Japan from the inside out

Sumo, the Olympics, women, and sex

Posted by ampontan on Friday, September 3, 2010

WILL SUMO soon be an Olympic sport? The Japanese have been promoting the idea for a while, but now they’ve got plenty of other people on their side. According to one recent report:

“Japan has been active in the Olympic Games bidding campaign. Once a Japanese city succeeds in the bid, it will be time for sumo’s entry into the Olympics,” Mai Yaoxiang, vice president of the Asian Sumo Union, was quoted as saying by Xinhua.

He thinks it would be easy to arrange:

“We have organised sumo championships on every continent. Currently, an international sumo system has been founded, establishing a strong foundation for the future development of the sport,” he said.

Japanese efforts over the past 20 years to popularize the sport internationally through the International Sumo Federation are bearing fruit. Many of the top rikishi in Japan are not Japanese, and Europeans in particular do well in amateur international competitions, according to this Xinhua report:

“At the sumo world championships, eighty percent of the gold medals go to Europe,” said Stephen Gadd, the General Secretary of the European sumo union, at the first SportAccord Combat Games here on Sunday.

This shouldn’t be surprising. The rules are simple—put the opponent out of the ring, or put any part of his body other than his feet on the ground, and you win. Anyone who can handle Greco-Roman wrestling, the defensive line in American football, or rugby should be able to transfer those skills to sumo.

A few sports seem more closely related. Some people cite Mongolia as the point of origin of sumo. Here’s a video of Mongolian buh, which is performed in a field rather than a ring. Note the bird-like dance, which makes for an intriguing comparison with the ceremonies of sumo rikishi.

It then spread to the Korean Peninsula before arriving in Japan. Try this video of Korean ssireum. Note the loose sand in the ring rather than the packed dirt.

The article was distributed by IANS (the India-Asia News Service), who in the space of a few paragraphs display an incompetence equal to that of their fellow guild members overseas. For example:

In Japan…wrestlers have strict restrictions in dressing.

Strict? They wear what’s called a mawashi, which is essentially a beefed-up loincloth. That’s it, unless you include the hairstyles.

They also claim:

In Japan, women are not allowed to play sumo.

Yes, women do not compete at the highest professional level, but otherwise this statement is incorrect, as a glance at the photo will show. Or, you could look at the photo gallery of champions in the annual women’s tournament in Fukushima-cho, Hokkaido, on this Japanese-language page. And there’s no mistaking the sex of these children, some of whom are of pre-school age, having a go in matches last year.

Those willing to do the basic research will find a lot of information and misinformation on the web about women’s sumo, both in English and Japanese.

Here’s a Kyodo report from five years ago about moves to revive—not start—women’s sumo.

The author states that women’s sumo was as popular as men’s sumo in Japan, Taiwan, and Hawaii until the 1960s, when it disappeared. She also claims there’s a “persistent prejudice” against it, and “many people remain tight-lipped about women’s sumo”. Speaking of tight-lipped, she neglects to mention that any avoidance of the subject is due to the connections between women’s sumo and prostitution, as we’ll see in a bit. Then again, I’ve yet to meet any Japanese who are tight-lipped about anything that was supposedly popular until the 1960s, not to mention anything to do with sex.

She’s also incorrect when she says that women’s sumo originated in the 1880s, but does get it right when she says it was banned in the 19th century as being harmful to public morals. Novelist Hayasaka Akira, who at the time was planning to write a stage play about the sport, said he saw a women’s sumo tournament under a tent on a vacant lot in Ehime around 1941. (He wrote the screenplay for this TBS drama called Onnazumo, or Women’s Sumo.) On the other hand, a Mainichi Shimbun article no longer on line states that women’s sumo originated with World War II and the shortage of men.

Meanwhile, this page on a Russian website comes closer with its assertion that onnazumo began in Osaka in the 1700s and was performed by prostitutes. They also report that women competed with blind men. (Feel free to take a few minutes to consider all the possibilities of those matches before continuing to read. I did. And I dare you to say you wouldn’t pay to see that at least once.)

The site contains the claim that it was banned in 1926, which contradicts other sources. It also asserts that people in Japan don’t talk about it, but they openly cite the associations with prostitution. That makes sense on a superficial level, but it still doesn’t sound like any Japanese people I know. Where I live, more than one person has shown me the location of the red-light district during the Edo Period. (Small apartment houses now occupy the site.) Come to think of it, that might explain the Kyodo article’s statement that it was more popular than men’s sumo at one time.

