By Martina Cavallaro
“Sumo is the sport of gods.” says Hiyori Kon at the beginning of the documentary Little Miss Sumo. Hiyori is a 22 years old sumo wrestler who wants to erase gender discrimination in the sumo culture. Little Miss Sumo – released on Netflix last October – shows her battle against those stigmas that are preventing women like Hiyori to become champions in the Japanese sport.
“In the old days, only men practiced sumo. Because of this tradition, some people don’t like us.” tells Hiyori while we see her training alone surrounded by the sea. Indeed, sumo is considered more than a sport in Japan. It’s not only about championships; it’s a Japanese traditional performance practiced in public ceremonies and has it’s code tied to Shinto. Sumo is a form of prayer to the gods. The rope on the mawashi is a reference to on of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan, the Izumo Taisha Shrine in Shimane Prefecture. Even during a match, some actions are actually spiritual rituals: salt is used to purify the dohyo and wrestlers hit the dohyo with their feet to make the evil spirits run away. The absolute winner receives the champion title Yokozuna which makes him a demigod.
Unfortunately, most of the bans are against women, which makes of sumo a means to exercise a misogynistic power. Women are banned from official competitions and aren’t allowed to practice the sport when they become over 21 years old. Hiyori started sumo when she was at first grade and she was so good that she defeated all her male classmates in the first few years. At the time the documentary was shot, she was 20 and she didn’t feel like retiring so soon, while her male counterparts could keep on practicing and fighting for at least ten years more than she was allowed to. Women are allowed to practice sumo while they’re at school, maybe as a club activity, but then are forbidden to be professionals.
The peak was reached in March 2018: a female nurse, who was providing first aid to a sumo wrestler during a match in Maizuru City, Kyoto Prefecture, was forced to leave the ring because women are not allowed. After she was sent away, the ring was “purified” with salt. The stigmatization of women as impure human beings because of their menstruation comes from Shinto beliefs that ban women from sacred places. This means that the sumo ring is considered more than a stage for sumo matches. It is, indeed, treated as an actual sacred dimension which has to follow the ancient rules. This happens not only in sumo, but also in other traditions, such as the brewing of sake or the preparation of sushi. For a long time, women were not allowed to become sushi chef, until chef Yuki Chizui started her own business at Nadeshiko Sushi. The truth is that traditions have always been used as a way to express power, as a weapon of the upper classes to represent their power and control. That incident is the representation of the discrimination of women in Japan. Let’s keep in mind that Japan has been placed 121st out of 153 countries in the global gender equality ranking according to the World Economic Forum.
Hiyori studies gender theory at Ritsumeikan University. She is learning about many women who fight for gender issues all over the world, but only a few of them are Japanese. “Japanese people don’t ask for radical change.The ‘ideal’ woman is modest and walks three steps behind the man.” she states. But she is determined to undermine this system by working hard on her sumo career. Since the women’s sumo representation in Japan is still lacking, she wants to be an example to follow. Her goal is not to win a championship, but to break the discriminatory traditions. Outside of Japan, she has already got her deserved success: she was chosen as one of the 100 most influential women of 2019 according to the BBC, together with Yumi Ishikawa, activist and founder of #KuToo movement.
“If we each raise our voices while also spreading sumo across the world, then I believe there will be more people willing to fight gender inequalities with us. It’s time for women’s sumo to take action.” With these inspiring and empowering words the documentary comes to its end – apologies for the spoiler. Women are certainly taking action to break the stigma. A good move from the male counterparts or from the Yokozuna himself would be to invite women on the dohyo with them.