When you think about sumo wrestling, what's the first thought that comes to your mind? How about the second? For me, it's E. Honda from Street Fighter, immediately followed by the WWF's Yokozuna. E. Honda's a fictional character, but at least he's Japanese, and Yokozuna was of Polynesian descent and never even competed in sumotori.
So it's safe to say, I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to the sport.
Bu even with my little knowledge of sumo and its history, what I do know is that traditionally, it's a men's only sport, and people really want to keep it that way. Which is something that Hiyori Kon in Little Miss Sumo is trying to change.
If you've watched sumo events, then you know what to expect: two larger-than-life men in loincloths slapping and ramming each other silly until one either gets thrown to the ground or tossed out of a circular ring. What you might not know is that sumo is an old sport. Like, really, really old. Like over 2,000 years old - and it's heavily steeped in traditions that are religious in origin (Shintoism) and it's something that everyone who participates in the sport takes very, very seriously.
So to fly in the face of tradition is a huge cultural no-no. There's a reason why people are still rocking the mawashi (loin cloths) despite the fact that staring at butt-floss while grown men tackle each other could be viewed as a questionable past-time. There's a reason why sumo stables still exist, where the men eat, breathe, and sleep training for years at a time, and lower-ranked sumo wrestlers are required to get up early to clean and cook for everyone else while training.
There's a reason why referees are given swords - their dedication to the job is considered a lifetime commitment. That's because sumo refs must swear to take their own life if they fudge a decision.
Although it's unlikely a referee's ever done that, sumo referees take their jobs seriously to this day, and they wear traditional clothes themselves, much like the combatants. In fact, if you are non-Japanese and want to be a sumo wrestler, you need to learn the language and adhere to all the same rules and regulations as any other Rikishi.
Your behavior is closely monitored by the sumo association as well. You can't show joy at winning, nor can you taunt your opponent. You need to be soft-spoken in interviews or any public appearances and can only live outside of a sumo stable if you're married. Like I said, there's a reason for all this: it's because sumo is absolutely obsessed with tradition.
Which is why Hiyori Kon and the group of female Sumo wrestlers in Little Miss Sumo are such trailblazers.
Who is Hiyori Kon from Little Miss Sumo?
The short Netflix documentary focuses on the 20-year-old's race to change female sumo competition rules to pursue her dream of being a professional Rikishi. Traditional rules stipulate that women sumo wrestlers must retire by the age of 21, well before they hit their competitive prime. Hiyori hopes that female sumo will become more popular so athletes who practiced the sport can do it professionally.
The film opens with Hiyori talking about the "demoralizing" effects of growing up a young girl who was obsessed with sumo, knowing that her male counterparts would be able to grow up to partake in the sport that they love and pursue a career in it, but she'd never be able to: "Boys can aspire to be professional wrestlers. They can easily see a future in sumo. After elementary school, girls tend to quit. There weren’t that many wrestlers little girls could look up to," Hiyori says.
Director Matt Kay is receiving tons of praise for his work on the short documentary, by delving deep not only into the history of sexism and sumo, but of some more unexpected revelations regarding the sport's culture. Like the fact that wrestlers often make fat jokes about themselves. When told by a physical therapist that knee injuries are the most common for Rikishi, Hiyori smiles and says, "Because we're too fat?" When the all female team boards the plane to Taiwan one says, "I'm scared the plane might crash because we're too heavy."
The exclusion of women from Sumo isn't just because there isn't demand for a women's league, but that many of the rituals in the sport view women as "impure." A local Japanese mayor had collapsed in the ring at a tournament. Female EMTs came into the ring to tend to him, only to be met with demands from the referee that they leave immediately. When they did, salt was thrown on the ground of the ring to "purify it" of the presence of women.
What's most touching about the film and Hiyori's struggle is that while she is a Sumo prodigy and very talented, it's evident that she isn't just looking for glory or notoriety - she loves the competition so much and hopes to open up opportunities for other women: "I believe that as a result of my hard work, women’s sumo will stop facing discrimination. I will continue to strive for it with that belief," Hiyori says.
Little Miss Sumo is now streaming on Netflix.