Sumo officials wrestle with calls to ditch men-only rule

Takarazuka Mayor Tomoko Nakagawa was barred from giving her speech inside the sumo ring earlier this month - a decision which led to criticism of the sport's governing body.
Takarazuka Mayor Tomoko Nakagawa was barred from giving her speech inside the sumo ring earlier this month - a decision which led to criticism of the sport's governing body.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

TOKYO • Japanese sumo officials have opted to postpone a decision on overturning the ancient sport's "men-only" policy following allegations of deep-rooted sexism.

Plagued by scandal in recent years, sumo was plunged into further controversy earlier this month after a comedy of public relations errors by the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) that were almost universally slammed as sexist.

The JSA was forced to apologise after women who rushed to the aid of a local mayor who had collapsed during a speech at a regional event were repeatedly told to leave a sumo ring.

Just days after that incident triggered unwanted headlines, a female mayor from the western city of Takarazuka was barred from delivering a speech inside the ring.

The trouble-prone JSA was then further criticised after trying to prevent girls from taking part in a children's sumo event in Shizuoka prefecture, citing "safety concerns".

In an attempt to arrest the latest public relations disaster to hit the roly-poly sport, officials met yesterday, but failed to reach a decision on reversing their men-only rule.

"(This policy) has continued for hundreds of years," sumo gym chief Oguruma told local media following the hour-long meeting.

"We can't change it in an hour."

Sumo dates back some 2,000 years, according to historians, and retains many Shinto religious overtones.

Its dirt rings, known as "dohyo", are viewed as sacred in the Japanese Shinto faith and women - considered to be ritually unclean - are not allowed to enter for fear of desecrating the hallowed soil.

However, after videos of the women offering medical help being shooed from the ring in Maizuru, north-west of Kyoto, went viral, the JSA has come under increased fire, prompting it to convene to discuss potential policy changes.

JSA director Toshio Takano urged more time to bring change to the male-dominated sport.

"We are talking about an extremely difficult issue," he said. "Therefore we need to take our time over it."

The closeted sumo world has been rocked by a string of damaging scandals in recent years, from allegations of bout-fixing to drug arrests and violent bullying - the most serious case resulting in the death of a teenage wrestler in 2007.

Last year, grand champion Harumafuji was charged over a brutal assault on a rival wrestler while out drinking, ending his career.

However, sumo is not the only sport in Japan to face criticism for its exclusive policies.

The private club chosen to host golf at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was forced to lift its controversial ban on female membership last year after pressure from Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and the International Olympic Committee.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 29, 2018, with the headline 'Sumo officials wrestle with calls to ditch men-only rule'. Print Edition | Subscribe