Kumamoto: Female Wrestlers Deliver Humor to Community

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Sumiko Shiroshita, right, celebrates her victory in Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture.

YATSUSHIRO, Kumamoto — A traditional women’s sumo event is held annually on Oct. 5 in Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture, where local women enter the ring in sumo wrestler-like attire to fight each other.

It is a sacred ritual of Ryu Shrine in the city’s Sencho district, but often there are shrill cheers and joyful laughter punctuating the background of a judge’s shout of “nokotta, nokotta.”

“The event has been bringing brightness to the community,” one of the wrestlers, Sumie Sakata, 75, said with a smile.

Sakata is a head member of the Sencho district’s sumo event preservation group, which was established about 70 years ago. Currently, 14 members in their 40s to 80s are a part of the group. Sakata herself has been participating in the event for about 35 years.

To look the part, the female wrestlers stuff towels around their stomach to make themselves look bigger and apply thick eyebrows and chest hair to add to the humor.

“I never hesitate to do it. The most important thing is for everyone to have fun,” said Sumiko Shiroshita, 81, who joined the event under the ring name Kumagawa, named after the local Kuma River.

According to the Yatsushiro city government, the origin of the event is said to be a reclamation project at the end of the Edo period (1603-1867), where ritual sumo wrestlers were gathered from the surrounding villages to complete the project. In the district, women have somehow become the performers of the ritual.

Yukie Noguchi, 42, the youngest member, became interested in the event, knowing that her mother, Akemi Nishimoto, 63, was a participant. Noguchi joined the group about five years ago together with an old classmate.

She admitted that she still feels embarrassed when attending the annual event. But she said she finds herself happy when she is chatting with other members and asking them for help with child care.

“I feel joy in the connection with the other members,” she said.

The women’s sumo group has a long history, but it also has its own problem — a lack of young successors.

“I’m glad that people are impressed when they see our performance for the first time,” Sakata said. Adding with renewed resolution, “We will carry on the tradition of women’s sumo.”

■Sign of women’s status

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Women dressed like sumo wrestlers glare at each other in the ring.

Sumo wrestling has often caused controversy as it does not allow women in the ring. Nevertheless, Kumamoto Prefecture has another district where women are involved in sumo.

Shimobaru women’s sumo preservation group in Nishiki of the prefecture has about 20 members in their 20s to 80s. Every few years, the group performs as one of the programs in a local festival.

“We want to bring energy to the people,” said Kimiko Morita, 75, the leader of the group.

Yoshie Kamei, a researcher at Seijo University’s Institute of Folklore Studies, suggested that women’s sumo began to spread in Kyushu in the late Meiji era (1868-1912), when women’s sumo troupes visited Kyushu on a tour. She said that women’s sumo had initially developed in the Tohoku region as a form of entertainment.

“The fact that women’s sumo is accepted is a sign of women’s status being recognized in the community,” Kamei said.