A teenage wrestler determined to fight at an iconic 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 high school student from Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, who trains against boys in a male-dominated sport, has dreamed since his early days of wrestling at Tokyo’s venerable Ryogoku Kokugikan, even though the Japan Sumo Association (JSA) refuses to allow women to enter the ring.

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 the first year of elementary school after visiting a sumo stable with his father, Yuichi, during the spring grand tournament of the city. 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 his hometown of Sakai in April 2018, Yanagihara had hoped to train alongside young male wrestlers in the ring, but was banned due to his 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 barring women – who are 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 at a sumo venue while providing emergency treatment to a local mayor who had collapsed following a stroke.

Ryogoku Kokugikan hosts amateur tournaments for men and boys, but none for women.

“My daughter loves sumo and will give everything to beat whoever she faces in the ring. Male or female, that desire is the same for everyone,” Yanagihara’s 53-year-old father said.

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