Now Reports

Women’s Blindfolded Sumo

Fuigo Matsuri takes place each year in December at Masue Goro Inari Shrine in Itoshima, and is the site of a very unique tradition – Women’s Blindfolded Sumo! Fukuoka Now intern Tomo, who last year walked barefoot over hot coals at the Shinto Fire Festival at Atago Shrine, is back with a first-hand report.

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Women, sumo and blindfolds – these somewhat juxtaposing words would never be used in the same sentence; or so I thought. But on finding that women’s blindfolded sumo is actually an annual event in Itoshima – and not a joke – I was filled with curiosity. How did such a bizarre event come about? And why only women? The conventional image of sumo wrestling people have is of a sizeable male wrestler rocking along with the traditional slick-back hair-do, wearing a big rope around their midriff and wrestling half naked. As well, you’d imagine they would have something close to 20/20 vision to be able to look their opponent in the eye. Substituting that image in my head with women and blindfolds painted a rather comical picture in my head; certainly not a pretty one.

And how ironic. Soon I was to become very much a part of this comical image. On the morning of the Dec. 6, I found myself in Itoshima, climbing over 200 steps to get to Masue Goro Inari Shrine where this madness was to take place. The small shrine on top of the hill stands out with its bright-red torii (shrine archway), placed at the foot of the shrine and several leading up to the top. From the shrine was an unspoiled view of rural Japan, with the coast and countless rice paddies in immediate sight. Even with the chilling winter kick in the air, many supporters gathered in front of the dohyo (ring) impatiently waiting for the female rikishi (sumo wrestlers) to enter the ring.

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So how did this all come about? The shrine that hosts the annual Fuigo Festival was founded by a blind shinto priest named Matsuzaki in 1932. Fuigo is a tool used for harvesting crops, and the festival took off straight after the war to pray for a bountiful harvest in the region. Somehow women’s blindfolded sumo became a part of this event, and the tradition has been kept by the Matsuzaki family, the grandchildren of the founder of the shrine.

Winning isn’t the immediate goal of a match. The complete lack of vision is supposedly symbolic of the hardship the wrestlers (and everyone else) face towards an unknown future. Cooperating with the audience to find your opponent, the event hopes to portray the message that you can’t live without the help of others, and although you may be blind, you are not alone in a dark world. A fairly important moral lesson for a rather ludicrous sport.

Shortly after 11am, to the booming sound of taiko (Japanese drums) the participants gathered in the shrine. Harmoniously bowing toward the altar, they then went through a oharai (purification ritual) while the guji (shinto priest) uttered words of prayer. He blessed the altar, then gracefully walked outside to bless the dohyo. While the rituals took place, I quietly asked a friendly ojichan at reception, “why only women?” He chuckled and replied “because men get their ego in their way, it’s too dangerous!”

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Participants were of all ages and all sizes. The oldest rikishi I spoke with, a healthy 80 year old obachan with a big youthful smile, told me she had been a part of the event for 20 odd years. Most of the contestants were local women, being familiar faces to one another as they took part every year. The women were divided into two teams, the east gate and the west gate, evenly matched with each other according to age, size and experience. This ensured that no 80 year-old was facing a 20 year old twice her size, and also preventing a mismatch in experience.

After a mad rush inside the shrine, with the guji trying to organise two gangs of female wrestlers practicing their entry rituals last minute, it was finally time for the much anticipated main event to begin. Starting with the east gate team, the women marched from the shrine in their bare feet, clapping their hands in a circle as they made their way to the dohyo.

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The rules are simple enough. Bow, turn away from your opponent, and put a face mask on. After the referee’s “go!” you start searching for your opponent without touching the floor with your hands. Keeping your knees and buttocks on the floor, the aim is to try to take down your opponent to the ground. A winner is then announced, and the team with the most wins takes out the trophy. Once the obligatory announcements and greetings from the shrine officials were out of the way, the bouts began.

The whole event was an interactive, slapstick comedy show. Giggly contestants, a highly entertained and heated audience, the referee who couldn’t help himself but make a pun with every contestant’s name – the atmosphere was light and warm, countering the winter chills and spreading infectious giggles. Opponents hugging after each bout seemed to indicate the actual result didn’t really matter.

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Soon it was time to get my own sumo on. Along with two other media members I had been invited to sample the action. Half way through the proceedings I was sent away to change into the white battle dress – something like the uniform of a judo player. Before I knew it, it was my turn to step inside the ring. I bowed to my opponent, put the mask on my face and was robbed of vision. The bizarreness of the situation had me chronically laughing inside the bag over my head, as I searched helplessly like a cautious blind caterpillar crawling on the floor. My opponent found me first, throwing her body weight on me as she tried to take me down. After a few moments of struggle, I fell on top of her as I pushed her down on the mat. We took our masks off and laughed together, because everything was very, very funny.

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The event came to a close as the guji thanked everyone who supported and participated; then he and some of the other officials began throwing hundreds of mochi (rice cake) in the air for participants and audience alike to catch. The contestants hugged one another, shared the rice cakes evenly and went inside the shrine to enjoy a well-deserved afternoon of feasting. I walked away with lots of mochi in my hand and in my belly, and the ability to say that women’s blindfolded sumo is now ticked off my bucket list of weird and wonderful things to do in my lifetime.

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Report by Tomo Greer for Fukuoka Now

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Art & Culture
Published: Dec 9, 2014 / Last Updated: Apr 1, 2016