only country with a professional organization, gets the lion’s share of worldwide media attention given to women’s sumo.

If the narrative in that coverage is to be changed from one of discrimination, then tournaments like last week’s girls Wanpaku finals must be allowed to grow and thrive.

More exposure and a tougher level of competition will also inevitably bring more and more young athletes into sumo.

As with boxing, judo, wrestling or any other combat-based women’s sport, it often takes extended exposure to high level competition for the general public to accept it as legitimate and worthy of their attention.

Of course the value of girls Wanpaku isn’t just tied to increase viewing figures and future ambitions in the sport.

Even a small tournament with a few hundred competitors and viewers is worthwhile for those involved.

Ishibashi feels the same way, saying, “What’s fun about sumo is that I can make friends and communicate with people through tournaments.”

If that isn’t worth supporting, what is?

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