Japan from the inside out

Requiem for a yokozuna

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 28, 2008

ARE YOU READY for this?

Japanese professional wrestling promoters Zero 1 Max held wrestling matches at the Yasukuni Shrine (yes, that Yasukuni Shrine) last weekend in an oblational service for the divinities.

The event, dubbed the Yamato Kamisu Strength Festival, was held for a fourth straight year to help bring back the good old days of professional wrestling in Japan. The shrine’s dohyo, or sumo ring, was rearranged to enable the installation of a special wrestling ring for 2,000 spectators. The sumo ring is located near an excellent spot for cherry blossom viewing, so at past events fans have been able to enjoy the refined delights of an o-hanami while cheering the choke holds. This year’s Strength Festival was held before the blooms opened, however. Children of junior high school age and younger were admitted free of charge.

The event was started in 2005 by Hashimoto Shinya, a professional wrestler who died later that year at the age of 40. This year’s card featured seven matches.

Ready for another one?

There is a long tradition of professional wrestlers fighting at Yasukuni Shrine. The most recent occasion before this series 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.

But the maiden event occurred in March 1921, when American wrestling legend Ad Sentel took on several Japanese judo practitioners from the Kodokan dojo, including Nagata Reijiro, and won all his matches. This story has an interesting background. Sentel took on judo fighter Ito Tokugoro in 1914 and beat him. Ito had publicized himself as a “Japanese judo champion”, so Sentel claimed after his victory that he was the “World Judo Champion” (proving that professional wrestlers haven’t changed much in the past century.) This prompted the embarrassed head of the Kodokan dojo to arrange the matches with Sentel at Yasukuni. The American’s victories popularized what some call “submission wrestling” in Japan.

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.

Ready for one more?

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 performing ritual

The term yokozuna is usually translated as grand champion, but it is best understood by describing it as the top classification in the sumo ranking system (which is somewhat similar to martial arts). Only the best of the best are elevated to yokozuna status. (Akebono was just the 64th rikishi to earn that rank.) Those chosen are not just the most successful athletes in the Japanese national sport, they are also expected to exemplify its living spiritual traditions, which are 2,000 years old.

For Akebono to become a professional wrestler, it is as if Michael Jordan decided to take up roller derby.

A decade ago, Akebono, who was born Chad Ha’aheo Rowan in Hawaii, was one of the foremost figures in international sport, in his or any era. Because sumo is followed by few people outside of Japan, and because rikishi compete under specially chosen names, his identity and accomplishments are unfamiliar to many.

Rowan was not merely very good—he absolutely dominated sumo during a career that lasted from 1988 to 2001 and set records in the process. And to scale the sumo summit, he had to leave his home in Hawaii to live in Japan and master a foreign language, the techniques of an unfamiliar sport, and the customs and traditions participation in that sport demands.

Rowan appeared in his first tournament in March 1988. There are six tournaments a year, and just 30 tournaments later, in January 1993, he became sumo’s first non-Japanese yokozuna. It was the fastest rise to this rank in the sport’s history. Further, Akebono was the only rikishi to hold the highest rank for nearly two years. Some have likened this feat to a Japanese who has never seen or played football going to an American university and winning the Heisman Trophy four years later.

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.)

His stunning competitive record was not the only reason for Akebono’s popularity among the Japanese. Participation in sumo demands an attitude and approach that is almost aesthetic. Unlike his fellow Hawaiian Konishiki, who whined that racism prevented his promotion to yokozuna, Akebono pleased even the most demanding purists with his demeanor. More than a few Japanese wondered if a non-Japanese would ever be honored with elevation to the top rank, as sumo is a conservative, traditional sport in a country that prizes conservatism in its traditions. But Akebono made history in January 1993.

Forced to retire due to a series of knee injuries, there were a wealth of opportunities to pursue. He could have opened his own training organization, as do many former famous rikishi. He could have parleyed his name and fame into television commercials, as did Konishiki. He could have married a trophy wife, as did Takanohana. Indeed, he could have done all three. He was well paid during his days in the ring, earning US$15,000 a month at his peak, not counting bonuses for tournament victories, and could have made a lot more in any number of ways.

So what did Akebono choose to do after retirement? He became a K-1 fighter.

