The View from Japan
Torii Gate




by Tim Young

(originally published in Eye-Ai, December 1999)

Ake smiling at interviewIt's a paradox that the individualistic West favors sports that emphasize teamwork, while in East Asian countries such as Japan, where the group is most important, sports such as judo and sumo pit two individuals against each other.

Hawaiian-born Chad Rowan, better known as sumo's grand champion (Yokozuna) Akebono, has participated in both types of sport. A basketball player while at Oahu's Kaiser High School ("The reason why I didn't play football is because I don't really like contact sports," he deadpans), he was subsequently discovered by a friend of Jesse Kuhaulua, who, as Takamiyama, began the "Hawaiian invasion" of sumo in the 1960s; he is now known as Azumazeki.

"When I first met my stablemaster," recalls Akebono, who grew up in Waimanalo, "he was more interested in my younger brother, because of his size. They thought that I was too tall for sumo, too lanky. I was lucky enough that he gave me the chance to come, and I did the best I could."

His best was plenty. Chad came to Japan in 1988 and began learning sumo; he moved into the top Makuuchi Division a couple of years later. After winning back-to-back championships (November 1992 and January 1993), he was promoted to Yokozuna, the first foreigner to reach the top rank. He won four of the six regular tournaments in 1993, and has won a whopping nine overall.

When I met Akebono in late August, he was coming off the disappointment of his last-day loss to underdog Dejima in the Nagoya Basho; Dejima stepped out of the way and Akebono crashed to defeat. "If I did win that last tournament, I probably wouldn't be as concentrated as I am right now, not working as hard as I am right now," he said, adding that he now feels he's in the best condition of his career, and that the best is yet to come. "I'll win the next one," he confidently declared.

The 204-cm, 239-kg wrestler displays a philosophy that seems both individualistic and group-oriented. On the one hand, he takes sole responsibility for his own performance. Regarding his disappointment in July, he said it was because he had just been away from the sport too long. "It's something that you gotta go out there and feel until you can get back into your rhythm," he explains. "In my head and in my heart I know I wasn't nervous, but someplace in my body I got nervous and I couldn't win."

On the other hand, having become a Yokozuna and a family man, he feels that he is no longer wrestling just for himself. Having a baby, he explains, "makes you wake up. It's not like you can just go out there and do anything anymore. You have responsibilities, a family to support." He adds that the change "has been a big plus for me, especially my daughter." Though he has won nine tournaments in the past, "I haven't had the chance to hold her and the championship trophy yet, so that's another big goal that I'm working towards."Ake in the ring before a match

He also speaks of having the "responsibility of being a Yokozuna." Being part of a sumo stable is, of course, an identification with a particular group, and as Azumazeki Beya's lone Yokozuna--in fact, lone upper-division (Makuuchi) wrestler--he feels almost parental about his stablemates: "the kids in our stable are part of my family." This group-oriented dimension of sumo can also act as an enhancement to personal performance, he notes: "When I do good, the whole stable tends to do good, and vice versa."

Interestingly, although he admits sumo is a tougher life than having a desk job, he doesn't find that much difference between his chosen vocation and the nine-to-five world. When asked if he enjoys the training, he says, "Now I do. But when you're hurting someplace, it's like anybody else: if you get a cold and you go to work, you're not enjoying what you're doing at work. It's the same."

Sumoists are promoted and demoted according to their most recent tournament performance; however, once reaching Yokozuna, a wrestler remains there. Then, however, there is pressure to keep winning or else retire. Akebono finds that this causes him to approach sumo with a completely different mindset from before. "When you're coming up, you can go out there with the attitude, 'So what if I lose? This guy is higher ranking than me; I can go out there and just go full blast without thinking about anything.' But once you make Yokozuna, it's totally different. When you're feeling good and you're not hurt, you go out there with a 'Nobody can beat me' attitude. But when you're hurting someplace and you're not doing too good, then you go out there with the mindset 'What if I lose?'Ake performing the ring-entering ceremony

"That's difficult during a tournament," he goes on. The hardest part is not to be physically ready, but mentally so. "You've gotta stay concentrated twenty-four hours a day for fifteen days, for something that will last you maybe ten to twenty seconds. And that's real hard. The mindset is real hard. Especially like when I came back in May, coming off my injuries, the press bugging you... and you just gotta stay focused and find your 'world', and stay in that 'world' until the end of the tournament."

Again and again, he points to concentration as being a key element of success, the difference between winning and losing. The successful wrestler in the midst of a tournament has to focus on the fight to the exclusion of all else. "When you start hearing people cheering, that's when you know you're in trouble; you're not focused.

The pre-fight staring match is often thought of as an opportunity to intimidate the other guy, but according to Akebono, in this ritual, "you're supposed to be trying to get on the same wavelength" with your opponent, rather than intimidating him; it's a chance to attain the concentration he says is so important. Still, he admits, sometimes he can see what the other guy is thinking, "Especially those little wimps that jump to the side," he jokes. "You can see in their eyes, they're looking, they're trying to see where they're going to jump."

"Sumo is more of a reaction sport than thinking," says the Yokozuna in a slow drawl, sounding almost like a Brooklynite. Because it's hard to think during a bout lasting ten to twenty seconds, "I try to practice to where my body can react [automatically]."

To remain focused during a tournament, he follows the exact same schedule for each of the 15 days. "When I get into my rhythm, I do everything the same way. My eyes open in the morning at the same time for fifteen days, I go to the bathroom the same time, I take a shower the same time, and basically (wife Christine) makes it easier for me to do that by having stuff ready when it should be ready."

He thinks many other wrestlers follow similar rhythms, or are otherwise superstitious. "When you start winning, you don't wash your hair, you don't shave. That's why you see some guys during the tournament, they start getting a little goatee..."

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Copyright 2003 This page last updated November 1, 2002 . E-mail Tim