TOKYO >> Sumo wrestling, one of Japan’s oldest and most hallowed sports, has all kinds of inviolable rituals. The wrestlers must wear their hair in carefully coifed topknots. Before every match, they scatter grains of purifying salt. And women are never, ever, allowed in the ring.
Even when a man’s life is at stake.
Sumo’s discriminatory practices came under new scrutiny after a referee shooed women out of a ring at an exhibition match in Kyoto on Wednesday when they rushed to offer lifesaving measures to a politician who had collapsed while delivering a speech.
The news dominated television talk shows and social media today, with a video of the episode — in which a referee could repeatedly be heard over a loudspeaker yelling, “Women, come out of the ring” — attracting more than 800,000 views on YouTube and a fusillade of criticism.
“Believing that tradition is more important than human lives is like a cult that mistakes fundamentalism for tradition,” Yoshinori Kobayashi, a popular comic book artist, wrote on his blog.
In a country that consistently ranks low among developed countries on gender equality in health, education, the economy and politics, the episode was seen as a metaphor for how women are regarded in Japan.
“We are reminded that, ahh, there are some parts of Japan that still just don’t get it,” said Emma Dalton, a specialist in Japanese and a lecturer at the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia.
Women in Japan face myriad obstacles to equality. A law requiring that married couples share a surname means that the vast majority of women must give up their names after their weddings. Japan has one of the world’s worst records for women in politics. Women cannot sit on the Imperial throne. Earlier in the week, news emerged of a private day care center where a supervisor scolded a female employee for reportedly getting pregnant before it was her “turn.”
“I think that both men and women in Japan are reluctant to change both the workplace and tradition,” said Kumiko Nemoto, a professor of sociology at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. “And then they use the name of tradition in order not to change things.”
The women called out of the ring at the sumo event included a nurse from the audience who rushed onto the dohyo, as the straw ring is known, to administer CPR to the fallen politician.
Ryozo Tatami, mayor of Maizuru, a city of about 84,000 people in Kyoto prefecture, was giving a speech when he had a brain hemorrhage and collapsed.
In the video, it appears that several male sumo staff members gathered around Tatami before the female nurse arrived to start CPR. Three other women also rushed to help. When the referee told them to leave, the women backed off, causing confusion and scuffling around the patient.
It appeared from the video that a man took over CPR before male emergency workers from the Fire Department arrived. Tatami was taken to a hospital for surgery, where he remains in stable condition.
Most of the reaction on Twitter criticized the referee for calling the women out of the ring.
“This seems to present the crazy image of Japanese values that old-fashioned Westerners fantasize about,” one Twitter user wrote.
But some commenters defended the tradition, even if they acknowledged that the referee should have made an exception for the emergency. One such Twitter user fretted that “crazy feminists will take advantage of this.”
Historians trace sumo’s roots to harvest rituals associated with the Shinto religion. Various theories exist as to why women are barred from the ring. One theory suggests that sumo matches were originally put on to entertain the goddesses of the harvest, and farmers believed that women in the ring would invoke the jealousy and rage of the goddesses, who would spoil the harvest.
Ceremonies resembling sumo matches were performed in the Japanese Imperial courts as far back as the eighth century, and during the Edo period, which ran from the 17th to mid-19th century, organizers began charging admission to sumo bouts.
Women then were generally not admitted even as paying spectators, although there are some historical references to female wrestlers and referees.
Today’s tradition of barring women from the ring is as much a habit as anything else, said Lee Thompson, a professor of sports science at Waseda University who has researched sumo.
“The people who are in charge now say that’s the way it was as they remember it, and they just want to keep it the way it is,” Thompson said.
The tradition has been tested before. In 1990, Mayumi Moriyama, the first female chief Cabinet secretary to a Japanese prime minister, was banned from giving a trophy at a Tokyo tournament, and in 2000, the sumo association prohibited Fusae Ota, the first female governor of Osaka — and throughout Japan — from awarding a trophy during a sumo tournament in the city.
Both incidents drew controversy, but the tradition remained.
Sumo is very popular among women, who make up about half of most tournament audiences. In 2014, the national sumo association hosted a promotional event where women could get their photos taken in the arms of sumo wrestlers. More than 8,000 women applied for six slots.
After the outcry following Wednesday’s incident, Nobuyoshi Hakkaku, chairman of the Japan Sumo Association, issued a statement thanking the woman who “quickly provided emergency measures” and apologizing for the referee who told her and the other women to leave the ring.
“It was not an appropriate response,” Hakkaku said.
Women’s advocates said they hoped this episode would ignite a debate about the tradition.
“Such sexist conduct shouldn’t be forgiven,” said Mari Miura, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.
The reputation of sumo wrestling has already been battered in recent months by a string of scandals involving assaults by senior champions on junior wrestlers.
But the scandals have not dented enthusiasm for the sport, and analysts say the sumo association will have little incentive to change.
“They need public pressure from the outside,” said Yasuaki Muto, a professor of sports science at Waseda University. “Because so far they are quite successful despite various scandals and the seats are pretty much full in every tournament; there is no motivation for them to reform.”