Japanese Women Fighting for Relevance
By Yuriko Miyata
Though Japan seems one of the most active areas of female boxing in the world, fighting women are still struggling with a harsh reality to remain relevant, but in quite a positive way.
During the first weekend of February, the Boxing Girls Meeting was held in T&H gym in Tokyo. The event was all about making the sport have a better future, open to all women who love and do combative sports, and also those who care about the business of female boxing.
Forty-two participated in the training session and 45 people – including trainers, managers, media and officials – attended the lecture about training and weight control methods particular for female athletes. There was also a discussion on how to promote the sport.
It was the third event, first started in September 2015 by several champions who saw a need and harbored concern about the next generation. They got together voluntarily to organize the assembly.
Led by Naoko Fujioka, the three-time world champion, and her stable mate Kai Johnson, an OPBF contender, the third meeting took place.
Many younger fighters adore Fujioka and one after another ask the heroine for advice on a daily basis. While talking with them she became aware that their enthusiasm had not been treated very well and decided to stage these meetings for the upcoming female fighters.
“We all know the situation is still unfair for fighting girls. But just complaining cannot change anything. The younger ones are our hope. We need to keep their motivations up otherwise Japanese female boxing might not survive. It’s our mission to tell them about the long way we came and give them some ideas to get a better future. Let’s do something”.
As Fujioka called for action, her long-time friends Naoko Shibata, IBF light flyweight champion, Kayoko Ebata, former OPBF flyweight champion, and Naomi Togashi, the former WBC light flyweight champion, sympathized right away and started working on it. Then former OPBF strawweight champion Saemi Hanagata joined with the leading members.
It is really a democratic action of the boxers, by the boxers and for the boxers. Even though it started as a just private gathering technically, it grew to work like a convention. The event kicked off with the official press conference of Shibata’s next defense fight against Alondra Garcia on March 4th in Mexico. She also sparred 10 rounds with Fujioka and Hanagata during the convention. In the training session, the champions showed how to deal with opponents and also worked the mitts with the green boxers.
“They looked so happy. They are very hungry to learn,” said Togashi who is also known as “the fighting midwife.”
After the two hour session they all moved to a restaurant for a group discussion that included issues that arose from the participants.
“Not enough trainers are positive about training serious girls. It’s not easy to find chances for sparring and fighting. Not all promoters are interested in women boxing very much. If so, we need to get better to let them turn to us. We do it for ourselves. Today you got many friends who share the passion for the sport. Talk and improve each other,” Fujioka encouragingly said to them.
A sports nutritionist Ai Takahashi, a former shoot-boxing national champion, outlined what and how to eat for reason to build their physique. Then Ebata gave some ideas of self promotion; how to sell the tickets and build good relationship with supporters. Like Fujioka, she is good mentor with her 20 years of experience and continued pursuit of a world title (after five attempts), and also with the social experience as a full time worker for an advertising agency.
“Professional fighters have to create their own value. If you do a good job in the ring and appreciate the support, people want to see your fight again. If you sell a lot tickets, promoters want to let you in the cards,” said Ebata with sincerity.
Through the underground movement from the 90’s, the Japan Amateur Boxing Federation started female competition in 2002, then, the Japan Boxing Commission (JBC) finally launched female professional boxing in May 2008.
Just two months from the first event sanctioned by the JBC, Togashi became the WBC light flyweight champion on July 13, 2008. Since then, 17 women captured world titles of major four organizations until now, including Nanako Kikuchi who won the first WBC strawweight belt in Thailand in 2005. As for the OPBF, there are 26 Japanese women on the list of champions. Although it has looked very prosperous, it really is not. But it seems to be changing after a long stagnant period.
The number of active fighters passed 80 in 10 weight divisions last year, whereas it had stayed around 70 for years. Also, the JBC has just announced that the establishment of national titles is now on its agenda. It will be in five weight divisions including atom, straw, fly, bantam, and featherweight, and include six round bouts for the championship. That could make this sport more competitive, active and popular.
Not only in America but also in Japan, female boxing is going to a new era of higher recognition that the brave and lovely women deserve.
(Photo by Masanori Murayama)