Debate is raging over professional sumo's ban on women entering the ring.
The current battles were sparked by an incident in Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture, during a Japan Sumo Association (JSA) local tour event. The mayor collapsed in the ring, and women including a nurse rushed to his aid. As they attempted to assist the man, a young sumo referee demanded that all women leave the ring.
The JSA went on to request that girls not be allowed to join in "kids' sumo," a part of the spring tour events where children get to face off in the ring against professional wrestlers. The association explained that the request was made out of the desire to protect girls, who they said tend to get injured more often. But safety should be a consideration for all children at the events, so the JSA's excuse for keeping girls out of the ring fails to persuade.
"Kids' sumo" has always been much more about connecting with wrestlers than actual practice. Standing in the same ring as a rikishi, grappling with the wrestlers they see on TV, is an important chance for children to feel closer to the sport. What's more, the JSA itself says one of the goals of the local tours is to "give children dreams as we strive to popularize the art of sumo." The decision to bar girls from participating runs directly counter to this mission, and actually looks more likely to push fans away from the sport.
In another JSA pronouncement against women setting foot in its sumo rings, the association refused to allow the female mayor of Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, to speak to the local crowd from inside the ring -- something male civic leaders often do. The reason for the refusal boiled down to one word: "Tradition."
The summer sumo tour is scheduled to come to the Shiga prefectural capital of Otsu, which also has a female mayor, who said that sumo, "as the national sport, is very public and can be called on to uphold gender equality." She added that, if she is asked not to make a speech from inside the ring, she will excuse herself from the event entirely.
The ban on women entering professional sumo rings is thought by some to have started during the Meiji period (1868-1912), and the JSA has said the no-women policy is "tradition" ever since.
Both the grand tournaments and local tours only exist because so many people, including fans, support them. The award presentations conducted and speeches given from the ring are also all ceremonies participated in by supporters. The sumo world cannot isolate itself from broader society, where the values of gender equality have taken deep root; refusing to allow women to even give a speech from the ring clashes with our era.
The JSA has changed its rules before, for example to open its doors to foreign wrestlers. That reform gave new energy to the professional sport.
This weekend, the JSA will hold an extraordinary board of directors meeting to discuss "women and the sumo ring." We call on the directors to have the flexibility to re-examine what they should.