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Akebono

Akebono
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 Olympic sport.

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.

Tim Young

BIG IN JAPAN:
299: Nakamura Kankuro
Arizona lover and Kabuki actor
298: Miura Yuichiro
The Man Who Skied Down Everest
297: Iron Chef
Gourmet cuisine battles
296: "Katte wa ikenai"
"Don't buy these products"
295: Oda Yuji
The dancing detective
294: Enoki Takaaki
An artist who acts
293: Glay
Japan's reigning pop princes
292: Akebono
Hawaiian Sumo wrestler
291: Issey Miyake
Fashion designer
290: Murakami Ryu
Radical writer
289: Oshima Nagisa
Movie director
288: Takakura Ken
Crime film actor
287: Miura Kazuyoshi
Soccer player
286: Suzuki Koji
Author of the horror, Ring
285: Tezuka Osamu
God of Comics
284: Yuming
Singer/songwriter
283: Anpanman
Bean-powered superhero
282: Yamaguchi Takashi
Immersed in traditional Japanese music
281: Nasubi
Comedian
280: Doi Takako
First female Speaker of the House
279: Nakamura Kichiemon
Retiring Kabuki actor
278: Oe Kenzaburo
Nobel prize winning author
277: Kimura Takuya
SMAP member
276: Utada Hikaru
Teenage pop phenomenon
275: Bando Tamasaburo
Kabuki female role impersonator
274: Otomo Katsuhiro
Akira creator
273: Dreams Come True
Premier recording artist
272: Dango San Kyodai
Surprise hit of 1999
271: Banana Yoshimoto
Author
270: Matsuzaka Daisuke
Baseball player
269: Moritaka Chisato
Model and singer
268: Mukai Chiaki
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267: Natto
Traditional Japanese health food
266: Hiroaki Kikuoka
Shamisen player
265: Chikamatsu Monzaemon
Japan's most revered dramatist
264: Ryuichi Sakamoto
Oscar-winning musician
263: Shigeo Nagashima
Japan's Mr Baseball
262: Ayako Totsuka
Pioneer careerwoman
261: Yatsuhashi Kengyo
Koto player
260: Chiyotaikai
Sumo wrestler
259: Pocky
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258: Itsuki Hiroshi
Enka singer
257: Pocket Monsters
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256: Classified ads
New concept in Japan
255: Chara
Japanese pop star
254: Pink Lady
1970's singing duo
253: Takashi Sorimachi
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252: Ennosuke Ichikawa
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251: Rie Miyazawa
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250: Shazna
Visual-kei band

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