JAPAN WATCH : American Yokozuna

In the arcane world of Japan’s sumo wrestling, history has been made. The first foreigner, or gaijin, has become grand champion of a sport unique to Japan. And he is an American, at that.

Chad Rowan, 23, whose professional name is Akebono, was unanimously recommended to become the grand champion, or yokozuna, by an advisory panel to sumo’s ruling body. The 6-foot-8, 466-pound Akebono, who played basketball at Hawaii Pacific College, was bestowed the honor after winning, as required, his second consecutive tournament, a contest held last Sunday.

The issue of giving sumo’s highest honor to a non-Japanese had sparked considerable controversy, beginning last year when Salevaa Atisanoe, a 576-pound Hawaiian known as Konishiki, was denied the grand championship. The denial became a metaphor for a closed Japan, unwilling to open its markets and society to outsiders.

Now, Japan’s sumo ruling body wisely has resisted xenophobic and chauvinistic pressures. Besides distinguishing himself by reaching sumo’s pinnacle faster than any Japanese, Akebono is perceived as having hinkaku, a grace or dignity befitting a grand champion.


Sumo, a sport in which one giant athlete tries to push, slap and shove another out of a ring, is steeped in ancient traditions and the Shinto religion. Legend has it that the first two wrestlers were gods. Akebono will participate in a three-hour Shinto ceremony at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo.

Akebono, whose name means sunrise, brings a new dawning to the ancient sport.