Photo/Illutration Kokona Hasegawa engages in a “butsukari-geiko” training session in Tsugaru, Aomori Prefecture, on Nov. 17. (Kohei Watanabe)

TSUGARU, Aomori Prefecture--Kokona Hasegawa was no match for the boys when she joined a sumo club here seven years ago.

But she became captivated by the traditional male-dominated sport because a small wrestler can unexpectedly defeat a larger opponent and because bouts are decided in a clear-cut manner.

She is now preparing to go all out to clinch the top spot in the junior high school division of a national female sumo championship to be held in Tokyo on Jan. 1 after finishing second and third at two national tournaments this year.

“I want to do all I can to become the national champion,” said Kokona, a third-year student at the city-run Kizukuri Junior High School. “I hope to see more women take up sumo as they see my bouts.”

She is the only female member among the eight elementary and junior high school students who belong to the Tsugaru Asahifuji Junior Club. At 170 centimeters tall, however, she doesn’t look any weaker than her male counterparts.

The prestigious club was founded in tribute to former yokozuna Asahifuji, currently stablemaster Isegahama, who hails from the city. Its members train at a sumo practice ground of the Kizukuri Junior High School, from which Asahifuji graduated.

Over the years, Aomori Prefecture has produced many great wrestlers, including Mainoumi, a former komusubi known for using an array of techniques against opponents much larger than himself.

Kokona started practicing sumo at the Tsugaru Asahifuji Junior Club when she was an elementary school second-grader. Her brother, two years her senior, belonged to the club.

She honed her skills particularly on an offensive move known as “migi-sashi,” in which she puts her right arm under her opponent’s left armpit. The move enables her to force her opponent out of the ring immediately after the initial charge.

She won second place in the individual division of a national tournament when she was an elementary school fifth-grader and third place at another national tournament when she was a sixth-grader.

While the Kizukuri Junior High School has no sumo club, Kokona intended to continue her training on the dohyo she had grown attached to.

But when she entered the school, she found herself unable to practice sumo with her peers due to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Kokona kept practicing on her own every day, making the “shiko” foot stomping movement 200 times and going back and forth across the dohyo 12 times while squatting and sliding her feet along the ground.

She was driven by her belief that she could compete again when pandemic restrictions were eased.

She used a punching bag propped up against a wall to improve her signature migi-sashi move. She repeatedly rammed into the bag with her right arm first.

At long last in February this year, Kokona and her peers were allowed to resume practicing together.

“It was fun after a long while. But the boys had become stronger and that made me worried,” she said with a smile.

She knocked the rust off as she fought 15 bouts a day against the boys and engaged 10 times in a row in a grueling and exhausting “butsukari-geiko” training session.

In July, Kokona placed second in the individual division of a national sumo championship for elementary and junior high school girls held in Gifu, her first competition after entering junior high school.

She went on to rank third in the individual division of a national junior high school female sumo championship held in Kyoto Prefecture in October.

She is not satisfied with the results, however.

Kokona is training against the boys to bring her final competition as a junior high school student to a successful conclusion on New Year’s Day.

Kokona Hasegawa, center, with elementary and junior high school students who practice with her at the Tsugaru Asahifuji Junior Club in Tsugaru, Aomori Prefecture, on Nov. 17 (Kohei Watanabe)