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 “dohyōiri.” 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.”