Year 2000 Men/Women Equality Debate in Japan

Japan’s first female governor wants women in the sumo ring – after all, it’s the 21st century

As we greet the year 2000 a fight is underway in Japan to change old ways and move into the new century. Japan’s first female regional governor is challenging sumo wrestlers to lift a centuries-old ban on allowing women into the sacred ring.

The governor of the western prefecture of Osaka is traditionally expected to step into the clay circle, known as a "dohyo," to hand over an annual award from the region to the sumo champion in March. But for the first time, the Osaka governor is a woman. This is causing a debate. You see, women are not allowed to step into the ring.

Governor Fusae Ota was just just elected and the victory has left the tradition-laden Japanese Sumo Association in a quandary. The governor is suppose to present the award, but this time the governor, by law, isn’t allowed to get into the ring.

The last time such a battle flared was in 1990, when the first female chief cabinet secretary, Mayumi Moriyama, wanted to give the Prime Minister's Cup to a sumo champion in the ring. Despite the seniority of her position, she lost the fight against the sumo supremos.

But "10 years have passed since then and we are now approaching the 21st century," Ota was quoted as telling reporters Tuesday. "Professional sumo is a traditional national sport and I believe it will develop in the future by getting broader support. "Now that I have become the first female governor, I want to question it (the men-only rule)," she said.

But Ota, a 48-year-old former trade ministry bureaucrat, faces a tough match. The men of Japan are not ready to give up their traditions.

"We want to maintain the traditional culture and hope Governor Ota will understand this point," an association spokesman told reporters while reading out a statement by sumo association chairman Tokitsukaze.

The association's in-house code restricts entry into professional sumo rings, including judges and wrestlers, to "men who have finished mandatory school education". Since 1953, Osaka's governor has given a certificate of merit and trophy to the winner of the March tournament, one of six 15-day professional sumo competitions held every year around Japan.

The Osaka government official has no idea of how to solve this problem just yet, without giving up that male-only custom. The issue is definitely causing some heated debate in Japan. Someone on one side or the other is going to have to make a move to compromise. The award ceremony in next month and that doesn’t leave a lot of time for discussion.

In sumo, two wrestlers are pitted against each other. The winner is the first to either push his opponent out of the ring or make him fall over.

(Source: Associated Press)

DATE: 2/11/2000

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