Keep clicking at that site, by the way, and you’ll find photos of enormous Russian women grunting, grabbing, and shoving each other. One of them is performing a split that’s quite impressive considering all that poundage on her frame. But be warned: Just because the photos are work-safe doesn’t mean you should eat lunch and look at the same time.

Japanese-language sources clear up a lot of the confusion. According to one, the earliest reference to women’s sumo is found in the Nihon Shoki (The Chronicles of Japan), which was finished in the 8th century. In fact, this is supposed to be the earliest written reference to sumo at all in Japan. It appears in Vol. 14, which describes women removing their kimono to put on loincloths and grapple in the presence of the Yuryaku Tenno (The 21st Emperor) in September 469. So yes, the idea was to appeal to the prurient interests of the spectators. The sources also say the next written references didn’t appear until the 17th century, but they assume the raunchy and randy aspects of the bouts meant that people continued to do what comes naturally; they just didn’t write about it. They suspect it was most often performed in those days as a titillating diversion for men and women in the pleasure quarters.

The women’s matches went public again in 1744, and the Osakan blind man’s bluff described by the Russians began in 1769. Throughout the Edo period, women wrestlers assumed professional names in the same manner as the men, but their names were often sexual puns. It was banned shortly thereafter, but emerged yet again in 1848. You can’t keep a good woman down, now can you? Well, some people try–It officially became forbidden fruit once again in 1874, perhaps this time to forestall the newly arrived Westerners from puritanical moralizing or to prevent them from grabbing all the ringside seats for themselves. There are also reports of public performances in 1890, however, which suggests the ban was more nominal than real. Perhaps the Western influence had an effect; women began dressing more modestly in the ring and competing seriously. At the turn of the century there were as many as 23 barnstorming troupes of various sizes, based mostly in Yamagata. The Hawaiian performances were popular from 1930 until they ended in 1941, and then resumed in 1951.

There were other differences between the male and female versions besides the sexual aspects. Sumo began in Japan about 2,000 years ago as a way to entertain the deities during festivals, and many Shinto rituals are still used for the matches today. (Here’s a good summary of the religious aspects, though the information at the end is dated.)

That was not the case with women’s sumo, however. Entertainment seems to have been the primary objective, even during the 19th and 20th centuries. Japanese women participated in tournaments called gonin nuki (beating five wrestlers in succession), which is not part of the men’s tournaments, and performed hajikara. The latter is a type of entertainment that more closely resembles the circus: The wrestlers picked up rice straw with their teeth and pounded steamed rice on their bellies into the dough used for rice cakes. (That’s probably a variation on mochitsuki, a New Year’s custom in which a special variety of especially glutinous rice is pounded by friends, family and neighbors to make the rice cakes, or mochi, which are eaten during the holiday.) Performances also included traditional singing and dancing.

There’s a touch of irony to all this. Women were banned from sitting at ringside to watch the professional sumo matches until the 20th century, and they’re still forbidden to enter the ring. The ban has to do with the Shinto insistence on purity. Women in primitive societies were considered unclean because they menstruate, and big-time sumo still hasn’t gotten over it. Even the men have to purify the ring before they step into it; that’s why they throw salt into it first.

The International Olympic Committee refused to go along with the idea of sumo in the Olympics in the past because of the lack of female participation. But those grounds for opposition no longer apply.

Besides, as Mr. Mai explained, everyone’s stepping into the ring. The Women’s Sumo World Championships have been held every year since 2001. Here’s an article about women’s sumo in the U.S. written by California Sumo Association President Andrew Freund that same year. Taking advantage of journalistic privilege, he quotes himself in the third person: “We are very proud of our women’s team.” And here’s a 2003 article from Britain’s Daily Telegraph that focuses on British sumo.

A national organization for women’s sumo was formed in Japan in 1996, called the “New Sumo Federation” to forestall any objection to the participation of women, and their first tournament was held in Osaka 1997. Try this YouTube clip of an attractive NHK announcer showing off her moves during a tournament. She seems a bit too slender to go for the Olympic gold, but the intensity of her fighting spirit certainly caught her opponent by surprise.

I had hoped it would show the women competing in the traditional style wearing only loincloths, but no such luck!


A comparison of the statements in the Kyodo article in particular and the last video, made just four years later, demonstrate the pitfalls in accepting at face value blanket statements about Japan and the Japanese, particularly those that are negative, and just how quickly the silent path of change in Japanese society renders those statements obsolete.

