|BIG IN JAPAN
|Photo by Naomi
While Japan has historically
gone through periods of massive borrowing from other cultures, there have often been mixed
feelings here about foreigners coming to engage in traditional Japanese activities. Such
foreigners have often been faced with patronizing attitudes, or accusations that they are
threatening the integrity of the tradition. This environment can make excelling at the
activity in question twice as hard for a foreigner as it would be for a native Japanese.
Such has been the case in sumo. When Jesse Kuhaulua (Takamiyama) entered the sumo world in
1964, he endured plenty of bullying from senior wrestlers. Through his endurance and
tenacity he blazed a trail for the other Hawaiians who were to follow: KONISHIKI,
Musashimaru and Akebono.
Akebono, born Chad Rowan, was discovered in the late eighties by a friend of Kuhaulua.
Rowan' brother was initially thought to be more the sumo type; Chad was considered too
tall and lanky to make a good rikishi (sumo wrestler). Nonetheless, in 1988, with
Kuhaulua as his stablemaster, he was given the chance to come to Japan and begin learning
the sport that would become his career.
Within two years Akebono had reached the top division (makuuchi). He won his
first tournament in May 1992, resulting in his promotion to the rank of ozeki,
making him then, alongside KONISHIKI, the highest ranked foreign sumo wrestler ever. But
the 204cm, 239-kg Akebono was far from through. He won four of the six regular tournaments
in 1992, and back-to-back championships in November 1992 and January 1993. He subsequently
became the first foreigner to be promoted to yokozuna, the top rank, and has won
a total of nine tournaments to date.
Unfortunately, Akebono has been plagued by injuries in recent years and has not won a
tournament since May 1997. This has stirred up criticism and rumor-mongering in the
tabloid media - arguably more bad press than a native-born yokozuna could expect. Among
the nicer things that have been printed are comments like, "If a yokozuna can't win,
he should retire."
This past July, he momentarily silenced the critics by steamrolling through the Nagoya
Basho until the last day, when he lost a tie-breaker to upstart Dejima. Then, on the third
day of September's Aki Basho, he tore a groin muscle and had to sit out the rest of the
tournament. The tabloid vultures are again circling.
In the years since the "Hawaiian invasion," it has become harder for foreigners
to enter sumo. Among other things, prospective rikishi must pass a Japanese language test,
something Akebono and company were never faced with. Also, recruitment of foreigners these
days tends to be concentrated in East Asia rather than Hawaii or elsewhere. This is ironic
considering that the Sumo Association has been talking up the idea of sumo becoming an
For whatever reason, the conservative Sumo Association seems to have once again closed the
door on talent from outside Asia. This could be interpreted as an attempt to learn from
the past "mistakes" of letting in gaijin. Still, it is heartening to note that,
by promoting Akebono (and, more recently, Musashimaru) to sumo's top rank, the Association
has honestly recognized foreign success in a very Japanese sport.