O S A K A, Japan, Oct. 11, 2002 -- In Japan, sumo wrestling is almost sacred. Steeped in tradition, sumo has long been the ultimate old-boys club — a sport dominated by larger-than-life men, a realm where women are not welcome. In fact, in the professional ranks, they are forbidden from even stepping into a ring, let alone wrestling.
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But the sumo world may soon be in for a giant shock. Women have arrived on the scene, and in recent years, the sport has taken off on the amateur level. All over Japan, girls and women are strapping on traditional mawashis (traditional sumo thongs) over their leotards and raising more than a few eyebrows in the process.
When you envision the prototypical sumo wrestler, 23-year-old Yoko Yamata almost certainly does not come to mind. Young, slim and attractive, she looks more like a figure skater or a ballerina than a sumo wrestler. A kickboxer, maybe, but not a sumo wrestler.
Yamata, who has taken judo and karate, began her amateur sumo career several months ago. She once dreamed of being the next Jackie Chan, but she's set those plans aside for the time being to compete in her latest pursuit.
She recently joined her college sumo team, practicing regularly with a group of young women and their much larger male counterparts.
The competition, the tradition, and most importantly for Yamata, the fact that people told her she couldn't were the inspirations for her to take up a sport long identified with half-naked men, most of whom weigh more than 200 pounds.
So, now she finds herself sweating and grunting, and trying in vain to push a burly male teammate out of the ring. She's determined to break down stereotypes and show that even in Japan, a country that takes tradition seriously, women can perform just as well as men.
Yamata's enthusiasm for the sport is catching on, and her male sparring partners say they're impressed with her and her fellow female sumos. One enormous male teammate, about 200 pounds heavier and nearly a foot taller than Yamata, reveals a sly grin as she slams into him during a practice session.
Although at first glance you wouldn't give Yamata much of a chance against her hulking teammate, he says that's not the case. He says she can beat him — balance and agility, contrary to the prevailing stereotype, are crucial in this sport, and size isn't everything. "If she's determined enough," he says, "she'll find a way."
And with Yamata, there's no shortage of determination. She recently traveled with her female teammates to a national tournament in Osaka.
Sometimes Size Does Matter
Unfortunately, in this case, size did matter. Yamata was tossed from the ring in the second round of the competition by a bigger foe, and most of the slimmer members of her team met similar fates.
All of the women present paled in comparison to seven-time national champion Rie Tsuihiji, who weighs in at just over 330 pounds. Tsuihiji made quick work of the competition, through a combination of sheer size, brute force, and surprising agility for a woman of her size.
She could probably take on some of those tradition-bound males, who, despite the success of women's sumo on the amateur level, still say there's no place for the fairer sex inside the sacred ring.
Japan's national sumo association says it has no problem with women competing in the sport, on an amateur level — they're not even opposed to the possibility of it becoming an Olympic sport someday. But, tradition is tradition, rules are rules, and women are still not welcome on the professional levels.
For now, Yoko and women like her will have to keep grunting and pushing just for the fun of it, for the love of the sport, and to prove to the men that that they're just as skilled as they are.
But the old-boy network had better watch out, because female sumo only continues to grow — in leaps and pounds. Girls as young as 8 are now picking up the sport in school, and two women have even broken the gender barrier and are now calling the shots as referees.
The women of sumo respect the traditions of the sport, and they're working hard to make their mark in this all-male society. In the process, however, they've been sure not to hold a grudge — they even invite the men inside the ring at the women-only competitions. After all, someone has to sweep away the dirt in between bouts.