How female sumo wrestlers are challenging ancient sporting traditions

Australian sumo wrestler Jenna Cooper believes attitudes are slowly shifting in the sport. Source: Supplied.

It’s the national sport of Japan with a history spanning centuries, but modern sumo finds itself caught between the deep traditions of its past and growing calls for change.

The life of a professional sumo wrestler in Japan is tough.

As the countrys national sport and with over 1500 years of cultural history tied to ancient Shinto rituals, those at the top are revered by the public, worshipped by scores of sujo (female fans), with the potential to make thousands of dollars a month.

Though it sounds like an enviable life of fame and fortune, the mysterious and complex world of sumo holds many secrets, and the fight for a place in the ring demands an incredible amount of sacrifice with no promise of success.   

Professional sumo wrestlers in Japan reside in a heya (stable) where they live and train under the watchful eye of their oyakata (stablemaster), usually a retired wrestler themselves, for the duration of their career.

For most young men, this disciplined lifestyle officially begins at fifteen or sixteen years of age, though the majority will have spent their childhood training for a place in a stable.

Every aspect of their daily lives is controlled and monitored in order to ensure optimal performance and adherence to the strict regime.

Grand champion Hakuho (top) reacts after defeating ozeki Terunofuji on the final day of the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament at Dolphins Arena in Nagoya, central Japan, on July 18, 2021, claiming his record 45th Emperor's Cup. (Kyodo via AP Images) ==Kyodo
Professional sumo wrestlers are revered in Japan.

Despite giving up any semblance of a normal life to pursue the sport professionally, the reality is that only a fraction of these aspiring pro wrestlers ever make it to an elite level.

Even those that do face the sobering statistic of a life expectancy twenty years lower than the general population thanks to a prolonged high fat diet of at least eight thousand calories a day, four times the recommended intake for male adults, and a gruelling training schedule.  

Though there are many issues surrounding the professional sport, perhaps the most significant question that has faced sumo in recent years is the lack of gender equality that pervades it.

Though there is an important distinction to be made between amateur and professional competitions, female wrestlers have been largely excluded from sumo throughout its history, with women only allowed to compete at an amateur level in Japan since 1997.

Champion sumo wrestler Jyuri Benuya.
Champion sumo wrestler Jyuri Benuya.
SBS Dateline.

There are only six female sumo clubs in Japan, with one girl participating for every three hundred boys.

There is also currently no professional sumo competition for women, a fact that mayor of Takarazura, Tomoko Nakagawa, is determined to change. 

"Female mayors are also humans. I am frustrated that I cannot give this speech on the dohyo just because I am woman,” Nakagawa said in a recent speech. 

The times have changed and the number of female mayors is increasing. One day, we might have a female prime minister. It is important to have courage to change what should be changed.

Nakagawas comments are endorsed by a small but vocal group of female competitors across Japan, including Jyuri Beniya, who point out the inherent lack of opportunity for young women who simply seek to gain the same money and recognition as their male counterparts.   

The question of a professional class for women is one that has significance not just within Japan itself, but for the global sumo community.

John Traill is the vice president of the International Sumo Federation and the president of the Australian Sumo Federation. 

He says that the discussion around greater opportunity for women at this level in the sport, particularly in Japan, is more complicated.  

There is currently no professional sumo competition for women, a fact that Tomoko Nakagawa is determined to change.
There is currently no professional sumo competition for women, a fact that Tomoko Nakagawa is determined to change.
SBS Dateline.

Most amateur athletes wish there was a professional stage on which they could compete as a career, but for womens sumo, the practical and financial difficulties of setting up such a system are great and the possibility of drawing a massive audience like the culturally revered mens sport is slight,” he said. 

Jenna Cooper, an Australian female sumo wrestler and competitor at the world championships, says that she had never considered participating in the sport until she was introduced to it at a Cherry Blossom Festival in Auburn a few years ago. 

When they asked for a female audience member to try sumo, I scaled the side of the grandstand and put my hand up,” she said. 

I liked that it was unexpected for me to do sumo - nobody believes me and if they do, they think that I wear an inflatable suit.

(The question of whether there should be a professional competition for women) is tricky for me to answer as I can't talk on behalf of all women within the sport and I don't believe I have enough experience or knowledge to provide a fair response.

"Sumo wrestling is very highly regarded in Japanese culture, as are the traditions around the sport.

"I think opportunity is important but I believe cultural traditions sometimes take higher precedence. 

"I don't compete for financial gain and am content with representing my country and the sport without being paid. I may feel differently about this matter if I my heritage was Japanese or I grew up with a close affiliation with Japanese culture. 

Jenna says that amateur sumo in Australia has gone a long way to advocating for the involvement and acceptance of women and girls in the sport. 

Australian sumo wrestler Jenna Cooper (left) competes in an event.
Australian sumo wrestler Jenna Cooper (left) competes in an event.

I have had a very positive experience with sumo and have thoroughly enjoyed the way it has exposed me to so many different cultures. I have met some truly remarkable people and made life-long friends.

"I love that the amateur league does not discriminate against gender, age, height, weight or previous training ability - it's for everyone. 

Its clear that despite the existence of amateur competitions worldwide, there remain questions about the lack of professional competition for women that wont be silenced.

With the sports continued global expansion, young female wrestlers will continue to struggle against a system that remains far from equal. Whatever way you look at it, in time, sumo, like so many other competitive sports, will likely be forced to decide between preserving its history or remaining relevant in the modern world. 

Watch Sumo Nation at 9.30pm on SBS, and later on SBS On Demand.