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SUMO ABC (75) / Banning women from the dohyo is groundless in this day and age

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo

Women do shiko stamping during an exercise class in a stable in Tokyo as a sumo wrestler demonstrates the action in 2006.

By Shuji Miki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterThe sumo custom that “women must not step onto the dohyo ring” is groundless. The sumo world says it is part of the sport’s tradition, even though that does not mean women should be looked down on. However, that explanation is unpersuasive.

On April 4, Ryozo Tatami, the mayor of Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, suddenly collapsed on the dohyo during a speech to welcome a sumo regional tour that was on a one-day visit to his city. Some women, including nurses, climbed onto the dohyo to provide first aid to the mayor. But a gyoji referee in his early 20s announced, “Women are kindly requested to step down from the ring.”

Japan Sumo Association Chairman Hakkaku, who is former yokozuna Hokutoumi, later issued a statement of apology, admitting that the announcement was inappropriate. There is undoubtedly no room for argument there.

By the way, why are women banned from the dohyo?

The ban could trace back to onna-zumo — bouts by women that were popular from the Edo period (1603-1867) to the Meiji era (1868-1912).

In this form of entertainment, organizers made almost-naked females take part in sumo. The women sometimes competed against visually impaired men. The bouts were obviously aimed at attracting the curious gaze of spectators, and this prompted the Tokugawa shogunate and Meiji government to strictly crack down on the organizers, who were deemed “entities that corrupted public morals in society.”

On the other hand, grand sumo organizers were given the right to hold competitions by the shogunate and the government. The male wrestlers were considered “a group of professionals who earned a living from their bouts.” And so, a clear distinction between the two types of sumo was established.

At one time, grand sumo also faced unreasonable criticism: The martial art was described as “barbarious and unfit for the nation’s drive toward modernization” because of the scantily clad wrestlers with topknots. Nonetheless, grand sumo held competitions observed by shogun and emperors — an honor that raised the status of the sport and helped it survive. Women did not play a role in that series of developments.

Even today, the JSA considers “the quest for sumo as a martial art” as its just cause. Based on this, the association holds six tournaments a year to judge wrestlers’ skills.

The JSA describes the dohyo as “a sacred place on which wrestlers traditionally fight against each other and train themselves.”

“It is a serious misunderstanding that we look down on women,” the association has said.

For stablemasters and wrestlers, the dohyo is symbolic of how they have lived. I believe the point is whether we, as members of the public, understand or accept the logic.

— Miki is a sumo expert.

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