KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A young wrestler dubbed “Little Miss Sumo” is fighting sexism in the ancient Japanese sport, hoping to inspire other women to step into the ring and elevate sumo to Olympic status.
Hiyori Kon is the focus of a new Netflix documentary “Little Miss Sumo”, which tracked her attempts to take on sporting inequality in a society that lags on all manner of women’s rights.
Popularly regarded as Japan’s national sport, sumo pits two giant wrestlers, clad only in loinclothes, in a test of brawn and skill waged - with crouches and charges - inside a ring floored with clay and edged with straw bales.
But tradition in a sport that began more than 1,500 years ago forbids women from entering the ring as the space is sacred and any female presence is considered a pollutant.
“Even if you are faced with someone who is big and strong - it’s not something to run away from, but engage with - like in the sumo way,” said 22-year-old Kon when asked how other wannabe but wary women wrestlers should take up the sport.
“There are so many possibilities and things that sumo opens up for you. It is just a wonderful sport,” Kon, a sumo prodigy and student at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone on Wednesday.
Conservative Japan lags far behind other big powers when it comes to gender equality, ranking 110th of 149 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap report.
Long work hours favor men, politics is male dominated, incomes are unequal and tradition favors a wife working for home and husband as her top job.
Be it intimate groping on packed trains, sexual violence in manga or the glorification of geisha, women are subjected to widespread sexual stereotyping.
Sport is no more immune - and none more so than sumo.
Last year the Japan Sumo Association, which does not let women compete professionally, had to apologize when female medics were asked to leave a sumo ring where they were treating a local official who had collapsed.
The action of the referee reignited a debate about sumo’s ingrained sexism and drew sharp media criticism.
The rule that bars “unclean” women from the ring has also prevented female politicians from handing out awards there.
Most female wrestlers quit after elementary school, said Kon, who was born in the sumo-mad prefecture of Aomori.
“I began practicing sumo when I was six,” she said. “All my brothers and sisters took part and that’s how I took an interest.”
Kon rarely lost a match as a child new to the sport - against boys and girls alike - and at university she became the third woman to join the sumo club.
The trio was spotted by a filmmaker who was so intrigued by their passion, he decided to document Kon’s story.
“Of those three, maybe I looked the most sumo-like,” said a smiling Kon, who graduates in March.
“When I first saw them film, it surprised me how cool sumo looks ... it (showed) the charm of sumo and it can become even more popular. It really is my life ambition to make it an Olympic sport.”
Released globally on Netflix on Monday, “Little Miss Sumo” shows growing momentum in Japan for women’s rights.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promoted policies to raise the status of women in a society that values traditional femininity.
Kon was one of two Japanese women listed this month as one of the BBC’s 100 most inspiring and influential women for 2019.
The other was Yumi Ishikawa, an actor and writer who won the support of thousands of Japanese women for her #KuToo movement to stop bosses making women wear high heels.
Women are questioning a host of other confines, be it at work or home, and Kon said her campaign was just one more push.
“Sumo wrestling is a tool of self-expression,” said Kon. “It is something in that way can open up possibilities for people in the future.”
Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org