TOKYO, JAPAN -- Two hefty Amazons, dressed in regulation coarse cotton
blouses, shorts and a length of thick, broad girdle which is wound several
times around their ample waists and between their limbs, and knotted in the
rear, slam into each other like charging hippos in a hard, dirt ring. The
loser will either be pushed, lilted or hurled out of the circle in a matter
Or, she can be tripped or thrown to the ground.
In any case, a sumo bout is short and rarely goes beyond a few minutes. The
initial impact would knock the breath out of an ordinary female but the
protagonists are no examples of genteel Japanese womanhood.
They are women wrestlers against whom the average male wouldn't stand a
chance in a test of strength and stamina.
The rules and ritual for women wrestling is almost identical with those in
the style controlled by the Japan Sumo Association. The fancy trappings are
missing. The only difference is that the female grunt and groan experts are
part-time pros. They engage in the tough sport only at shrine festivals in
towns and villages.
The women engaged in the rough sport, unlike American female wrestlers, lack
glamour. They are well-built, powerful women who take their avocation with
the earnestness of a pro sumo. They are not fashion models.
At a tournament, the females many of whom are middle-aged mothers, are
divided into East and West teams. The stronger ones are matched toward the
end of the program. Their cotton blouses and tight knee-length shorts
conceal rather than enhance their physical assets. The girdles are
indispensable pieces of apparel as the contestants usually grip each other
by the "mawashi" girdles) and lift or throw their opponents.
However, women's sumo never has been taken seriously other than as
entertainment at rural festivals. Its growth was doomed as very few girls
were cut out for the rugged sport. As a result, women sumo wrestling is
near death. There are still remote communities where the ancient sport is
staged with local women pitting their skill and strength against each other
at shrine carnivals.
It was a few years after the end of World War I that American professional
and variety baseball teams first visited Japan. Among the various American
type sports introduced here was a show featuring pretty American gal
wrestlers. In 1919 a Yankee troupe of statuesque women wrestlers came here
to perform in public. Naturally, there was not a single local girl to test
her strength and skill against these Amazons
The Japanese of those days were unfamiliar with Western style wrestling in
any form, and consequently promoters could not be found to stage contests.
Records show that these American wrestlers performed at geisha parties
before private gatherings of well-heeled, expense account Businessmen,
executives and politicians. The spectators applauded the rough and tumble
going-on while sipping sake served by geisha in the gay, exclusive Akasaka
I believe these are the first recorded cases of American women staging
wrestling bouts before Japanese spectators.
Because these shows were staged only before private groups, the public was
unable to become familiar with the newly imported entertainment. Around
1921, an American matman named Ad Santel came here and hurled challenges at
professional sumo wrestlers and judoists, but for some unexplained reasons,
his challenges almost went unanswered.
One man, Hikoo Shoji, of Kodokan, the mecca of judo, accepted Santel's
challenge. Whether a match really took place, and if it did, the outcome,
is unknown. But it is known that Shoji was threatened with expulsion from
Kodokan. This was the first time that Japanese public showed interest in
wrestling. This interest was short-lived as it ended with Santel's
Pro wrestling, as it is known today, came into its own after the late
Rikidozan, known as Riki to his numerous fans, organized and promoted pro
wrestling. The Korean-Japanese wrestler, who died in 1965 about a week
after he was stabbed in the abdomen by a gangster in a night-club brawl,
turned to the new sport.
The present day brand of women pro wrestling was introduced in 1956 when a
group of seven American blonde and brunette wrestlers arrived in this
country to entertain American troops. Among them were Mildred Burke, Gloria
Barattini, Beverly Anderson, Hita Martinez Ruth Boatcallie and Mae Young.
Local promoters recognized the possibilities of staging an American-Japanese
contest and promptly began recruiting girls to perform with the bigger and
heavier American girls. Four were selected, including Miss Sadako Ikari,
who tangled with the American girls during their tour of Japan.
The biggest local girl was Miss Masako Hashimoto. She stood 5 feet 7 inches
in her stockinged feet and tipped the beam at 147 pounds. Even this rare
specimen of Japanese womanhood was dwarfed by the Americans. The foreign
talent proved too powerful and experienced.
The Japanese girls were instructed by judoists and others who laid claim to
knowledge of pro wrestling. Soon, women's wrestling clubs and promoters
mushroomed in major cities all over Japan. In order to popularize this new
form of entertainment, the Tokyo Pro Wrestling Association was organized.
A commissioner was named and things looked rosy at first but the sport
failed to catch the public's fancy.
Two factors were primarily responsible for the failure of the venture.
First, unlike American wrestlers, the Japanese counterparts were big but
were of the homely, plain type. Second, the limited number of aspirants.
The television stations' refusal to program women wrestling also spelled
finis to the sport. Various women's and mothers' organizations vigorously
protested the telecasting of young women in form fitting costume "engaged in
Among the outstanding lady wrestlers were featherweight Miss Kiyo Obata, who
was awarded the championship when favored Miss Shoko Katsura committed a
foul in the seventeenth minute of a 20-minute title match.
Tetsuya Kawai, of Yokohama, who promoted womens' wrestling, summed up the
failure in these words:
"It is a tough job to train women wrestlers. In order to teach girls of
marriagable age the tricks of the game, judoists were engaged. The
instructors first had to teach them the ABC of wrestling. To make matters
worse, often the trainer and the trainee fell in love and most of them got
"The girls who married their instructors improved rapidly. After two or
three years of intensive training some of them could throw male judoists of
the first grade black belt rank without difficulty. The majority of the
girls were high school graduates, daughters of small shopkeepers. Some were
former professional cyclists and a few were college graduates. Their sole
interest in wresting was the purse.
"The main eventers made anywhere from $84-$139 an evening. Girls getting
top billing usually were able to perform two nights a month.
"When the popularity of girl wrestling declined, the girls had to hit the
road and perform in provincial cities and travel even to Okinawa and South
Kawai concluded on a pessimistic note: "Unable to sign contracts with attractive guarantees, the girls formed troupes of four or five members and now are performing in cabarets and night clubs."