Photo/IllutrationShizuko Ashikaga, right, at her training gym in Osaka’s Ikuno Ward (Yuki Matsuo)

OSAKA—Shizuko Ashikaga opened a gym here to empower women despite having never joined a sports club in her school days.

But few would doubt the credentials of Ashikaga, a 45-year-old mother of two.

Ashikaga is the reigning women’s national arm wrestling champion, a title she has won for seven consecutive years.

Her Zero-Wan Osaka gym in Osaka’s Ikuno Ward is situated in a corner of the Ikuno Ginza shopping arcade lined with shops and stores selling food and clothing.

The gym only accepts female visitors. And they are allowed to exercise in any way they like, even if it does not involve arm wrestling.

“I want to provide a place where women can take the first step,” said Ashikaga, referring to her own experience.

As a child, Ashikaga realized she was good at physical activities and always did well in fitness tests at school. But she did not belong to any sports clubs.

She said she had long felt a need to make effective use of her exceptional body power.

In her 30s, when she was busy taking care of her preschool-age children, Ashikaga learned about an arm wrestling competition through a TV program.

She mustered up the courage to compete, and placed high in the rankings.

“I became obsessed with the sport’s appeal of thin people being able to defeat large opponents,” she said.

Words from Shinji Miyamoto, a former arm wrestling world champion, helped to push her skills to the next level.

“Don’t you want to live with the status of national champion?” Miyamoto asked Ashikaga at a competition.

Ashikaga, whose home is in Ikuno, not only practiced hard at a mixed martial arts dojo but also took lessons from Miyamoto once a month in Okayama Prefecture, where he lives.

In 2012, Ashikaga won the open women’s right arm division at the all-Japan arm wrestling championship on her first attempt. She took home her seventh straight title last year.

Although she had trained at home with exercise equipment, her residence was not large enough so she started practicing at an unoccupied store in the shopping arcade.

She opened her gym there in January this year. Storekeepers along the shopping street have been providing support.

Ashikaga trains primarily at night because she is usually busy with housework and her part-time job during the daytime. She is preparing for the next all-Japan championship, scheduled for June 23.

On a recent Wednesday night, many women in sportswear were seen working out at Zero-Wan Osaka. The 25-square-meter gym has running and sit-up machines. But the most eye-catching equipment in the facility is the special table for arm wrestling.

Yukari Nakamura, 36, a homemaker with five children who lives nearby, sometimes visits the gym.

Although she was proud of her strength because she had “never lost in arm wrestling,” Nakamura was defeated by Nao Yamashita, 24, a company employee who trains with Ashikaga.

Nakamura also tasted defeat at the hands of Ashikaga.

“I have to improve the position of the elbow and the way to twist the wrist,” Nakamura said. “That will be difficult, but I will defeat them someday.”

Ashikaga said people can simply run or strengthen their muscles at her gym, but she hopes “those who visit will try arm wrestling once.”

Ashikaga said she believes that remaining a top athlete will help empower the women at the gym.

“Women often give up something when they marry or give birth,” Ashikaga said. “I would like women who, like me, once failed to do what they really wanted to do to train and interact with me so they can receive a good opportunity to start something.”

The gym is open to women from 6 p.m. through 9 p.m. on Wednesdays for 500 yen ($4.56) per use.