Photo/IllutrationA group of apprentice sumo wrestlers who passed a test for promotion to the entry-level jonokuchi division, toss a gyoji (referee) in the air during a “ceremony for sending off the god” on the closing day of the Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament in 2017. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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The Japan Sumo Association has repeatedly cited “tradition” in banning females from the dohyo ring, but when this ban took effect remains a mystery.

Experts in Japanese history, culture or the age-old sport seem to agree that the now much-maligned men-only designation in the JSA’s Grand Sumo Tournaments and other events has its roots in ancient religious practices. But it appears that the Edo Period (1603-1867), with its changing leaders and attitudes toward natural bodily functions was the time when the discrimination intensified.

Essentially, as Japanese culture evolved, so did attitudes against female presence in the sumo world.

Female politicians who have been denied entry to the ring to hand out trophies have long criticized the ban.

A furor erupted on April 4 during a JSA circuit tour event in Maizuru, Kyoto Prefecture.

The Maizuru mayor collapsed on the sumo ring. Women entered the dohyo and were performing life-saving measures when the JSA gyoji (referee) said over a public address system: “Ladies, please leave the dohyo.”


Sumo is believed to date back more than 1,500 years. The sport is mentioned in “Kojiki” (Records of Ancient Matters) and “Nihon Shoki” (The Chronicles of Japan), the nation’s oldest official chronicles from the Nara Period (710-784).

Toshihiko Takano, a former Gakushuin University professor of early-modern Japanese history, said it remains unclear why and when the dohyo became off-limits to women in Grand Sumo Tournaments.

He said the taboo possibly strengthened with the spreading authority and popularity of “kanjin-zumo” (fund-raising sumo tournaments), which were organized during the Edo Period to help finance the building or restoration of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. These events evolved into today’s Grand Sumo Tournaments.

Takano noted that women were not even allowed to watch kanjin-zumo bouts during the Edo Period.

“No females were to be seen around the dohyo, so there was no need to ban women from entering the sumo ring,” the historian said.

Prohibiting women from viewing sumo bouts conceivably came against the backdrop of the Bukki-rei (Edict on mourning), which was issued by Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, the fifth shogun of the clan, who reigned from 1680 through 1709.

The edict, which provided for mourning periods observed following the deaths of close relatives, took effect around the same time as Tsunayoshi’s famous animal welfare laws, which banned the killing and cruel treatment of creatures.

In addition, the society of warriors and people of non-warrior classes were embracing the value system of court nobles and Shinto, characterized by a loathing for death and an aversion to “defilement” from bloodshed.

“A trend for alienating women’s menses and childbirths probably strengthened around that time,” Takano said.

The kanjin-zumo strove to differentiate itself from “tsuji-zumo” (street-corner sumo) and other sumo varieties of the common people, and it acquired authority during the Edo Period.

Quarterly “four-season” kanjin-zumo sessions won official recognition of the shogunate during the 1716-1745 reign of Tokugawa Yoshimune, the eighth shogun of the clan, in the mid-18th century.

Tokugawa Ienari, the 11th shogun, attended sumo sessions, and elements of Shinto rituals were introduced to sumo during his 1787-1837 reign.

For example, yokozuna wrestlers began wearing a sacred festoon woven from white hemp plant and stomping the ground with alternate feet, following the earth-leveling process during a ground-breaking ceremony.

The elements of religion and tradition that were added to sumo during its evolution into the Grand Sumo Tournaments possibly worked together to alienate women from the dohyo.

Following the 1868 Meiji Restoration, Japan’s new government, which strove to civilize the nation, banned “mixed sumo” bouts involving male and female wrestlers.

“Diverse varieties of sumo, such as women’s sumo and ‘zato-zumo’ (sumo involving blind wrestlers), were deemed ‘uncivilized’ and were eliminated,” said Hajime Imanishi, a professor emeritus of modern and contemporary Japanese history at the Otaru University of Commerce.

The Grand Sumo Tournaments in the meantime suffered a crisis after losing the support of the shogunate and other feudal lord clans.

The Grand Sumo Tournaments began emphasizing the aspect of “sanctity,” riding the momentum for the establishment of State Shinto and the rise of nationalism.

Emperor Meiji attended many sumo sessions during his 1867-1912 reign, and a permanent arena for the Grand Sumo Tournaments was named Kokugikan, or “hall of the national sport,” when it opened in 1909.

The concept of sumo as an “art” or “discipline” was highlighted during the Showa Era (1926-1989) and played a part in the drive to enhance Japan’s national prestige.

“Male chauvinism intensified under the class and family systems of the time, with the emperor sitting at the top,” Imanishi said. “The men-only designation of the dohyo came to be seen as a matter of course.”


Banning women’s presence is a practice often found in religious realms, such as denying females access to sacred precincts and barring women from specific rituals.

But Masataka Suzuki, a professor emeritus of cultural anthropology with Keio University, pointed out that gender-based denials also worked against men in ancient times.

“The taboo against women became stronger with time,” Suzuki said.

In old forms of mountain worship, monks barred commoners from entering mountains that they viewed as fields of their ascetic practices for acquiring spiritual power.

A ban on female presence, based on a Buddhist commandment saying it presents an obstacle to the ascetic practices of monks, switched to a ban on male presence at nunneries.

Discriminatory religious teachings, however, began spreading in the Heian Period (794-1185).

For example, the “henjo nanshi” (turning into a man) theory said a woman can only attain Buddhahood after transforming into a man. The “gosho” (five obstacles) theory said women cannot attain the status of Brahma, Sakra and other deities.

Suzuki further pointed out that the notion of “defilement from bloodshed” added the finishing touch to the practice of putting women in an inferior position.

“Engi-shiki,” a statute book from the Heian Period, did define death and childbirth as defiling, but only for limited periods of time.

However, Ketsubonkyo (Xuepenjing or “Blood Bowl Sutra”), an apocryphal sutra of Chinese origin, gained currency during the Muromachi Period (1338-1573). It spread the notion that women are impure because they defile earth with the blood of their childbirths and menses, Suzuki explained.

Susumu Shimazono, a professor of religious studies with Sophia University, also pointed out that the taboo against female presence should not be taken for granted.

“Women have always been close to divinity since the times of Himiko (a third-century shaman-queen of early Japan),” Shimazono said. “Denying women entry to the venue of a religious ritual is not a matter of course either historically or from the viewpoint of religious studies.”

Shimazono showed an understanding toward the men-only designations that remain in some religious precincts, including Mount Ominesan in Nara Prefecture.

“The whole ascetic practice of Shugendo (mountaineering asceticism as a folk religion) is underpinned by rigorous commandments, which are difficult to abruptly change,” the professor said.

But he grew more skeptical once the subject turned to the Grand Sumo Tournaments.

“Let’s ask how significant the ban on female presence on the sumo ring is,” Shimazono said. “The sumo tournaments are events of national concern, which are not for a group of people who share a particular faith. The JSA should comply with the changing times.”

(This article was written by Satoshi Ouchi and Shigeyori Miyamoto.)