For those of you who read Japanese, some of the shikona for women in the Edo period included 玉の越, 乳ヶ張, 姥ヶ里, 腹檜, 貝ヶ里, 色気取, 美人草, and 穴ヶ淵.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

5 Responses to “Sumo, the Olympics, women, and sex”

  1. James A said

    It really is quite amazing that a sport with such a conservative image has undergone so many reinterpretations over the centuries. It’s interesting how sumo seems to attract the attention of both Japanese and non-Japanese, men and women.

    Speaking of women in sumo, I remember seeing a pretty wild exhibit at the old Hanayashiki amusement park in Asakusa. There was a mural of this female sumo match featuring some, er, ample women in mawashi facing off against each other. When you pressed a button, this hefty sumo woman with an equally hefty chest would come out from the mural and bounce around for you!

    Last time I went back there the sumo woman exhibit appeared to have been taken out. I wonder if it was because someone protested the display?

  2. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    Yeah, most likely.

    We are more inclined to see these things as something novelty than sports. Including current male Oozumou itself. Male sumo wrestlers are probably one of the strongest human beings on earth, but the culture surrounding them makes me wonder if it is a sport in the sense Japanese normally perceive. Male Oozumo wreslters are (or had been until quite recent, I do not know) functioning as party uplifter just by sitting side with the host – many times they have been yakuzas or local millionaires. It is called Otoko-geisha or male geisha. They would get good payment for being there and drinking sakes quietly.

    Ampontan, may I ask the reason not touching with the current fuss about Oozumou, including gambling and relation with Yakuza?
    2csm: Thanks for the note.

    There are several reasons. I’m doing this site by myself when I have time away from work or other business, so my time is limited. A lot of these posts also take a lot of time to put together, including the research. This took about 10 hours over a few days. It took almost an hour just to find a Mongolian video that I liked. (I almost didn’t use this one because I don’t like people adding unrelated music to YouTube videos.) It takes a lot of time to think about what to write, and then to write and rewrite it. Other people may not care for what I put up here, but I do have my own quality standards.

    I also try to focus on topics that I am personally interested in, and that I think other people don’t talk about. If I write on a topic that other people talk about, I try to find things that aren’t widely known.

    There are a lot of things I’m interested in. In fact, there are about 30-40 partially finished posts on my computer. It’s tough to get to them all.

    One thing I’m usually not interested in is crime. There are very few crime-related posts here, and most of those are about political crime. (Even then, they’re usually not the main part of the story.) I didn’t follow the story about the yakuza much even in the Japanese media. Also, I know that sumo has had a shady side for centuries, so I didn’t think it was all that new.

    Finally, I try to save my negative stories for politics (or the media hacks). One of the things that motivated me to do this site is to offset all the ridiculous negative crap, based on stupidity, ignorance and the desire to look like an expert, that gets written about Japan in the English language. Of course there are some things about Japan that are less than ideal, but that’s true of every country. That’s why I try to take a more positive approach and put the negative in a different context. It may not seem that way with all the political posts lately, but take a look at all the posts on festivals or traditions on the left sidebar. Then compare those to the posts under the Anti-Nipponism tag to see what other people write.

    The information about women and sumo in this post, for example, has some less than ideal aspects. Most everyone else would write about it in a way that makes them look cool while making Japan look bad, or creepy, or goofy. I tried to write about it in a way that puts it in an understandable human context while also showing the unique parts, and making it all interesting.

    As I wrote in About at the top of the page, Japan does not get the respect it deserves.

    – A.

  3. Roual Deetlefs said


    Interesting article. Never knew about all these things. Thanks.

  4. 21st Century Schizoid Man said

    Ampontan: Thank you for your very thoughtful explanation. Like I said before, kudos to your attitude. As a Japanese, I truly appreciate your philosophy and standard you set here. The most enlightning thing is that I am pleasantly directed/guided to search positive side on things going on and people’s lives in other countries as well as here in Japan.

  5. toadold said

    Decades ago I remember reading an interview of a US Navy seaman who was stationed in Japan who became interested in Sumo. He was a big old boy who had wrestled when he was in high school. He took some classes in Sumo and got even more interested in it. His take was that it was not as easy as it looked and it took him a while to get in condition to do it right. Even then he said doing the right move quickly enough was a subtle thing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: