Daily Archives: 28 March 2008

Akebono: From Rikishi to Pro-Wrestler

Japan-based blogger Ampontan backs into a retrospective of former yokozuna Akebono’s spectacular career in sumo and his troubled career afterwards. The story starts with a wrestling match at Yasukuni Shrine and ends up being a requiem for a yokozuna. Here are a few paragraphs to whet your appetite.

There is a long tradition of professional wrestlers fighting at Yasukuni Shrine. The most recent occasion was April 23, 1961, when Japanese wrestling legend Rikidozan presided over a card that featured youngsters Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki, who would become stars in their own right. (Inoki also would later form his own political party and win election to a seat in the upper house.) The event attracted 15,000 people….

Holding wrestling matches for the divinities at a Shinto shrine is not as outlandish as it may seem. There is a very long tradition in Japan of festivals with competitive events at Shinto shrines. In addition to sumo, which is closely linked to Shinto, competitions at shrines include archery, tug-of-war, and, according to my reference, even cock-fighting. The idea is that the divinities will favor the more deserving competitor, and the victors in these events will have good fortune in the year ahead….

The primary draw this year was the appearance in the ring of the former sumo yokozuna Akebono fighting as one member of a six-man tag team match….

Akebono’s career match record was 654 wins and 232 losses. He won 11 tournament championships, ranking him 7th in the modern era at the time. (After Akebono retired, another foreign rikishi, Musashimaru, racked up 12. Today’s fallen superstar, the Mongolian Asashoryu, later broke Akebono’s records for speed of promotion, and won 22 championships to place fourth on the all-time list. But that’s another story.)…

Eight years ago, Akebono appeared in a sumo ritual at Yasukuni at the pinnacle of his professional fame. Last weekend, few even in Japan noticed as he threw his weight around once again to take down his opponents. He said he was nervous at first, but happy to be back.

He seems to have found his niche. He said he wants to continue his career as a professional wrestler as a single instead of being part of a tag team.

Rikidozan and Giant Baba were the first pro-wrestlers I ever saw—and that was on a black and white Sharp TV in Kyoto in the 1950s, the same place I used to catch the end of sumo tournaments after school. Sumo captured my imagination in a way that pro-wrestling never did.

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Filed under Hawai'i, Japan, sumo