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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