14-year-old wrestler inspired by iconic men’s sumo venue

As she aims for the pinnacle of women’s sumo, 14-year-old Mayu Yanagihara is driven by a burning desire to compete on the men’s stage of the sport’s former spiritual home.

The middle schooler from Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, who trains against boys in a male-dominated sport, has dreamed since early days of wrestling at Tokyo’s venerable Ryogoku Kokugikan, even though the Japan Sumo Association does not allow women to enter the ring.

Photo taken on Feb. 12, 2022 shows 14-year-old Mayu Yanagihara, who aims to become a top sumo wrestler, in Osaka city, western Japan. (Kyodo)

According to the Japan Women’s Sumo Federation, the first national tournament for female wrestlers began in 1997, with the first international meets beginning in 2001. Unlike men’s competition, women’s sumo is separated into weight categories.

“I never felt a gender barrier,” said Yanagihara, who started the sport in his first year of elementary school after visiting a sumo stable with his father Yuichi during the spring grand tournament of the JSA in Osaka.

The power of the wrestlers captivated the girl, who began training at a local sumo club and park. She won the national title as a fifth grader and last October was a finalist in the high school under 60 kilogram division.

When a regional JSA tour traveled to her hometown of Sakai in April 2018, she had hoped to train alongside young male wrestlers in the ring, but was banned due to her gender.

On the same spring tour, girls from all over the country were unable to participate despite having been allowed to do so before. The JSA explained that the decision was based on “safety concerns”, but later canceled the children’s event altogether.

“It was disappointing because I thought women’s sumo was not recognized,” Yanagihara recalled.

The JSA’s tradition of barring women – considered “ritually unclean” – from entering the elevated ring has come under fire in recent years, including in 2018 when female doctors were ordered to leave the competition area on a sumo venue while providing emergency treatment to a local mayor who had collapsed following a stroke.

While Ryogoku Kokugikan hosts amateur tournaments for men and boys, none are held for women.

Photo taken on February 12, 2022 shows Mayu Yanagihara (R) as she trains against a young boy in Osaka city, western Japan. (Kyodo)

“My daughter loves sumo and gives everything to beat whoever she faces in the ring. Male or female, that desire is the same for everyone,” said Yuichi, 53.

As Yanagihara aims for a women’s world title and hopes to increase interest in women’s sumo around the world, her hunger to wrestle at the Ryogoku Kokugikan continues to propel her forward.

“It’s been my inspiration since I started sumo. Part of me gave up on that, but I want to wrestle on that stage one day,” she said.

“The appeal of sumo is that it gives smaller wrestlers a chance to beat bigger opponents. I want to get stronger and develop a more dynamic style.”

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Robert J. King