Competing on the Only Traditional Sumo Ring Outside of Japan in the World

Competing on the Only Traditional Sumo Ring Outside of Japan in the World

A strawberry-blonde-haired man squats to confront his dark-bearded, muscular rival. Both are clad in black loincloths and are positioned in a precisely tended circle with a perimeter made of interconnected ceramic tiles.

They’re about to engage in a sumo wrestling match. But this isn’t a tourist attraction in Japan. This competitive match is taking place at the city of São Paulo’s one and only sumo gym.

Brazilians travel to the 1958-opened Mie Nishi complex, which also has a baseball stadium, to practice, wrestle, and watch sumo. The wrestling arena was purpose-built and opened its doors in 1992.

In 2000, the Brazilian Sumo Confederation (CBS) was formed in São Paulo state, and the Brazilian National Championships, alongside the South American Championships, were held in the gymnasium.

With the aid of funding from the São Paulo Federation of Sumo, alongside a public fundraising campaign, the arena was refurbished in 2008, much to the delight of Brazil’s Japanese population.

“At the time, the new gymnasium was considered to be the first and only exclusive sumo gym in the world outside Japan,” says president of the gym Oscar Morio Tsuchiya. It’s still the only one with a traditional clay ring, he says.

Since then, the Brazilian Sumo Confederation has hosted significant championships there with free entrance for the general population.

A championship was held at the opening in 2008 with around 400 athletes, including wrestlers from Japan.

The championships are now an annual event and, Tsuchiya says, the number of participants has been steadily increasing. He cites the local Japanese community as being “integral” to supporting the training of wrestlers and organizing the competition.

Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside Japan known as “Nikkei” with the last estimate in 2016 putting the number at 1.9 million.

In the Liberdade neighborhood of São Paulo, where more than half a million Japanese live, Shinto shrines line the streets, their traditional red torii gates framing the avenues in the district known as Little Tokyo.

“Before there was no permanent space for the practice of sumo here in São Paulo,” Tsuchiya continues. “The championships were held in a makeshift manner in various places. Because of this, there were no children in São Paulo who could start practicing sumo, so [it was] only practiced by adults who trained in judo arenas.”

Now, he says, the Brazilian community pull its weight by sending young wrestlers and women to the school to train.

The gym has about 30 members, many of whom drive long distances from nearby small towns to train there.

“The success of Brazilian sumo is certainly a source of pride for all those who, like us, work hard to maintain this sport,” Tsuchiya beams.

Brazilian-born Ricardo Sugano, sometimes known as Kaisei Ichirō, is one of the best sumo wrestlers outside of Japan. Brazil now frequently sends fighters to national sumo tournaments.

The third generation Brazilian-Japanese rikishi, or sumo wrestler, turned his back on his homeland’s favorite pastime of soccer to study martial arts, which eventually led him to sumo.

Indeed, Sugano’s training at the gym is a point of pride for Tsuchiya. When asked what some of his favorite memories have been so far, he lists “our dear Ricardo” and his debut at the gym as one of them.

Another wrestler, 25-year-old Rui Junior, drives eight hours to train at Mie Nishi. He’s a 10-time Brazilian champion and a three-time South American champion, and recently competed in the World Sumo Championships in Osaka.

The Japanese government is so pleased with the spread of its sport to Latin America it even sent a coach to the gym to help train budding talent.

However, there is one notable difference at the São Paulo arena: there are women wrestling.

In Japan, women have long been banned from entering, or even touching, the wrestling ring called dohyō in Japanese. It is historically viewed as a breach of the dohyō’s purity; opponents charge that this perception is based on the Shinto notion that menstruating women are “impure.”

But Tsuchiya says it was important to him to include females in the dohyō ring.

“In order for Sumo to be recognized as an Olympic sport, it is also necessary to have the female sport, so the Brazilian Confederation created the female sport and started the first championship that included females in 2001.”

And Tshuchiya has big dreams for the future, hoping that, some day, his humble gym in Brazil will host the World Championship.

In the meantime, the gym hosts tournaments once a month that are open to the public.