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Japanese Woman Draws New Fans to Old Sport - Boxing - 2002-12-16

Champion Emiko Raika is drawing new fans to an old sport - boxing. As Japan's top woman boxer prepares for her first world title bout, she is becoming a role model for other women athletes.

Emiko Raika is a well-muscled 26-year-old woman with short, dyed brown hair. She spends her free time playing pachinko, a Japanese slot machine game, and reading comic books.

But she actually has little free time. In February, she became Japan's champion female featherweight boxer. Now, she aims to become a world champion in the featherweight class - boxers who weigh 57 kilograms or less.

On December 18, she fights Sharon Anyos, Australia's dominant female boxer and the world titleholder. In her two and a half years as a professional, Ms. Raika has piled up seven wins, one loss and one draw. Ms. Anyos has a record of 11 wins and one draw. "I am fighting not to beat the opponent but myself," says Ms. Raika. "I am devoted to becoming a world champion. By having that goal in mind, I feel I become stronger."

Despite Ms. Raika's success, professional women's boxing remains a very minor sport in Japan. In the United States, women's boxing is becoming popular, both among athletes and fans. The daughters of former heavyweight greats Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought recently and attracted large crowds.

In Japan, society traditionally expects women to behave quietly, even in sports. Although in recent years, more women have taken up sports dominated by men, such as karate, many people still think women should not box because they could get hurt.

Most Japanese female athletes compete in less rigorous sports, such as tennis and swimming. Ms. Raika knows her sport is a bit rough, she already has suffered a broken nose during training. The talkative Ms. Raika shrugs off the injuries. "When I told friends that I want to become a boxer, they were surprised and put down my decision because I am a woman," she says. "But I had to resist. I like boxing and I wanted to do it. In fact, I am expressing myself through boxing."

When she is not boxing or training, Ms. Raika likes to hang out in blue jeans

Ms. Raika was born in 1976 in the western city of Kyoto, where she lived with her grandmother. But her grandmother died when Ms. Raika was three. She spent the next 15 years in a children's home, leaving only when she graduated from high school.

After high school, she entered a junior college and received a diploma. She worked at a dental clinic as a nurse, but quit after a month, because she didn't like wearing the uniform skirt. She says other jobs she tried did not make her happy. "I felt as if I were not living and felt myself destroying. I was very weak mentally. I could choose to have an ordinary life but I wanted more that just that - to become strong," she says.

She joined a boxing gym to change her life, and soon found herself on her way to a new career.

Three years ago, she was declared the most valuable player at an amateur tournament. Her achievement paid off when the owner of a Tokyo boxing gym, Toshihiro Yamaki, spotted her. Mr. Yamaki says he was impressed by her performance and asked Ms. Raika to join his gym. "I told her I will take care of the rent and food if she wants to become professional. So she came to Tokyo. From that day, she is going through heavy training to take the world title," he says.

The Japan Boxing Commission does not recognize women's professional boxing. But as the number of women boxers rose, Mr. Yamaki created a new association in 1999 to give women a chance to fight professionally. Today, nearly 50 women are in the association.

Mr. Yamaki says Ms. Raika's success has already brought many women into gyms nationwide. About 10 women are training at his gym and some hope to become professionals. He expects the number will rise as Ms. Raika wins more bouts.