Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

The Ban on Women in the Sumo Ring Calls for a Closer Look at “Tradition”
CHINO Keiko / Journalist

May 29, 2018
A mayor delivering his speech suddenly collapses on the sumo ring. Seeing this, several women in the audience, including a nurse, rushes to his side. As the nurse performs cardiopulmonary resuscitation, the Japan Sumo Association repeatedly announces over the loudspeaker: “Ladies, please leave the ring.” It was this incident that prompted the latest discussion concerning sumo’s ban on women entering the “dohyo” ring.

It is not exactly news. In well-known incidents from the past, Moriyama Mayumi, the first female Chief Cabinet Secretary, and Ota Fusae, the first female governor of Osaka, were both denied permission to step inside the ring. Now, at long last, it seems the Sumo Association has been spurred to action. Chairman Hakkaku Nobuyoshi – the former yokozuna Hokutoumi – said the association will review the issue by consulting experts and by conducting surveys on “the dohyo and women.” This time around, it’s “matta nashi (time’s up),” and delaying tactics will not be tolerated.

Which is more important, the tradition of banning women from the ring, or human life? The answer is obvious – lives are more valuable. Some may hold the minority view of defending tradition to the death, but such a view would be an absolute minority. After all, you do need to be alive to preserve tradition.

As a woman and a sumo fan, I’m not about to condemn the ban on women as gender discrimination. Even in the world today, where democracy, human rights, liberty and equality are respected as universal values, I don’t believe that such a custom should be completely denied. Rather, the problem lies in the ambiguity of the “tradition” cited by the Sumo Association and those who support the ban.

What does “tradition” mean? The Meikyo Japanese Dictionary defines it as “things such as ideas, skills, customs and conventions that have been passed down in tangible and intangible forms by a group, society or ethnic group. Also, to inherit such things.” Other dictionaries offer more or less the same definition, and I basically agree. However, once we begin to question the when, how and why, we find that the circumstances surrounding each tradition are varied and distinct, making matters more complicated.

In the case of the ban on women entering the dohyo, while it may indeed be a tradition, it isn’t quite as old as is widely perceived, or as vague as to be simply described as ancient. It is reasonable to believe that the convention is closely associated with the Meiji Restoration, which took place 150 years ago. That was when the shogunate of the Edo period collapsed and gave way to reforms that led to the establishment of the Meiji government. Sumo was not spared from the wave of reforms; it faced an existential crisis.

Until the Meiji Restoration – in other words, throughout the Edo Period – sumo enjoyed great popularity as a form of entertainment. Far from being banned from the ring, female wrestlers were part of a popular show. Incredibly, even bouts against visually impaired male wrestlers were organized, which was an obvious infringement on the latter’s human rights. Moreover, these shows frequently took place at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.

It is a well-known fact that the Meiji Restoration accelerated Japan’s modernization, and since that was equivalent to Westernization, the Western-style Rokumeikan guesthouse was built and everything Western became all the rage. From the standpoint of such values, women’s sumo was out of the question, while men’s sumo – fought between scantily clad men – was also frowned upon. Yet, crisis also presented an opportunity, and sumo survived by staging a brilliant turnaround.

The sumo world began by emphasizing sumo’s historical ties with Shinto ritual, and while maintaining some elements of entertainment, the sport was formalized in a bid to enhance its status. Fortunately, sumo was helped by objections to excessive Westernization and its popularity among the public. In my personal opinion, if not for the public mood at the time and its popularity, sumo could well have become extinct amid the momentous changes that took place during the Meiji Period.

And so in the 17th year of Meiji, or 1884, a sumo tournament was held in the presence of the Emperor, while the Kokugikan – the Hall of National Sport – was built in 1909. Sumo had become worthy of being called the national sport of Japan. Thus, the ban on women could be described as a tradition that was intimately connected to the Meiji Restoration.

In its original form, Japanese sumo had a particularly close association with women. The first record of sumo appears in the “Nihon Shoki (Chronicles of Japan)” compiled in the early 8th century, as a wrestling match between “unume” court ladies, according to a paper titled “The Tradition of Banning Women in Sumo” by Yoshizaki Shoji and Inano Kazuhiko. Meanwhile, women’s sumo continued to be held in some places until 1956. In that sense, we could also describe women’s sumo as a tradition, even though – strictly speaking – it had now become an “obsolete tradition.”

Indeed, some traditions are handed down over generations, while others fade out. Much depends on the trends of the times. But it will not do to simply ride the current, and it is even more dangerous to rest on the status of a tradition without heeding the changing trends. To improve with each new day. That is precisely how tradition maintains its contemporary relevance.

“Ladies, please leave the ring” – this announcement, which triggered the latest discussion, is a negative example of resting on tradition. I don’t think the person who made the announcement meant to disregard life. Faced with an unexpected situation he had panicked, and without even thinking, equated the dohyo with the ban on women in a conditioned response. To me, the problem lies in the way people cease to think and instead act with self-righteous conviction, which is truly deplorable.

It so happens that this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration. As we contemplate the ban on women, we should also take this opportunity to reflect on the significance of the Meiji Restoration as well.

Keiko Chino is a freelance journalist and Guest Columnist of the Sankei Shimbun.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

千野 境子 / ジャーナリスト

2018年 5月 29日













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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > The Ban on Women in the Sumo Ring Calls for a Closer Look at “Tradition”