TOKYO - A sumo-wrestling referee ordered several women out of the ring on Wednesday (April 4), despite their attempt to give first-aid treatment to the mayor of Maizuru City in Kyoto Prefecture who had collapsed while giving a speech.
The incident, which was widely reported in Japanese media, has stoked a gender discrimination row and highlighted the role of women in a society that is trying to keep up with the times while clinging to its deeply traditional roots.
The sumo ring is deemed a sacred place where females are forbidden to enter.
The saga comes a week after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet signed off on a plan for imperial succession rites next year, with Emperor Akihito due to abdicate his throne to his elder son, Crown Prince Naruhito.
But the plan, which has been accused of being out of touch with the times, stuck to tradition in excluding female imperial family members from the key rites. As it is, female imperial family members also have to give up their royal status when they marry a "commoner".
The controversy also comes days after a report in The Mainichi daily that a woman working at a private childcare centre was reprimanded by her employer for getting pregnant before it was her "turn". The unnamed woman, who works at the centre in Aichi Prefecture in central Japan, had been scolded for "selfishly breaking the rules".
In the latest incident, Maizuru Mayor Ryozo Tatami, 66, was giving a speech in the ring when he collapsed due to subarachnoid haemorrhage - or bleeding in the area between the brain and the tissues that cover it.
Mr Tatami's condition is stable and not life-threatening, local media reports said.At least two women immediately rushed into the ring to administer first-aid treatment, only to be reprimanded by the referee, who, via the loudspeaker systems in the gymnasium, ordered them to get out of the ring.
Public broadcaster NHK reported that one of the women appeared to be a qualified nurse.
In a public apology, Japan Sumo Association chairman Hakkaku said the judge's announcement "was an inappropriate response because the situation could have been life-threatening".
Many have criticised the sumo tradition via social media, including user @komichi2, who lambasted the association on Twitter for "viewing formal tradition as being more important than life rescue".
This was not the first gender discrimination incident to plague the sumo sport.
Former Osaka governor Fusae Ota, who was Japan's first female prefectural leader, was turned down for five years from 2000 to 2004 when she asked the association to allow her into the ring to present the trophy to the champion wrestler.
It is the prefecture's practice for the governor to do so at the annual tournament. Ms Ota ended up having to delegate the task to a male subordinate.
The latest incident also comes on the back of the ancient sumo sport being disgraced by a series of scandals in recent months.
Former yokozuna - the highest rank in the sport - Harumafuji, 33, retired in December over the alleged assault of a junior wrestler. He is accused of beating junior wrestler Takanoiwa with his bare hands and a karaoke machine remote control. The latter suffered a suspected skull fracture.
Meanwhile, the sport's chief referee Shikimori Inosuke resigned in January over an incident in which he kissed and touched a teenage referee when he was drunk.
In February, a sumo wrestler was arrested on suspicion of indecent assault, and last month, Egyptian sumo wrestler Osunaarashi was arrested for allegedly driving without a licence when he got into a car accident in central Japan.