A recent controversy in Japan relating to women and tradition stems from a life-threatening incident on dohyo, a Sumo ring on a square, earthen mound-like platform where wrestlers, clad only in a loincloth-like belt, compete for muscle power and technique. There are 6 major Sumo tournaments annually held in odd months: those held in January, May and September take place in Tokyo, while the rest are organized in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka chronologically. In between these tournaments, the Japan Sumo Association arranges tours in smaller cities to enable their residents to enjoy exciting matches in front of their very eyes.
The incident took place when Mr. Ryozo Tatami, the mayor of Maizuru, near Kyoto, was delivering his speech on dohyo on April 4th at one of such tours. He suddenly collapsed, apparently of heart attack. What followed was widely televised on news. Several men rushed onto the ring and knelt down around the mayor lying flat on his back, but they seemed totally helpless, not knowing what should be done next. Seeing those men in utter confusion, two women, apparently medics in the audience, rushed and got onto the ring. Initially they seemed hesitant to get involved, but seeing the men doing nothing useful, they pushed them aside and started performing the artificial resuscitation (AR) procedures. Even if an ambulance had been called, the AR procedures had to be performed immediately and continuously till the arrival of emergency medical servicemen (EMS), if a life is to be saved. However, while the women were hard at trying to save the mayor, an announcement was made repeatedly over a loud speaker, ordering women to get down from the ring.
Everyone heard the male voice loud and clear. The women seemed a bit hesitant, but eventually ignored the order and continued the AR procedure until the arrival of EMS. Thanks to the action taken by these women who knew exactly what had to be done in such a situation, the mayor’s life was saved. Though what came after this incident was not on TV news, it was reported that the association’s staff had sprinkled lots of salt over the ring (http://bbc.com/news/world-asia-43652428, including the above photo) . Salt is traditionally used in Japan to drive evil spirit away or to cleanse/purify oneself/space after getting dirtied or engaging in actions linked to what is considered as impurity, including death (e.g. I had to follow the custom in my native area of cleaning hands with salt upon returning home from the cremation of my father I attended in 1971.).
The women audience must have been offended by this act as it seemed to have implied that the association had considered that its “sacred” ring had been dirtied by the women who had been on it and thus the space had to be purified. After TV viewers heard the announcement while watching the news of the women’s laudable action, the Sumo association was reported to have been bombarded by calls of criticism from both men and women for its clinging to the archaic tradition even in time of emergency. So the president of the association had to issue a statement apologizing for the announcement which, he admitted, had been inappropriate in that situation.
However, the association is still adamant in its position of keeping women away from the ring. Soon after the incident in Maizuru, the Sumo tour moved on to Takarazuka, not far from Kobe, where its mayor, Ms. Tomoko Nakagawa, was forced to stand on a podium outside dohyo to deliver her opening speech. Apparently, she had tried to have the association agree to have her stand in the ring, but the latter did not budge. The mayor found it discriminatory and humiliating, but the association defended its position of observing the “sacred” tradition, which, it said, had nothing to do with discrimination (from the article “Japan female mayor battles men-only sumo rule” appearing on The Straits Times, April 24, 2018).
The issue is nothing new. Back in 1990, Ms. Mayumi Moriyama, the first woman Cabinet Secretary under Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu had planned to hand out, on behalf of the prime minister, the PM’s cup to the winner of the January tournament in Tokyo. However, the association refused her, citing the tradition. A similar incident took place in Osaka in 2000 involving Ms. Fusae Ohta, then governor of Osaka (http://huffingtonpost.jp/20180404/sumou-women_a_23403382/). As far as this controversy is concerned, nothing has changed for decades.
What is then so sacred about dohyo that the Sumo association wants to keep it off-limit to women at all cost when all traditions around us gradually change and adapt to new situation? The popular belief is that Sumo, considered as Japan’s national sport, originated from rituals of Shintoism which is a collection of native beliefs and mythology, worshipping multitude of spirits, including war heroes, and practiced at various occasions such as harvest festivals (Wikipedia). Shinto faith is also popularly known to have associated blood with impurity, thus women have been considered to be ritually unclean because of menstruation and child birth. But, if men seriously believe women to be the sex of impurity, I question their mental soundness as we all, both men and women, were covered with blood when we came out of mother’s womb. After all, blood should be considered as a sign of life.
This controversy brought back my memory from half a century ago when I was a university student in the US. I once followed a cultural anthropology course given by a Pakistani professor. I remember him telling us about an old tradition in his native society where girls/women had to remain in a special house during their menstruation. If I remember him correctly, the reason for isolating such women was also due to linking blood to impurity. It might be a bit understandable that women in olden days without effective feminine napkins or tampons available to them had been obliged to stay in a special location during the period.
Another memory in relation to this issue stems from my first visit to a Hindu temple in Bali, Indonesia during my 3-year stint in Jakarta in the late 1980s. After visiting a vocational training project implemented by my office, I had some free time before flying back to Jakarta, so decided to visit a temple. When I arrived at the gate, however, I was disappointed by a sign in both Bahasa Indonesia and English, barring menstruating women from entering the temple ground. Though feeling a bit uneasy as I was indeed having my period at that time, I decided to enter the temple ground anyway. I was sure that I would not dirty the premises and was convinced that Hindu deities would not reject any visitors in modern age.
Another view explaining Sumo’s tradition of barring women from the ring is held by some historians who link its origin to Shugendoh. It is “an amalgamation of beliefs, philosophies, doctrines and ritual systems drawn from local folk-religious practices, pre-Buddhist mountain worship, Shintoism, Taoism and esoteric Buddhism, evolved during the 7th century” in Japan (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shugendo). One such historian is Yuhji Seki, who thinks the Sumo association does not even understand where its “tradition” comes from, which, he thinks, is the reason behind the confusion (http://blogos.com/article/295570/?p=2).
According to Seki, Shugendoh’s practitioners have worshipped mountains as the source of mother land with abundance and good harvest. They have also believed mountain kami (or god) to be female who would feel jealous if women were on it. For that reason, women in the past were indeed forbidden to climb many high mountains. He considers dohyo as a symbolic representation of mountain, and for that reason, the Japan Sumo association still clings to that tradition and prohibits women from getting on it. In other words, he believes that the practice of worshipping mountain goddess has been the basis behind the exclusion of women from the ring.
Whatever the explanation suggested, I feel that there was no justification on the part of the Sumo association for having treated Ms. Nakagawa the way it had as we live in the 21st century. It was sexual discrimination, simple and plain. She is apparently determined to have this situation changed by making a petition every six months (The Straits Times, op. cit.). I fully support her effort as nothing will change regarding women’s issues in Japan unless we raise our voices against unfair treatment by men who justify their stance with archaic “tradition” which they don’t even understand where it originated.