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Sumo WrestleHERS

October 23, 2009

Right now, most American sports spectators are finally peeling the baseball caps off their heads, getting knee deep into football season, indulging in some hockey, and dreaming of spring basketball. In Japan, however, there’s no need for seasonal adjustment on the part of Sumo wrestling fans. A Japan travel site  based in the United Kingdom informs us that Sumo season actually happens all year ‘round in 15-day tournaments that rotate through different locations. All the tournaments of 2009 have been played out except for the one in November, which will go down from the 15th to the 29th in Fukuoka.

Only men will be in the ring. The reason for the long-standing absence of women in mainstream Sumo runs deeper than the gender biases that still shock Americans when girls demand to wrestle boys in high school competitions.

Elissa Reinsma defeats John Weeding in a Minnesota high school wrestling tournament in March 2009

Elissa Reinsma defeats John Weeding in a Minnesota high school wrestling tournament in March 2009

Traditionally, the institution of Sumo deemed women impure because of their menstruation.

The Gentleman's Sport: Male Sumo wrestlers during older (and apparently lighter) times, circa 1903

The Gentleman's Sport: Male Sumo wrestlers during older (and apparently slimmer) times, circa 1903

Once upon a time, images of female wrestlers could only be found in illustrations that began appearing as early as the 5th century of nude, grappling women or  lascivious references in the ero-guro (erotic/grotesque) literature popularized during the 17th century Edo period. Apparently, the only real-live female wrestlers of this era were over-the-hill prostitutes who performed on the streets by wrestling one another, physically handicapped men, and even sheep.

Now hold on, right there. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is just some other kooky stuff signature to the Japanese, along with anime porn and rape fantasies as satirized by the film Lost in Translation. This modern American image should cure anyone of cultural superiority:

This Western image of female wrestlers is no better than the street shows of old Japan

This Western image of female wrestlers contains the same principles that ran the street shows of old Japan

Moving on…in 1873, mixed-sex acts (what of mixed-species acts, I wonder?) were banned for the sake of public decency. In 1893, strictly women versus women Sumo emerged as a professional sport, but fizzled out as World War II came and went.

Pre-WWII

Pre-WWII

It was not until 1996 that Shinsumo, or “new Sumo,” was established in order to resuscitate the long lost national interest in women’s Sumo. Sumo Fan Magazine recalls that the first Shinsumo World Championships in Aomori, Japan, were held in October 2001, coinciding with the 10th Sumo World Championships. Through all this, the only stipulation was that women wear covering leotards underneath their mawashi, the much-hearalded loincloths worn plainly by men. Fair enough, right?

Leotard-clad sumo wrestlers

Leotard-clad sumo wrestlers

Mainstream Japan has been slow to warm up to this change, however. After all, the residual negative connotations of female wrestling is what forces women’s Sumo to be called new Sumo. The authoritative Japan Sumo Federation remains tight-lipped in general about the topic of women in Sumo. To date, gender statistics in the sport are nowhere to be found (at least by me). Even the Shinsumo pioneers detach themselves from the gender issue. Competitor Rie Tsuihiji was quoted as saying, “I would never want to turn pro…we’re in it for the sport, not some feminist agenda.” Yet, now that women may compete, female wrestlers from all over the world are taking advantage of the opportunity.

Adele Jones (L) of England and Auua Zhiglova (R) of Russia in 2006

Adele Jones (L) of England and Auua Zhiglova (R) of Russia in 2006

The sport has spread to England, Estonia, and most recently, India. Russia’s Female Single Combat Club, which provides information and support for female participation in all combat activities including Sumo, also attests to the growing recognition of Shinsumo as a valid sport . Interestingly, the Club even goes so far as to examine cultural and psychological phenomena that affect how women are received in the field of combat in boxing, wrestling, various forms of armed combat, or even “folk combative amusements.” One particularly interesting section of the site is a forum where people are free to explore attraction and rivalry between genders, adding plenty of deliciously conflicted images such as this one .

"Fighting Lust," by Werner Sonntag

"Fighting Lust," by Werner Sonntag

This spread of international interest and participation in the sport may be the best motivation for mainstreaming  Shinsumo in Japan. When interviewed by East West magazine in 2005, Japan Sumo Federation representative Yumiko Kobayashi divulged an aspiration to get the sport  into the Olympics. Since the Olympics require that its events be open to both sexes, registering Sumo as a new sport would be a giant step towards equality for female competitors. Once the infrastructure is adapted to accommodate females, viewers must do the rest of the work to ensure the continued survival and success of the sport.

The following is a shameless blanket statement, but seems pretty justified. When it comes to viewing sports, men tend to fetishize female athletics, dismiss them, or avoid them entirely out of fear or aversion. But are women any different? If men prefer to sit around hooting and hollering about other men in spandex (NFL), in stirrup pants (MLB), and in contour-revealing mesh shorts (NBA), shouldn’t we be getting equally excited about women’s rugby tournaments, softball championships, and the WNBA? Of course, our preferences arise out of a complicated matrix of neurological phenomena and social conditioning that I have no authority to touch upon in this article. Let us just say that nothing  is black in white about sports or why we watch them. After all, men and women watch male and female marathon runners, jockeys, swimmers, speed skaters, and tennis players with somewhat equal gusto.

Back to the issue of women in sports, then. In theory, I completely support the participation of women athletes in the tougher, rougher, conventionally male sports. Unfortunately, in practice, the truth is that I would still choose female figureskating over a women’s soccer match any day. So, am I subscribing to gender norms in sports? Am I a victim of social conditioning? Am I personally failing to support my the advancement of womankind in athletics? Do I myself find scantily clad ice dancers better suited towards the female image than the heavyweights of Shinsumo? No! Or at least I hope not! Then what is it?

Maybe it’s that part of me would rather see women combat men in sports and win, frequently. Maybe I resent that this is somewhat impossible because plain, biological fact that the physical strengths of men and women are on different planes, and yada yada. Maybe I fear that the inevitable jokes about just who is taking who for a “Saturday Night Ride” (an actual wrestling move, by the way) regardless of who is on top would ruin it all for me.

I just don’t know. I do know that I would be stoked for tickets to the next Shinsumo World Championships, though.

female sumo champ old photo

Based in Andover, Massachusetts, Jia H. Jung is a Master of Pacific and International Affairs accounting for an international wholesaler. You can contact her at jia.h.jung@gmail.com

2 Comments
  1. October 23, 2009 9:37 am

    This is a wonderful post. I appreciate the level of detail and research, of course. What particularly struck me, is your honesty about what you would seek out as a spectator and the questions you ask of yourself in that regard.

    You handled this topic with thoroughness, respect and humility. Well done.

    -arvan

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