12-year-old Nana Abe is a real sumo master: she has been training since she was eight and has rarely lost a competition. In Japan, club sports make up a large portion of the youth and how many students bond with their classmates. Sumo – a historical Japanese martial art and long-standing favorite sport in the country – is only open to men on a professional level, but that doesn’t prevent some girls from participating in 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 visit the country it’s one reason they love it so much because so 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 option for women to continue in the current system after graduating from university. Female club-level sumo wrestlers are passionate about the sport and give up their sweats and tears to prove they deserve to compete. “I wish these girls could have the opportunity to continue their careers,” says Skogoreva. “Even in Japan, very few people currently know that there is female sumo. I hope that my project will help these girls one day get more attention and achieve their goal. “
Skogoreva, who has lived in Japan for over 10 years, understands the dream of professional sportiness and her goal is to capture movement and space in a still image. She grew up in Moscow and often attended 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 who move,” says Skogoreva. “Dancers forget about the camera, they just do what they do. I started seeing dance moves after watching all kinds of sports. “
She was particularly interested in sumo, which has many pre-fight rituals that can often look like dance – the professional wrestlers sometimes approach the ring in a colorful dress that shows their rank, and the competitors gather on the dohyō (the raised ring) the match in front of them to stamp and show off in a choreographed ritual ceremony called “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 sumo wrestler and her interest was piqued. “It’s an incredibly narrow and closed world. It took me over a year to get permission to take photos there. I reached out to Russian wrestlers and then when I came back to Tokyo with photos of Russian wrestlers it got a lot easier. “
She plans to keep working on the project, photographing sumo wrestlers in Japan and elsewhere, and continuing to photograph Nana and her older sister Sakura. “They grow and change every year. I would like to keep taking photos of her until she graduates from college, and maybe even after that. “