Nana Abe, 12, a true sumo champion: She’s been into the sport since she was eight and rarely loses any competition. In Japan, club sports account for a large portion of adolescence and the number of students relating to classmates. Sumo – one of Japan’s historic martial arts and long-time favorite sports in the country – is open to men only on a 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 have been practicing sumo for years. “The traditions in Japan are complicated,” Skogorieva says. When people come and visit the country, that’s part of the reason they love it so much, because a lot 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 career as a professional, but at the moment there is no way for women to continue after college in the current system. Club-wide sumo wrestlers are passionate about the sport and show their sweat and tears to prove they deserve to compete. “I hope these girls will have the opportunity to continue their careers,” Skogorieva says. “At the moment, even in Japan very few people know that a female sumo exists. I hope my project will help these girls get more attention and someday reach their goal.”
Skogorieva, who has lived in Japan for more than 10 years, realizes the dream of a professional sport, and her goal is to capture movement and space in a still image. I grew up in Moscow and often went to see ballet. She ended up in Tokyo to study at the Nippon Institute of Photography and went on to film dance. “I like the naturalness of people who move,” Skogorieva says. “Dancers forget the camera, they just do what they do. I started to see dance moves when I watched all kinds of sports.”
She was particularly interested in sumo, which has many rituals before fights that can often look like dance – professional wrestlers sometimes approach the ring in a colorful dress that shows their ranks, and contestants congregate for a dohyō (the high ring) before the match to stomp and show off at a party A liturgical designer called “dohyiri.” Skogorieva was originally curious about the world of male sumo wrestlers, because she had never heard of women practicing the sport. Then a friend sent her an article about sumo wrestling, and it piqued her interest. “It’s an incredibly close-knit and closed world. It took me over a year to get permission to shoot there. I got in touch with Russian wrestlers, and then when I got 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, in addition to continuing to film Nana and her older sister Sakura. “They grow and change every year. I’d like to keep photographing her until she graduates from college, and maybe even after that.”