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A League of Their Own: Female Sumo Wrestling

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As Japan’s oldest national and male-dominated sport, sumo wrestling has been gaining popularity among young women in recent years. 

Back in August 2019, Japan had a historic moment for sumo as day-long the Wanpaku national championships for elementary school girls took place at the Okudo Sogo Sports Center in Tokyo. Previously, girls were not able to participate in the national finals, even if they had won the regional qualifying events, because the venue, Ryogoku Kokugikan, didn’t allow women into the ring.

The championship was live-streamed on YouTube with Japanese national team members Miku Yamanaka and Kon Hiyori as commentators. By the end of the competition, sixth-grader Shinka Shimabukuro from Okinawa was the first-ever titleholder of yokozuna. Chiaki Kajiwara and Ria Ishibashi took home the fourth grade and fifth-grade titles.

Sumo wrestling originated during the Edo period (1603-1868), when matches were initially enjoyed by the wealthy and powerful and held mainly to raise money to construct shrines and temples, or to replace bridges. Sumo wrestling is described as two people, typically wearing nothing but a loincloth, facing off in a circular ring attempting to grapple, push, or throw their opponent. The winner is declared once someone is either forced to the ground or pushed out of the ring.

The idea of a woman entering the ring was unheard of in sumo wrestling. Women were considered “impure” and the ring was a sacred place, according to Shinto and Buddhist beliefs. 

But with each generation, more women are gaining acceptance and interest. In 2000, women’s sumo wrestling became an official sport. Today more than 87 countries have joined the International Sumo Federation, according to Japan’s Women Federation. Even though they can’t compete on a professional level as the men in Japan, women and young girls compete in amateur matches in anonymity for the love of the sport.

Women in sumo wrestling have been fighting for visibility and have been gradually gaining it with are over 20,000 female sumo wrestles around the world.  Junior and senior world championships have been established for women as the number of girls and women increases with the hope of bringing sumo to the Olympics.

 

 

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