Japan female mayor battles men-only sumo rule

Tokyo (AFP) –


A female mayor at the centre of a fierce debate over allowing women into the sumo ring vowed Thursday never to back down as she lodged a formal protest.

"I won't give up this time around... I'm determined to make a petition every six months," Tomoko Nakagawa told AFP before taking her case to the sumo authorities in Tokyo.

"I want them never to leave this issue vague. I want the association to hear this voice clearly and start a debate on a review" of the practice of not allowing women into the sumo ring.

Nakagawa later held a 30-minute meeting with senior sumo officials to urge them to treat men and women equally at ceremonies and events.

The officials told her the ban on women entering the ring was "tradition but not discrimination" but promised to discuss the issue at a meeting of executive officials, Nakagawa told reporters after the closed-door meeting.

Nakagawa said the officials were "sincere" and "gentle" but she also felt a "strong" determination to respect the status quo".

The association was not immediately available for comment.

The issue hit the headlines nationally and internationally when women, including at least one nurse, were shooed out of a sumo ring as they tried to help a man during a medical emergency.

In footage that was widely broadcast on national news bulletins, several women rushed into the ring in Maizuru, northwest of Kyoto, after a local mayor collapsed while giving a speech.

But as the women attempted to help the mayor, multiple announcements were made over loudspeakers asking them to leave the ring.

The rings where sumo is practised, known as sumo dohyo, are seen as sacred places.

Sumo is closely interlinked with the native Shinto faith, which considers women to be ritually unclean, meaning they are barred from stepping into the ring.

But Nakagawa, the administrative head of the western city of Takarazuka, described this as "discrimination".

"While emphasising sumo's prestige and its being the 'national' sport, they are ousting women to promote nationalism," she told AFP.

She has been battling for the right to make a speech from the sumo ring, something her male counterparts have regularly done.

Earlier this month, Nakagawa lost her fight to speak from a sumo ring but slammed the ban as she delivered a speech from a podium outside the ring.

"I'm a female mayor but I am a human being ... but because I am a woman, despite being a mayor, I cannot make a speech in the ring."

"It is regrettable and mortifying," she said, drawing cheers from the crowd.

Two days later, a male mayor delivered a speech from a ring.

- 'Safety concerns' -

Citing "tradition" is just a way of keeping a lid on discussing the habit, Nakagawa said.

"Japanese society has been putting off discussions on issues that should be discussed," said Nakagawa, one of only 19 female mayors among around 700 cities across the country.

"If you don't change unreasonable things, Japan will forever be lagging behind when it comes to women's issues," she told reporters.

The head of the sumo association, who goes by the name Hakkaku, apologised after the female nurses were ordered to leave the ring, describing it as "an inappropriate act" in a situation that involved someone's health.

But the association sparked fresh controversy after it requested girls be prevented from participating in sumo events, citing "safety concerns".

Other than the long-standing "tradition", there has been no clear reason given by the association for the ban on allowing women inside the ring.

"Sumo is not for people with a specific religion. It is a national sport," stressed Nakagawa.

"I can't understand that it is only the sumo world that refuses to change or is even going backwards," she added.

"This is the beginning of a battle... men deliver speeches on the dohyo and women do it from below. This is embarrassing," she added.