TOKYO — As the coach sprinkled salt on the ground, the wrestlers teetered from side to side, stomping a left foot to the ground, then a right.

“Ichi,” squeaked 7-year-old Himeka Suzuki, counting the first step of her shiko exercise.

Ni,” she said, announcing her second.

“San …”

They would do 100 of these before practice even started, the girls stomping right next to the boys, on equal footing for now.

The boys were bare-skinned, except for the loincloths wrapping their groin areas. Himeka wore black pants and a yellow shirt beneath her mawashi. The boys could dream about professional sumo careers, fame and riches. Himeka and the girls have no such aspirations. One wants to be a doctor. Another, a teacher.

Professional sumo wrestling isn’t an option for them — a fact that has brought the sport to a cultural crossroads. Despite a surge of female wrestlers getting into the ring as amateurs, mainstream acceptance and fan interest still lag. Yet these female wrestlers — unheralded, unknown and in many places still unwelcome — may hold the key to sumo wrestling breaking onto the global stage.

When the Olympics take place in Tokyo this summer, the country’s signature and most sacred pastime won’t be on display. Efforts to add sumo to the Olympics stalled years ago. And although progress has been made more recently, it’s slow-going, largely because sumo is still seen as a man’s undertaking. That’s especially true in Japan, which has been reluctant to embrace female competitors and has wrestled with gender equity issues across its culture.

In the ritual-filled, sacrosanct world of sumo, even recent strides leave female wrestlers far behind their male counterparts. Men compete as professionals, gaining fame and continuing in the sport often into their early 30s. Women wrestle as amateurs, and their careers end not long after turning 20. For now, anyway, that means the girls in this Tokyo dojo don’t have the same opportunities as the boys stomping next to them.

“It’s all about the incentives, I think,” said Munehiko Harada, a professor of sports management at Waseda University. “The woman who is 21 years old starts sumo, [and] everybody starts laughing: ‘Why? For what?’ ”

‘It’s a tradition’

The Ota Arashi dojo is in the middle of Heiwa no Mori Park, a sprawling green space filled with athletic facilities. Rain pattered outside as the students — six girls and seven boys — stomped their bare feet during a recent practice, symbolically scaring off bad spirits and counting as they went. Then they entered the clay ring, crisscrossing the circle, some gliding like dancers, others clomping like toddlers in a rain puddle.

Among them was Maho Yoshizawa, who at 16 is probably the dojo’s brightest star. She weighs just 110 pounds but is as powerful as some oversize male professionals, her coaches joke. She has been wrestling for a decade, and in October she won a national title at a tournament in Osaka. But she still faces questions about why she competes, including from her own grandmother. Sumo is not a sport for girls, grandma says.

“It’s difficult for some seniors," said Maho’s mother, Yumiko. "Still even now.”

Maho harbors no yokozuna fantasies; she knows she wouldn’t even be allowed in sumo’s most hallowed rings. Her version of the sport is different from professional sumo, stripped of any pageantry and focused more on athletic competition. Professional sumo is steeped in ancient Shinto rituals and conjures familiar images of giant, tussling men, their hair in buns, their bellies in abundance.

“It’s just like Kabuki,” says Maho, referring to Japanese theater. “It’s a tradition.”

Sumo is intricately woven into Japanese culture, its Shinto traditions connecting different dynasties and epochs. In modern-day Japan, baseball is more popular to watch, and judo has more participants. But sumo is still revered, particularly among older generations and especially for its strict adherence to tradition.

Women are traditionally not even allowed in the ring, which is considered a sacred place. The sport’s purists take this seriously. Last year, a local government leader was giving a speech from a ring in Kyoto when he collapsed. Several women rushed to his aid, but they were ordered out of the ring by a referee, for fear they would desecrate the hallowed space.

These traditions make it difficult for women to make inroads in the sport, which in turn has limited the sport’s global reach. The sport’s backers have worked for decades to add sumo to the Summer Games. But those efforts were complicated in 1991, when the International Olympic Committee ruled that any new sports must also feature women’s events.

The ruling didn’t upend centuries of tradition overnight, but it did force the sport’s unwavering guardians to finally make concessions. In 1997, Japan hosted its first national competition for women. Two decades later, in 2018, the IOC formally recognized the International Sumo Federation, a first step toward the sport someday being considered for the Summer Games.

“Our future is bright,” Shinsaku Takeuchi, president of Japan Women’s Sumo Federation, said in a recent email.

