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Fans Regret Retirement of First Foreign-Born Yokozuna

February 26, 2001
Sumo great Akebono announces his decision to retire. (PANA)

The first-ever foreign-born yokozuna (grand champion) of Japan's national sport of sumo announced his retirement in late January 2001. Taro Akebono (formerly Chad Rowan of Hawaii) belongs to the Azumazeki beya, or "stable," of sumo wrestlers. He has been nursing a long-standing knee injury that refused to heal fully, and at the age of 31 he bid farewell to 13 years of life in the sumo ring. A great yokozuna who always exhibited a courtesy and decorum more Japanese than the Japanese themselves, Akebono was much loved. This is attested by the decision of the Nihon Sumo Kyokai (Japan sumo association) to award him 100 million yen (869,565 U.S. dollars at 115 yen to the dollar) in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the sport. This amount ties with the highest amount previously awarded.

Illustrious Track Record
Akebono was scouted by sumo oyakata (stable master) Azumazeki, a fellow Hawaiian who bore the sumo name of Takamiyama before retirement. (The highest rank he reached before retiring was sekiwake, two steps below yokozuna.) Akebono dropped out of college after one year to enter the world of sumo. He made his ring debut in 1988, at the same time as the brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana, both of whom became yokozuna. (Wakanohana retired in March 2000.)

As the first rikishi (sumo wrestler) over two meters (six feet seven inches) tall, Akebono used his powerful "pushing sumo" to good effect and positively hurtled along what is known in sumo as the "success road." Following the January basho (grand tournament) in 1993, he became the first foreign-born rikishi to be promoted to the rank of yokozuna, taking only 30 tournaments to achieve this. Sumo basho are held every other month, which means that he rose from beginner to yokozuna in just five years.

Akebono obtained Japanese citizenship in April 1996. In February 1998, at the opening ceremony of the Nagano Winter Olympic Games, he performed sumo's dohyo-iri (ring-entering) ceremony, representing the people of Japan. The imposing figure of grand champion Akebono was broadcast worldwide as he performed the ceremony, bare from the waist up in the bitter cold and wearing a kesho-mawashi (decorated ceremonial apron), accompanied by a retinue of two rikishi.

Akebono won 11 grand tournaments, the seventh highest number in the history of sumo. He served as yokozuna for 48 tournaments, the fourth longest. After suffering a knee injury, he won the Nagoya Grand Tournament in July 2000, his first championship in 19 tournaments. He also won the Kyushu Grand Tournament in November. Sumo fans were excited by the signs of recovery. However, he had to sit out this year's opening Tokyo tournament in January, and after the tournament ended Akebono took the decision to retire. (Once a rikishi becomes a yokozuna, he cannot be demoted; if he can no longer live up to the title, the only option is to retire.)

Moving Press Conference
At the press conference at which he announced his retirement, Akebono said, "I don't have the strength to climb back up from the bottom of the valley once more." He spoke of his career in fluent Japanese, including the following glimpses of his life in Japan: "When I first came to Japan, it felt as if I had come to a completely different world. I was lucky enough to experience things most people don't get a chance to experience. It was hard, but I'm glad I did it. I have no regrets. . . . I have pursued my career as a Japanese rikishi. I learned many things, including Japanese etiquette and endurance." Summing up, Akebono admitted that it had been harder to stay a yokozuna than to win the honor in the first place.

It is not easy to comprehend the hardships that Akebono went through when he jumped into the world of sumo. Japanese customs are often difficult for Western people to understand, particularly the traditions to which the sumo world attaches so much importance. It is because he never gave expression to such hardships that Akebono is known as a man of character.

From now on Akebono will be helping to train and guide rikishi as a stable master attached to the Azumazeki stable. The glorious tale of the achievement of sumo's first foreign-born yokozuna, who contributed so much to Japan's sumo boom of the 1990s, will surely be remembered for generations to come.

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2001 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.