Daily Archives: 10 September 2006

A Foreign Sumo Recruit’s Big Mistake

When the television crew left, Boss went upstairs to his third-floor apartment, leaving Chad in the big room with twelve other boys ranging in age from fifteen to twenty-one. They also ranged in size, from surprisingly scrawny younger kids to the imposing, four-hundred-pound Samoans from Hawai‘i, Taylor Wylie and John [Feleunga]. Chad looked from one to the next as they stared at him, sizing him up like a battle-seasoned army platoon eyeing an unlikely recruit. Each had his hair tied into a single knot that was folded over, looking like a samurai in the movies Chad had watched on TV. Purple welts and bruises covered most of their faces. Many of them had their arms folded so that the fabric of their robes stretched tight enough to display bulging biceps. Chad understood the energy he was sensing from them: testosterone. These guys fought for a living, day after day. They fought. As of yet, he did not.

Some of the younger Japanese boys began barking at him in words he could not understand, as if to order him around. Their guttural commands were more reminders of those samurai movies he and his brothers used to mimic in exaggerated grunts and mumbles. He turned to John and said, “Excuse me, John-san, what they wen’ say to me?”

“What I look like?” the Samoan glared at him. “Your fuckin’ interpreter?”

The blast of cold wind back at the airport had shocked him less. He stood motionless, trying to figure out the reaction somehow. It made no sense to him. While he might have expected trouble from the Japanese, John had been through exactly what he was now dealing with. He could have made things smoother for Chad with a few simple words: “they wen’ tell you for layout your futon,” or “they like know why you so tall.” Support from John did not have to last forever, Chad thought, but he had only been in the country a matter of hours. Instead it was, more or less, “just ’cause I local no mean I going help you—you’re on your own, Hawaiian.”

Confined now to silence, Chad continued to look around and take in the complex web of power surrounding him, one based on age, time served, and strength. In the last and most important of these, it was immediately clear that Taylor was The Man. Only eighteen as well, Taylor had come to Japan the year before and now ran the heya, as Chad could already tell, based on the obvious fact that he could kick anybody’s ass in the room. The big Samoan ordered two of the boys to set out a futon for Chad in the corner of the room, which they did immediately. They then showed Chad where he was to lay his futon out in the evenings and store it in the mornings, and finally, a personal storage area much too large for his small bag.

All of the boys, as it happened, shared the big room. As far as he could tell, they spoke more or less freely with each other, laughing occasionally from one corner to the other as much as the boundaries he had noticed permitted. But beyond Taylor’s initial gesture, no one made any effort to include him, including the other boys from Hawai‘i, who bantered fluently in Japanese. Chad realized as he lay on the cold, hard floor that his time in the spotlight was over. This was not the sumo he had seen on television. Konishiki’s limo, stardom, big money—it all may as well have been another ten-day-long flight away from this hard, cold floor. They’ll take care of everything. Right. All he could think about as he drifted off to sleep was home, and what a huge mistake he had just made by leaving.

SOURCE: Gaijin Yokozuna: A Biography of Chad Rowan, by Mark Panek (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2006), pp. 16-17

The 2006 Aki Basho (Fall Tournament) is now underway, with one gaijin yokozuna at the top of the banzuke, two gaijin ozeki, one gaijin komusubi, and seven gaijin maegashira: from Mongolia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Estonia, and Russia. But not a single Polynesian, I’m sad to say. I’m rooting for the Okinawan rookie Ryuho (Ryukyu Roc/Phoenix), who just made his major league (makuuchi) debut.

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Takasago-beya as Both the Yankees and the Dodgers

While Azumazeki-Beya had been open for only two years, Takasago-Beya was steeped in sumo history. Of the fifty-odd sumo-beya [sumo stables] currently housing rikishi [professional sumo wrestlers] in various parts of the surrounding neighborhood, Takasago ranked fifth in years of operation, dating back to 1878—by no means the beginning of sumo, but an age when the sport began to take on its present structure. In addition to Azumazeki-Beya, Takasago spawned Takadagawa-Beya, Nakamura-Beya, Wakamatsu-Beya, and Kokonoe-Beya. Takasago Oyakata had risen to yokozuna [grand champion] back in 1959, competing as Asashio [one of my childhood favorites—J.]. The fifth Takasago Oyakata, he had taken over in 1971 when the previous Takasago Oyakata, who had also risen to yokozuna competing as Maedayama, died. The line of oyakata stretched back to Takasago Uragoro, who oversaw two yokozuna and three ozeki [champions] of his own. Over the years, nearly one-tenth of the yokozuna promoted since the inception of the rank in the mid-nineteenth century (six of sixty-two, by this time) stomped their first shiko [raise one leg, stomp it, squat] into the Takasago-Beya keikoba [practice room]. If American Major League Baseball were a hundred years older (and if baseball players shared this unforgiving, monastic lifestyle), Takasago-Beya might be comparable to Yankee Stadium.

Takasago-Beya was perhaps more notable in a Brooklyn Dodger way than in a way befitting Yankee pinstripes. In addition to Taylor [Wylie], John [Feleunga], Konishiki [Saleva’a Atisano’e], and Nankairyu, Chad [Rowan] saw two other foreigners in the room, members of Takasago-Beya. While other sumo-beya had recruited rikishi from Brazil and Argentina, and would later look to Mongolia, the only foreigners yet to have really impacted the national sport were limited to this room. Twenty-four years earlier on a demonstration tour to Hawai‘i, the fourth Takasago Oyakata had taken a chance on Jesse Kuhaulua, the beginning of Hawai‘i’s connection with Japan’s national sport. Kuhaulua had trained and competed for more than twenty years at Takasago-Beya as Takamiyama. He now presided over asa-geiko [morning practice] next to the present Takasago Oyakata, on nearly equal terms, as Azumazeki Oyakata.

SOURCE: Gaijin Yokozuna: A Biography of Chad Rowan, by Mark Panek (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2006), pp. 38-39

In looking for links for this post, I came across an interview with Hawai‘i-raised amateur sumotori Kena Heffernan, Yale ’96, Sumo cum laude.

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