© 2024 WSIU Public Broadcasting
WSIU Public Broadcasting
Member-Supported Public Media from Southern Illinois University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Hawaiian-born sumo wrestler Akebono is dead at 54


Sumo wrestling fans are mourning a former native of Hawaii who was the first foreigner to attain the highest ranking in Japan's national sport. Akebono died of heart failure in a Tokyo hospital this month at the age of 54, and NPR's Anthony Kuhn has this remembrance.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The centuries-old roots of sumo are intertwined with myth and the rituals of Japan's native Shinto religion. No foreigner had ever held the exalted rank of yokozuna, or grand champion, until 1993, when Taro Akebono won it. In a 2008 interview, Akebono explained to me that you don't attain the rank of yokozuna. It's the rank that picks you, and you must strive to be worthy of it.


TARO AKEBONO: Does that mean, once you make the rank of yokozuna, that be - you become a god? No, that's not the case. You try to polish yourself as much as possible to become closer to that rank of yokozuna.

KUHN: Akebono was born Chad George Ha'aheo Rowan in Waimanalo, Hawaii. He became a naturalized citizen of Japan in 1996 and took his Japanese name. In the ring, he stood 6'8" with a fighting weight of over 500 pounds. But Akebono said becoming a yokozuna was not just about how many matches he won or lost.


AKEBONO: That's not what it's supposed to be. It's supposed to be how you conduct yourself in public. It's how you - how do people perceive you? How does the public look at you?

KUHN: Yokozunas are the public face of sumo wrestling, and Akebono said public expectations weighed heavily on him.


AKEBONO: The hardest part for me was I would have all these people telling me what a yokozuna was supposed to be. Everybody you talk to has their own version, their own image, of what a yokozuna is supposed to be.

KUHN: Some foreign sumo wrestlers who came before Akebono claimed that some Japanese could not accept a foreigner taking their national sport's highest ranking. But veteran sports journalist Nobuya Kobayashi says Akebono faced no such resistance, winning fans over with his diligent training in sumo and Japanese language.

NOBUYA KOBAYASHI: (Speaking Japanese).

KUHN: "Akebono's attitude in the ring was really like a Japanese sumo wrestler," he says. "I think that made people love him."

Akebono held the title of yokozuna for eight years before retiring in 2001 at age 31. He later went into mixed martial arts and pro wrestling but was never able to replicate the success he achieved in sumo.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENDAI SONG, "TIME IN OUR LIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
As a WSIU donor, you don’t simply watch or listen to public media programs, you are a partner. By making a gift, you help WSIU produce, purchase, and broadcast programs you care about and enjoy – every day of the year.