There are about 20,000 female sumo wrestlers in the world, Takeuchi estimated. But only about 3,000 of them are in Japan. Many of the top female competitors are from Russia or Eastern Europe. In Japan, the men have their matches televised nationally and are considered celebrities. The women’s matches generate little media coverage. Even the best female wrestlers compete in anonymity.

“People — they don’t like the fat women, right?” Harada, the sports management professor, said with a laugh. “It’s kind of trend in society — skinnier the better.”

Japanese women also face a variety of cultural pressures, said Kumiko Nemoto, a professor of sociology at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. On top of academic expectations and familial demands at home, there are more opportunities — and lingering obstacles — for women seeking to advance their careers and find leadership positions in government. But there’s little movement for them to break into traditionally male-dominated subcultures, including sumo.

“The number of women who are ambitious and academically high achieving is increasing, and they are more professionally motivated than the older generation, definitely,” Nemoto said. “But they probably are still very reluctant to describe themselves as a feminist.”

So many young girls simply gravitate toward other pursuits, choosing activities that better represent what Japanese culture has traditionally valued in women. “It’s not really cute or pretty,” Nemoto said of sumo.

“I think sports in the U.S. is a very big thing,” she added. “Everybody’s kind of encouraged to participate in some kind of sports and be active. In Japan, it’s not, which is very sad. There’s so much emphasis on appearance and everything, but not really internal strength or independence or physical strength.”

A two-sport solution

The female wrestlers in the Ota Arashi dojo squatted in the center of the ring, sometimes staring down other girls, other times squaring off with boys. As they clashed, their coach barked instructions in Japanese.

“Keep pushing! Be more aggressive! Move forward!”

Takamitsu Sekiguchi, 45, stalked the gym in a New York Yankees T-shirt, Crocs and a knee brace wrapped over sweatpants. He still carries some of the excess weight from his career as a professional sumo wrestler, which began after middle school. There were no women when he started three decades ago; back then, he never would’ve encouraged them to pursue the sport. “I would have said, ’Just enjoy watching it,' ” he said.

After a steady but unremarkable career, he returned to the dojo to teach, and his feelings began to change. Young girls showed dedication and passion that often outmatched their male counterparts, and Sekiguchi started to realize the sport needed to be more accepting. Today, many young boys are hesitant to take up the sport, “embarrassed about showing their bottoms," he said. "Or people don’t want to become fat.”

For the sport to grow, and for his dojo to flourish, it can’t afford to create barriers. He thinks there’s room in Japan for two versions of the sport: one filled with rituals and theatrics — and only men — and one that is open to both genders and focused on athleticism and competition.

“That way, the tradition can be observed by the professional sumo group," he said. "And in the meantime, sumo as a sport can prosper separately.”

In October, Sekiguchi was in Osaka for the national tournament where his 16-year-old student, Maho, won her national title. He watched another star pupil there, 22-year-old Seika Izawa, take second place. But as Izawa prepares to finish school at Tokyo Gakugei University, she and her coach know her sumo days are numbered.

Cultural shifts happen slowly here, Izawa said, so the day that male and female sumo wrestlers are treated as equals in Japan remains a long way off. “The situation is changing along with the changing of the times,” she said.

With the Olympics here this summer, highlighting both male and female athletes, activists hope Japanese girls will tune in and be inspired to pursue athletic dreams, including in sumo. And while the sport won’t be formally included in the Summer Games, the government and Tokyo 2020 officials are expected to showcase the sport to out-of-town visitors as a treasured cultural activity.

“Just like any other sports or any other thing, if more people start to do it, then that can change the perceptions. That’s what’s happening here,” said Ken Nakatani, president of the Ota Arashi dojo and a former professional sumo wrestler. “If you see people play sumo, there’s less sense of embarrassment and more sense of, ‘I can do it.’ I believe unless women participate, things don’t change.”

In the ring that day, the young wrestlers battled for leverage, grunting and tugging, pushing one another like tiny bulldozers grinding their gears.

Clashing against a boy her age, 7-year-old Himeka clenched her eyes shut. She gripped the mawashi around the boy’s waist but struggled to gain leverage. When her foe went low and drove her outside the ring, Himeka began to cry.

“Why are you crying?” asked Sekiguchi, the coach. “You’re doing much better than before.”

Himeka put her hands on her hips and took a deep breath. She wiped away the tears, pursed her lips and hustled to the back of the line to try again.

Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.

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