Sunday, May 13, 2007

An Inside Look at Shin Sumo

By Toko Sekaguchi

In the cramped offices of Maguchi Co., OL or office ladies, squeeze and shuffle through the space to make copies and serve tea to their male supervisors. Rie Tsuihiji is one such OL, but her job description has a slight variation. By day, the 25-year-old OL is tasked with keeping track of the company executives' schedules. By night, the job lands her grunting and sweating in a roomful of half-naked men. Tsuihiji is a woman sumo wrestler, and the best one Japan has seen in almost a century. "She's the company's star," says colleague Kenichi Okano.

The sport is shin sumo, or "new sumo." Established in 1996 to renew the country's interest in its national sport, it has grown from having 80 registered athletes in its first year to 800 this year. The sport also has spread to 30 countries.

"Our other goal is to include sumo in the Olympics," says Japan Sumo Federation's Yumiko Kobayashi. "An Olympic sport must be open to both sexes. Including women is a great way to gain international recognition." The only difference between men and women's amateur sumo is that women must wear leotards under their mawashi, a sarong-like belt that comes between the legs and around the waist.

A daughter of a judo teacher, Tsuihiji has been practicing judo since age 3, winning countless tournaments during her childhood. "I hadn't heard about shin sumo until my college judo coach asked me if I'd be interested two years ago. I thought 'why not?' and gave it a try." A strong judo background facilitated her initiation into the sport, and before she knew it Tsuihiji had become the uncontested national shin sumo champion. She decided to postpone her goal of becoming a high school social studies teacher when Maguchi Co., the only company with a women's sumo team, offered her a job and a place on the team.

For Tsuihiji and other competitors, involvement in the sport is not without cost as the public often associates the sport with a negative image. For this reason, the sport has been named shin sumo rather than women’s sumo, says Kitada Nobuo, chairman of the Shinsumo Federation. “What comes to mind when you hear female sumo?" Nobuo asks. "Fat, naked women in mawashi, right? We didn't want people to associate the sport with that negative image."

The comically erotic image surrounding women's sumo has its roots in the past. The term "sumo" first appeared in one of Japan's oldest historical works in reference to a wrestling match between two unclad females in the fifth century. But women's sumo never gained the respectability bestowed upon its male counterpart. "Erotica novels from the 17th century have short references to women wrestling in the nude," says Michihiro Nakagawa, owner of a rare books store that specializes in Edo period popular culture. "It appealed to the ero-guro (erotic/grotesque) taste of adult entertainment back then."

In street performances that proliferated during the same period, wrestlers often were prostitutes past their prime who wrestled with blind men, sheep and each other. With male audience members jumping in to join the romp, these matches resembled more of a cross between a strip tease and a freak show than a legitimate sport. The mixed-sex acts were outlawed in 1873 under public decency laws. When women's sumo reappeared 20 years later as a professional sport, it seemed to have generated enough public interest to grow into a serious sport. Then came World War II, and women's sumo never regained its prewar momentum and was replaced by women's professional wrestling in the post-war era.

In the ’70s and ’80s it went the way of mud wrestling, performed by topless porn stars and strippers on stage to entertain drunken businessmen in red-light districts. Even after the sport was reborn under its current name the athletes have had to deal with negative, often humiliating news coverage. With titles such as "Diet Over Sumo for Women Wrestler" and "Busty Sumo," it's understandable why coaches and officials have become wary of the media. One men's magazine article features pornographic images of topless women and is titled "The Shady World of Female Sumo."

Tsuihiji has had her share of curiosity seekers. The average Japanese female is 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 110 pounds. At 5 feet, 3 inches and 330 pounds, Tsuihiji cannot help but attract attention. "Try taking her on," jokes a businessman who was aboard the same flight as Tsuihiji. "I was always big so I've never been bothered by it," Tsuihiji insists.

The national champ has made frequent appearances on television shows, whose sole purpose was to make fun of her size and sport. "It was fun in the beginning because I got to meet stars and celebrities. But I've realized that it wasn't helping us gain legitimacy." Since then, she and her teammates have become much more selective about appearances and interviews. “We're pioneers in our field," says Maguchi's first female wrestler, Chieko Kanazawa. "What we say and do affects the future of shinsumo."

Even without the negative press, shin sumo is a hard concept to sell. "It's great that women are allowed to participate," says 17-year-old Kana Soma and her classmates who were attending the First Shinsumo World Championships. But would they ever consider taking part? "Probably not," they reply. "It's so rough."

Yet it's the very roughness, which keeps Japanese girls away, that attracts newcomers to the sport. A shin sumo match in the world championships was, on average, three seconds long. "It's amazingly explosive," says Lene Aanes, a Norwegian personal trainer who won the light-weight championship. The burst of energy and adrenaline makes sumo as physically and mentally intense as a sport can get, she says.

Nobuo adds that shin sumo is more easily accepted overseas than in Japan. "Foreigners come into it without much preconceived notions about sumo. The Japanese people still find the combination of women and sumo a bit bizarre."

This doesn't mean that shin sumo will stay a spectator sport.

Nobuo has been continuously surprised by the athletes' passion and dedication to the sport. In the beginning, shin sumo rings were made of urethane foam in place of sand-covered clay, the traditional material used for the ring. "We thought that the clay floor might turn some women off," Nobuo explains. "But we soon found out that no one cared about a bit of scrapes and scratches."

The Japan Sumo Association endorses the global spread of sumo but remains undecided about its internationalization as a sport and silent about the women wrestlers. The association views sumo as a sacred ritual, and claims that sumo and its traditions are inseparable. Women, according to the divine rules of sumo, are considered impure because of their menstrual bleeding, and are prohibited from entering the ring. This ancient rule is brought to the public's attention every few years, most recently by the controversy surrounding a female Osaka governor. The governor was barred from entering the ring to hand the champion his Governor's Award after this year's spring tournament. The vanguards of tradition got their way.

"In this age where reform and change are the keys to survival, professional sumo will become obsolete if they keep this up. Amateur sumo makes more sense as a sport," sumo critic Teiji Kojima says. The Japan Sumo Association could not be reached for comment.

"You don't have women in the NFL or the English Premier League," says Hawaiian-born professional sumo wrestler turned television celebrity Konishiki. "Change is important, but so is remembering that sumo is more than just about pinning your opponent down. It's a gentlemen's sport with strict codes of conduct. It's great that sumo is being spread to men and women worldwide, but you can't separate the sumo from its tradition."

But as shin sumo advocates are finding, the separation between professional and amateur sumo allows the association and the vanguards of tradition to save face while ensuring sumo's growth as an international sport.

"I would never want to turn pro,” Tsuihiji insists. "We're in it for the sport, not some feminist agenda."

The athlete recently lost to Germany's Sandra Koppen, a judo athlete who placed fifth in the Sydney Olympics, in her bid for the open-weight division championship. "This is only my second year. I've got much to learn," Tsuihiji says as she smiles, bandages her injured heel and limps back to her coach. "Shin sumo is just getting started."

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