All talks of the history of wrestling in Japan have to begin with Sumo. Sumo is the national sport of Japan. A millennium-old wrestling variant with roots in Shinto religion. Women and Sumo have had a contentious relationship throughout history. Until 1873, women were officially banned from watching Sumo. To this day women are not officially allowed to practice Sumo professionally. Although that should not be taken to mean that women do not practice Sumo. Women's Sumo Wrestling, Onnazumo, has been practiced for centuries. With it achieving various periods of popularity.
Old Sketch of Women's Sumo.
Outside of Japan, modern Women's Professional Wrestling has its roots in the mid-1800's sideshow entertainment. In America and in Europe grappling was seen as a masculine activity. On occasion, a woman made headlines when she defended herself via grappling, but in general, it was highly frowned upon by society for Women to grapple.
Woman defeats a man in a street fight.
Source: Louisiana Democrat newspaper. March 18. 1874.
While not-exactly viewed as the best path in life for a woman at the time, Women were welcomed in various forms of entertainment, which is where we find the earliest organized form of Women's Professional Wrestling that I'm aware of. As a part of traveling circuses, and vaudeville-like touring troupes of entertainers. For example, this July 14, 1867 newspaper clipping from The Era newspaper in London.
German Lady Wrestlers.
Another example from September 15, 1874, the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper.
Lady Wrestlers from Vienna.
Fast forwarding to the early part of the 20th Century in Japan, Women's Sumo was popular but highly controversial. It was considered an immoral activity. Onnazumo was blocked from the original Ryogoku Sumo Hall which opened in 1909. But as we see from this June 21, 1907 newspaper article from The Evening News-North Tonawanda newspaper out of New York State, women found success in more underground buildings.
1907 Women's Sumo
1926 saw a significant government crackdown of Women's Sumo with the government officially banning it. Essentially ending organized Women's Sumo Wrestling in Japan until a modern amateur resurgence in the mid-1990s.
Source: Seeing Stars: Sports Celebrity, Identity, and Body Culture in Modern Japan by Dennis J. Frost
That brings us to the following June 28, 1930 article from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper about a troupe of traveling Women Sumo Wrestlers. This article outright states that this version of Women's sumo is “more of an entertainment feature than a sport.” Outright saying that it's a work. An interesting evolutionary in-between step between traditional Sumo and Modern Professional Wrestling.
Worked Sumo in Hawaii. 1930.
Perhaps this group of women got around the laws by outright embracing the entertainment nature of their act. Similar to the women pioneers of the 1860s that I listed above or modern Sports-Entertainment companies that got around athletic commission rules. It's hard to say for sure because there aren't enough sources in English on the subject. It's certainly an interesting possibility.
Overall, there are a lot of blank spots here due to the nature of lack of resources on the subject, but the info that we do have gives us a little bit of context for where women athletes were at in Japan before the introduction of modern Japanese Women's Professional Wrestling in the 1940s-1950s. Next time, we'll look at the earliest years of Joshi and the similarities to Onnazumo.