Daily Archives: 7 December 2004

The Hawaiian Who Conquered Japan

On Pearl Harbor Day, it seems appropriate to commemorate a Hawaiian who rose to the top of the sumo ranks in Japan.

In 1988, Chad Rowan was an easygoing, eighteen-year-old part-Hawaiian living in rural Waimänalo, on the island of O’ahu. At six-feet-eight, he’d played basketball in high school but was not inclined toward sports involving more aggressive physical contact. His mother later recalled that, when he first went to Japan to try his luck at sumo, “I didn’t think he’d last, because to me, I didn’t know if he was tough enough.” In addition to being disadvantaged by his gentle nature, his body type was also wrong for sumo. “In a sport where a lower center of gravity and well-developed lower body is prized,” said sports writer Ferd Lewis, “Rowan was a six-foot-eight giraffe among five-foot-eleven rhinos.”

Like most American kids, Rowan grew up knowing almost nothing about the national sport of Japan. But after being asked twice, he reluctantly allowed himself to be recruited to a sumo beya in Tokyo owned and led by a retired wrestler with the honorific name Azumazeki Oyakata. During a stellar professional career lasting from 1964 to 1984, Azumazeki Oyakata had competed under the name Takamiyama. He was born on Maui as Jesse Kuhaulua, was also of Hawaiian ancestry, and was the first foreign-born wrestler to win a major sumo tournament. By the time Rowan entered Kuhaulua’s sumo beya, another recruit from Hawai’i, Saleva’a Atisanoe was wrestling in the upper, salaried ranks under the name Konishiki. In addition, two lower-ranked wrestlers from Hawai’i, John Feleunga and Taylor Wylie, were training in the sumo beya that had recruited Chad.

Rowan’s introduction to the strict, hierarchical world of sumo was not auspicious, as this excerpt from Gaijin Yokozuna, Mark Panek’s biography, makes vivid. Kuhaulua worried that he’d made a mistake by recuiting Rowan. “I remember the first time he put on a belt and wrestled. He didn’t look very good,” Kuhaulua said. “Smaller people–­a lot smaller people–­were just throwing him around in practice.” From this shaky beginning, Rowan transformed both his body and his character, using great mental discipline and an unparalleled work ethic. He rose through the ranks at a phenomenal pace. Within three years, he was in the elite, salaried ranks himself. Two years later, wrestling under the name Akebono (“dawn” in Japanese), Rowan had reached the rank of yokozuna: the pinnacle of sumo. Rowan was the first foreign-born wrestler ever to attain this rank and was only the sixty-fourth yokozuna [a very new rank!] in the history of the ancient, tradition-bound sport, the written records for which date back to eighth-century Japan. In 2001, Rowan retired from sumo at the age of thirty-two.

SOURCE: Jungle Planet and Other New Stories, Manoa 16, no. 2 (2004) (Project Muse subscription required)

Gaijin Yokozuna sounds like a must-buy for me.

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Sumo Adapts to Live Broadcasts

When radio broadcasting began in 1925, stations expressed an immediate interest in broadcasting sumo. The leaders of the Sumo Association, however, were leery of the new medium. Like the officials of other sport bodies around the world, they were fearful of economic catastrophe. Why should fans pay good money to crowd into the Kokugikan if they are able to sit comfortably at home and listen to the radio? Broadcasters persisted and the Sumo Association reluctantly agreed to allow radio coverage on a trial basis for the January tournament of 1928. Contrary to the association’s fears, radio seemed to increase rather than decrease the desire to be present at the bouts. The stadium was packed, and radio broadcasts became a regular and popular feature.

To accommodate the new medium, however, there had to be adjustments in the traditional way that the matches were held. Before each match, the two wrestlers perform shikiri [‘face-offs’], the long ritual preparation for what often prove to be very short bouts. During shikiri, they crouch in the center of the ring, glare at one another, stand, return to their corners for another handful of salt to throw upon the ground, move back to the center of the ring, and crouch again for more baleful glaring. Traditionally, shikiri continued indefinitely, until both men were ready to charge and grapple. Radio broadcasts, however, have an allotted time frame. To ensure that the day’s matches finished before the end of the broadcast, wrestlers were told to limit shikiri to ten minutes, which–with a glare at the broadcaster–they did.

In fact, it took some time for the wrestlers to become accustomed to the idea of a curtailed warm-up ritual. On the first day, anxious not to exceed the ten-minute limit, most wrestlers cut short their shikiri and started their matches so quickly that the entire program moved at a furious pace. The radio broadcast, scheduled to carry only the last and most important matches, was supposed to begin at 5:20 P.M., but the horrified promoters realized that the last wrestlers were liable to have finished their match before the broadcast even began. Although five long intermissions were hurriedly introduced, the first day of broadcasts consisted of only the last match, which ended at 5:40. On the second day of the tournament, the broadcast was started earlier. This did not solve the problem. The wrestlers soon reverted to their old ways and indulged themselves in extended shikiri. By the time the top-ranked wrestlers had stepped into the ring, the station had already moved on to its next scheduled broadcast. It was some time before the wrestlers and the broadcasters were, metaphorically, on the same wavelength.

Although one might have expected that the arrival of television in the 1950s made it possible to return to longer shikiri, which are certainly more interesting to watch than to hear about, this was not the case. The time limit for the upper division has been reduced to four minutes, and the Sumo Association smoothly manages the progression of matches so that they usually end a few minutes before the 6:00 P.M. conclusion of the day’s broadcast. From the fan’s point ofview, however, managerial efficiency has its drawbacks. Before the time limit was imposed, each shikiri was potentially the start of the match, and tension built as one shikiri followed another. In our more programmed age, the ritual has become routine, the match begins when it is supposed to, and the shikiri tends to be, for the wrestlers and spectators alike, mere posturing.

SOURCE: Japanese Sports: A History, by Allen Guttmann and Lee Thompson (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2001), pp. 114-115

My interest in sumo began in Kyoto when I would come home from school and watch the final bouts of the day on black-and-white TV before supper. Like clockwork.

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