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Shunned by the Pros, Female Sumo Wrestlers Find Japan's Ancient Sport Has Plenty to Offer

A growing number of women are finding their own space in the dohyo. In doing so, as sumo wrestlers, they are setting and achieving ambitious goals.

Despite numerous obstacles, women's sumo wrestling is alive and well in Japan and around the world.

Japan's top professional sumo competition doesn't allow women to participate. Not only that, females are forbidden from even entering the dohyo.

Sumo gained some rather unwelcome international notoriety in April 2018 when a referee shooed a female nurse out of the ring in Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture after she rushed to offer lifesaving assistance to a male politician who collapsed while giving a speech.

The Japan Sumo Association took plenty of heat for its hardline stance but insists traditions must be adhered to.

Such attitudes haven't stopped an ever-growing number of women from pursuing their dream of taking part in Japan's ancient sport at the amateur level.

Women's sumo actually has a long history in Japan. It became popular way back in the middle of the Edo Period (1603-1868) when a form of onna sumo was performed in some areas of the country.

It is said there are now roughly 600 amateur female sumo wrestlers in Japan.

And it's not just Japan. Women from around the world assembled on Sunday, February 11 to take part in the inaugural Dream Girls Cup sumo tournament at Sumida Futsal Arena in downtown Tokyo.

Wrestlers get ready for their Dream Girls Cup match to begin. (Jim Armstrong)

New Women's Sumo Tournament Attracts More Than 200 Participants

A total of 201 athletes took part. While the majority of the wrestlers were from Japan, there were also participants from the United States and Brazil.

The wrestlers were divided into groups from elementary school, junior high school and high school.

Even though there is no chance of turning pro, women take part for the love of the sport and the character-building attributes it offers.

"I love sumo because it teaches you respect," said 11-year-old American Kenzie Hefferman, who traveled all the way from Hawaii to take part in the competition in Japan. "It helps me develop skills that I can use in other sports."

Hefferman said she is able to watch the big sumo tournaments from Japan when she is back home and her favorite wrestler is Hakuho, who made an appearance at Sunday's event.

Stablemaster Miyagino, known as Hakuho during his legendary career, shakes hands with Ishikawa Prefecture's Shika Junior High School student Yuna Fujishima during an awards ceremony at the first Dream Girls Cup on February 11. (KYODO)

Former yokozuna Hakuho, who is now stablemaster Miyagino, was more than happy to throw his weight behind the tournament.

"Sumo can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of age or gender," Hakuho said in a statement issued by the organizers. "I hope that all the athletes taking part can have many great experiences and realize their dreams through sumo."

Top Female Wrestler Enjoys the 'Thrill' of Sumo

In October 2023, the Women's Sumo World Championships were held in Tokyo for the first time in four years due to the pandemic.

Airi Hisano, considered one of the top female sumo wrestlers in the country, represented Japan and became world champion in the open weight class.

"I enjoy the thrill of bouts that are over in an instant," Hisano said in an interview with NHK. "It's a clear-cut contest. For me, the most important thing is to enjoy my matches."

Hisano first got into sumo when she was a senior in high school. The Tochigi Prefecture native was a member of the judo club and the school's principal suggested she take part in a national sumo tournament. Once she did that, she was hooked.

She then enrolled in Nihon University, which is known for its strong sumo program. 

"They say I am without a rival in Japan, winning is how I prove it," Hisano said. "I picture myself winning and imagine how happy it would make me feel."

Two wrestlers vie for victory in the Dream Girls Cup, a new sumo tournament. (Jim Armstrong)

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A Determination to Win

Another woman with big ambitions is Rio Hasegawa, who placed third at the 2023 world championships in the middleweight division.

Hasegawa trains out of the sumo club at the prestigious Keio University. She is the first female member in the club's 104-year history. And she trains with the male members.

"I hate losing," said Hasegawa who took up sumo 14 years ago. "So I am determined to win as much as I can."

Her style is to get a quick start at the face-off and drive her opponent out of the ring.

Inspired to take up sumo at the age of 6, the Aomori Prefecture native would go on to become national champion in grade school and junior high. As a college athlete, she set her sights on the goal of becoming world champion.

Like their counterparts taking part in the Dream Girls Cup, the likes of Hisano and Hasegawa see benefits in taking part even though there is no chance of going professional.

"Little by little, I've created a space for myself in sumo," Hisano told NHK. "Moving forward I want to expand on that. Sumo is the most important thing in my life."

The 2023 world championships in Japan and the Dream Girls Cup prove that women's sumo is here to stay.

Sumo wrestlers showcase their skills at the Dream Girls Cup on February 11 at Tokyo's Sumida Futsal Arena. (Jim Armstrong)


Author: Jim Armstrong

The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for over 25 years. You can find his articles on SportsLook.

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