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Taboo Barring Women From Tunnels Broken, No Disasters Yet

April 2, 1992

TOKYO (AP) _ Japanese superstition holds there are some places where women just aren’t supposed to go. The blacksmith’s, for one. And the sumo ring.

But advocates of equality in the workplace may be seeing a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel - another site where women are believed to bring bad luck.

With much media fanfare, a Construction Ministry official, Yasuko Tokoro, two weeks ago became the first woman to enter a publicly funded tunnel before its completion.

And, superstition notwithstanding, there have yet to be any mishaps since Ms. Tokoro entered the tunnel to inspect it. The tunnel is part of a highway through Kasugai city, in central Japan.

″We don’t make any special differentiation between men and women on the job,″ said ministry official Hiroshi Ota. ″But as far as we know, this is a first.″

The taboo on women in tunnels stems from an age-old superstition that they would arouse the jealousy of the spirit of the mountain, which is believed to be a woman, and lead to disaster.

Ota said the superstition remains strong among construction workers, although young people generally tend to be less superstitious than their elders.

″Even today, working in tunnels is extremely dangerous, with the constant fear of accidents,″ he said. ″Many workers cling to superstitions like this out of the desire to somehow reduce the danger.″

He added, however, that he believes the superstition also has a practical explanation.

″When you put men and women together working in cramped conditions, it’s distracting,″ he said. ″I think that is another part of it.″

Similar superstitions have discouraged women in the past from climbing mountains or boarding fishing boats. Superstitious blacksmiths have also maintained a long ban on women in their workplace.

Attempts by women to gain access to places believed to be sacrosanct or the domain of potentially vengeful goddesses have had only mixed results in recent years.

In 1990, a woman reporter with Japan’s largest newspaper covering a ceremony marking the completion of a tunnel in northeastern Japan was at first turned away by construction officials. She was later allowed to enter, as long as she kept a distance from the ceremony.

In another highly publicized case that year, a women’s group sought to gain access to the sumo ring - not to wrestle but to hand over a trophy - only to be angrily rebuffed.

Sumo wrestling is closely related to Shinto, Japan’s indigenous religion, and officials argued that women would defile the ring, which is considered sacred.

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