12-year-old Nana Abe is a true sumo champion: she has been practicing since the age of 8 and has rarely lost a competition. In Japan, club sports are a big part of adolescence and how many students bond with their classmates. Sumo – a historic Japanese martial art and long-time favorite sport in the country – is only open to professional men, but that doesn’t stop some girls from practicing it in clubs.
Tokyo-based photographer Yulia Skogoreva has photographed girls and young women who practice sumo for years. “Traditions in Japan are complicated,” Skogoreva says. “When people come to visit the country, that’s part of why they love it so much, because much of that tradition is still intact. But there is also the issue of gender equality, and can we find a way to have both? “
Abe’s dream is to continue her professional career, but at the moment there is no way for women to continue after graduating from college in the current system. Sumo wrestlers at the club level are passionate about the sport and give up their sweat and tears to prove they deserve to compete. “I wish these girls had the opportunity to pursue their careers,” says Skogoreva. “At the moment, even in Japan, very few people know that women’s sumo exists. Hope my project will help these girls get more attention and achieve their goal someday.
Skogoreva, who has lived in Japan for over 10 years, understands the dream of professional athletics and her goal is to capture movement and space in a still image. She grew up in Moscow and often went to see ballet. She ended up in Tokyo to study at the Nippon Photography Institute and continued to photograph dance. “I like the natural state of people on the move,” Skogoreva says. “The dancers forget about the camera, they just do what they do. I started to see dance moves while watching all kinds of sports.
She was particularly interested in sumo, which has many pre-fight rituals that can often look like dancing – professional wrestlers sometimes approach the ring in colorful dresses that show off their rank, and competitors congregate on the dohyō (the raised ring) before the game for stomping and showing in a choreographed ritual ceremony called the ‘dohyō iri’. Skogoreva was originally curious about the world of male sumo wrestlers, as she had never heard of women entering 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 world. It took over a year to get permission to photograph there. I contacted Russian wrestlers, then when I came back to Tokyo with pictures of Russian wrestlers, it got a lot easier.
She plans to continue working on the project, photographing sumo wrestlers in Japan and elsewhere, as well as continuing to photograph Nana and her older sister, Sakura. “They grow and change every year. I would love to continue photographing her until she graduates from college, and maybe even after.