In the professional world of sumo, women are traditionally forbidden to compete and even feature in the ceremonies. That typically means that women cannot enter, or even touch, the sumo wrestling ring known as a dohyō.
However, there have been female sumo wrestlers throughout the history of sumo who still compete today as amateurs. While female sumo wrestlers are unlikely to reach financial parity alongside their male counterparts, they are likely to increase their participation.
In this article, we will look at the history of female sumo wrestlers, modern female sumo, and how female sumo has continued to today.
The History Of Women’s Sumo
According to the first record of women performing in sumo wrestling, Emperor Yuraku ordered two female courtesans to sumo wrestle in loincloths.
That was a start in the fifth century yet female sumo wrestlers remained rare until the 18th century when the sport became common during the Edo reign.
This was in the form of onna sumo which was widely performed across various areas of Japan and included touring professionals. The practice persisted until the Meiji Restoration around 1868 when imperial rule returned to Japan.
The practice of women’s sumo suffered a crackdown during the Tokugawa Shogunate and the subsequent Meiji government. This crackdown was mainly down to the idea that even the spectacle of female sumo was deemed to be corrupting public morals and could not be seen to continue.
There was even a government ban on women’s sumo in 1926 yet the practice still carried on and there was even a sumo event for female wrestlers during the 1930s in Hawaii (see also, ‘How Long is the Flight from Hawaii to Japan?‘).
The final official female sumo group dissolved in 1963 yet is still carried on at an amateur level and there are even tournaments.
Modern Female Sumo
The practice of female sumo has been carried on into modern times yet is not even considered authentic by a lot of the Japanese public. Modern female sumo does not exist on a professional level but is maintained by amateurs who keep it going, largely in their spare time.
There are certain events that allow female sumo and these include the World Games as well as the Sumo World Championships and European Sumo Championships which are both part of the International Sumo Federation.
At a national level, modern female sumo continues on an amateur level and a national championship has been held since 1997. The championship includes exactly the same rules as professional sumo though the wrestlers are wearing leotards under their sumo belts (mawashis) (see also, ‘What Does A Sumo Wrestler Wear?‘).
The duration of the matches is also reduced, rather like female tennis, down from the five minutes in male professional sumo to three minutes.
How Female Sumo Has Continued
Female sumo has largely operated under the radar at an amateur level. While male sumo wrestlers will reside in a stable (known as a heya) to live and train under the stable master (oyakata), it is a different discipline for women altogether at an amateur level.
In Japan, there are a mere six female clubs for sumo wrestling which equates to around one girl for each three hundred boys participating in the sport. Female sumo wrestlers are vastly outnumbered but they are still competing in tournaments.
One of the overriding reasons why female sumo has remained amateur is due to how the cultural traditions in Japan take a higher precedence. For instance, in Shino belief, women are forbidden to enter the dohyō due to the fact that they menstruate.
Thankfully, sumo tournaments do exist for women and some even feature girls who are aged from eight to 12. Though there are few female sumo wrestlers and tournaments, there are universities in Japan that allow women into their sumo clubs.
As the sports of baseball (see also, ‘Why is Baseball so Popular in Japan?‘) and soccer continue to grow as Japan’s leading spectator sports, the viewing figures for sumo wrestling have declined. There have been attempts to raise the profile of the sport by partnering with Pokémon Inc., and using Pikachu as a mascot.
That may appeal to a younger audience yet female sumo offers an opportunity for Japanese society to largely break with tradition and show their support. That could signify a big cultural shift and see Japan fall more in line with how female sport is considered in the West.
If female sumo is to persist into the future then that may mean planning for professional female sumo wrestlers. While they are unlikely to reach parity with their male counterparts, it would provide an economic opportunity for women.
Simply earning a living from sumo wrestling would be a major step for female sumo wrestlers and would see the sport grow exponentially with participation rising as the sport becomes more popular.
If the number of female sumo wrestlers continues to grow at a junior and senior level then one day it may even become an Olympic sport.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which Actions Are Forbidden In Sumo Wrestling Matches?
Certain actions are not allowed during a sumo wrestling match and these include gouging, punching, and kicking.
However, tripping and slapping are allowed and a sumo wrestler can even grab the sumo belt as long as it is around the waist and certainly not in the groin region. Across both genders, hair pulling and grabbing (unless it is of the sumo belt) are also banned.
What Is Included In A Sumo Wrestler’s Diet?
There is a dedication and discipline that goes towards a sumo wrestler’s diet and usually only means two meals a day with many missing out on breakfast during the traditional training process.
To fuel themselves up for a sumo match, sumo wrestlers follow a strict diet. This typically includes safe starches like noodles and rice, and a tight balance of protein from fish and meat with vast amounts of vegetables.
Lunch is also expected to be chanko-nabe which is a tasty stew containing a variety of vegetables with meat in a dashi broth.