Women In Sumo: These Photos Show The Struggle Of Young Girls Who Dream Of Going Pro

“I wish that these girls could have the opportunity to continue their career.”

A young female sumo  wrestler squats at the edge of a homemade ring
Yulia Skogoreva

Nana practicing in her garden

Nana Abe, 12, is a true sumo champion: She has been practicing since she was 8 years old and has rarely lost a competition. In Japan, club sports are a large part of adolescence and how many students bond with their classmates. Sumo — a historical Japanese martial art and longtime favorite sport in the country — is open solely to men at the professional level, but that doesn’t stop some girls from practicing it as a club sport.

Tokyo-based photographer Yulia Skogoreva has been photographing girls and young women who practice sumo for years. “The traditions in Japan are complicated,” says Skogoreva. “When people come and visit the country, this is part of why they love it so much, because so much of that tradition is still intact. But there’s also the question of gender equality, and can we figure out a way to have both?”

Abe’s dream is to continue her career as a professional, but right now there is no way for women to continue after graduation from university in the current system. Female sumo wrestlers at the club level are passionate about the sport and give their sweat and tears to prove that they deserve to compete. “I wish that these girls could have the opportunity to continue their career,” says Skogoreva. “At the moment even in Japan very few people know that female sumo exists. I hope that my project will help these girls to get more attention and reach their goal one day.”

Skogoreva, who has lived in Japan for over 10 years, understands the dream of professional athleticism, and her goal is to capture movement and space in a still image. She grew up in Moscow and frequently went to see ballet. She ended up in Tokyo to study at Nippon Photography Institute and continued to photograph dance. “I like the natural state of people moving,” Skogoreva says. “Dancers forget about the camera, they just do what they do. I started seeing dance moves when I watched all kinds of sports.”

She was especially interested in sumo, which has many rituals ahead of the fights that can often look like dance — the professional wrestlers sometimes approach the ring in colorful dress that shows their rank, and competitors assemble on the dohyō (the raised ring) ahead of the match to stomp and show off in a choreographed ritual ceremony called the “dohyō iri.” Skogoreva was originally curious about the world of male sumo wrestlers, because she had never heard of women taking up the sport. Then a friend sent her an article about a female sumo wrestler, and her interest was piqued. “It’s an incredibly tight-knit and closed-off world. It took more than a year to get the permissions to photograph there. I reached out to Russian wrestlers, and then when I came back to Tokyo with photographs of Russian wrestlers, it became a lot easier.”

She plans to keep working on the project, photographing sumo wrestlers in Japan and elsewhere, as well as continuing to photograph Nana and her older sister, Sakura. “They’re growing and changing every year. I would love to keep photographing her until she graduates university, and maybe even after.”

Two young girls in leotards and traditional dress at the edge of a sumo practice ring
Yulia Skogoreva

Nana and Sakura at the local dohyō in Niigata

A young girl at the edge of a sumo practice ring wearing a shirt with her name on it, Nana
Yulia Skogoreva

Nana in her training leotard. Nana's father had it embroidered for her and another for her older sister.

A female sumo wrestler in a practice room with a bunch of male sumo wrestlers
Yulia Skogoreva

Hiyori (center) at a special practice held at Waseda University. The wrestlers are all from different universities, but "it's such a small world, they all know each other."

A female and a male sumo wrestler doing pushups in the practice room
Yulia Skogoreva

Boys and girls practice together.

A girl crouches at the end of a sumo ring in front of a crowd
Yulia Skogoreva

A girl at a local competition open to amateur wrestlers of different ages in Tachikawa, on the outskirts of Tokyo. "There were many girls here, but not all of them were doing it professionally." The man in the white suit is the referee of the match. The man seated is one of four situated around the ring, keeping a close eye on whether or not a wrestler steps out.

Two young girls fighting in a sumo ring with a crowd around them
Yulia Skogoreva

At the competition in Tachikawa, two girls compete in the dohyō. The girl in black has stepped outside of the ring, losing the match. "The girl in black is bigger, but in sumo it doesn't always mean that the bigger person wins. You can be very tiny and still be the strongest wrestler."

A girl sumo wrestler  with sand on her arm during a competition
Yulia Skogoreva

In the competition in Tachikawa, this woman has lost a fight. According to the rules, she'll need to clean off before reentering the ring.

A young female sumo wrestler crouches at the edge of a ring
Yulia Skogoreva

In Tachikawa, here you can see a second dohyō in the background. It's common to have a second dohyō in the arena where wrestlers can practice before they go to the fight. Here, the girl in black is preparing to enter the ring for a match, while some men practice behind her. Usually the competitions begin with male wrestlers, and female wrestlers follow them.

A young girl in sumo costume with a towel over her shoulders
Yulia Skogoreva

This girl participated in the matches in Tachikawa, photographed after competing.

A young female sumo wrestler faces off with a male wrestler as other people exercise in the background
Yulia Skogoreva

Practice at Waseda. While two wrestlers face off, the wrestlers around them practice. This university in Kyoto at Ritsumeikan is one of the few universities in Japan with a sumo club where girls can be involved.

a female sumo wrestler in front of the crowd with a Japan country label
Yulia Skogoreva

At the sumo World Championships in Osaka in 2019. Wrestlers come from all over the world, college students and professionals. In other countries like Russia, Poland, or Brazil, some women continue in sumo after they have graduated college. "They have the full opportunity to continue their career in the sumo world. One woman I met was a teacher, one woman was a referee. The Japanese women don't have that chance. This is what they are fighting for, that same opportunity in Japan."

Two young wrestlers stretching in their backyard
Yulia Skogoreva

Nana and Sakura (in green) practicing in a makeshift dohyō that their father built for them in their garden. "Many families see sumo wrestlers as big, traditional, male. Many people are so used to thinking of sumo wrestlers this way that they can't imagine that women can do this, too. Some girls hide that the fact that they're practicing sumo from their families and grandparents, to avoid judgment or tough conversations. Nana's family gives her full support." The borders of the dohyō are made from tatami borrowed from a friend who has a tatami workshop.

A young sumo wrestler flips tires in her backyard
Yulia Skogoreva

Nana's father borrowed the tires from a friend who had an auto body workshop, each tire weighs about 100 kilos. Nana, at 11, flips them over and over in front of the house to practice. "I tried to do it myself, and I could barely lift it. This is part of her daily routine."

A young sumo wrestler crouches in a parking lot
Yulia Skogoreva

Nana in late March 2020, before the lockdown in Japan. Many competitions had already been canceled at this point. With no training rooms available, Nana practices outdoors in a park by the river.