I’m not sure how well known K-1 is outside of Japan, but in Japan it is an extremely popular fighting sport. Venues with a capacity of 45,000 have been known to sell out for matches in an hour. Conducted in a boxing ring, the sport’s promoters claim it combines the martial arts of karate, Thai kickboxing, tae kwon do, and kung fu. The matches seem to be above board, but all the commentators have a background in professional wrestling. Here is their official website.

But it was not just a case of Akebono deciding to become a K-1 fighter. He was a really bad K-1 fighter. Starting with his debut on New Year’s Eve 2003 against Bob Sapp, a fighter so well known in Japan that the bout was dubbed a dream match, the former rikishi was handed his lunch every time he stepped into the ring. His matches seldom lasted more than a couple of minutes against opponents that were often lightly regarded in K-1 circles.

Then the SmackDown! Xprofessional wrestling show made its way to Japan two years ago. Akebono attended and was invited into the ring by one of the wrestlers, The Big Show. The two shook hands and exchanged pleasantries before Akebono left. But Akebono didn’t leave it there. In a story familiar to anyone who has ever been a 10-year-old boy, there was a report that SmackDown’s announcer “tracked Big Show down backstage and told him word out of Japan was that Akebono wanted to face Show at WrestleMania 21 later that year in Los Angeles.”

Big Show accepted the challenge and the match was arranged. It was a sumo style match, which naturally gave Akebono an advantage. Perhaps the organizers did not want Akebono to flop as badly in professional wrestling as he did in K-1. Another possibility was suggested by wrestling commentator NormanB: “What’s going to happen: Akebono wins, because celebrity pseudo-wrestlers NEVER lose to sports entertainers. Examples: Lawrence Taylor, Jay Leno, David Arquette, Mr. T, Kevin Greene…”

During a weigh-in that must have used cattle scales, Akebono showed up at 504 pounds while the seven-foot-tall Big Show tipped the scales at a mere 493. The Big Show has a sense of humor about his size. He told an interviewer, “We have to take these small commuter planes, and I feel like I’m wearing the plane, not sitting in it.”

The interviewer asked him if professional wrestling was fake, recalling that another wrestler once told him the moves were choreographed but the pain was real. Here’s Big Show’s answer:

I’ve had Undertaker kick me in the nuts so hard in The Garden, I just about passed out on Triple H. The chairs are metal, and your ears will ring for about two days after a good chair shot. That’s the thing that people don’t understand. We put our bodies on the line to tell that emotional story.…I just hope that one day they have a Mac Truck wheel chair so I’ll be able to get around.


Once upon a time, Akebono was the most respected member of a 2,000-year-old tradition, a record holder, and a true pioneer after rising to the top as a foreigner in a world that is one of the most traditional of Japanese endeavors. Yet a little more than a decade later, he was challenging Big Show to a match in WrestleMania 21. The result? Big Show briefly picked up Akebono up off his feet, but after one minute and two seconds, Akebono shoved his opponent out of the ring. He was a victor again, though this time it was probably scripted. And I’m sure the pain was real.

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.

If the dramatist and author Rod Serling were still alive, he might call this Requiem for A Yokozuna.

5 Responses to “Requiem for a yokozuna”

  1. Joel said

    Nice backgrounder and follow-up on Akebono. What a long sad fall from his pinnacle.

  2. […] 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 […]

  3. KokuRyu said

    I watched Bob Sapp defeat Akebono in all of three seconds on New Year’s Eve 2003 and practically bawled my eyes out. I had religiously followed sumo throughout the 90’s, but after Akebono quit (and Terao and Wakanohana) it just wasn’t the same.

  4. Joel said

    I was proud as hell of Akebono when he represented Japanese sumo at the Nagano Olympics. But nowadays I just want to avert my eyes if he’s in any kind of ring.

  5. ampontan said

    Kokuryu: I pretty much stopped after Chiyonofuji quit. That guy had the eyes of an NFL linebacker. Terao was cool, too; everybody liked him. Another reason was that a guy who worked for a local radio station told me about the prevalence of yaocho.

    Takanohana always reminded me of the Pillsbury doughboy for some reason. He was just on TV this week, with his wife in the audience. (The Mino Monta Final Answer thing.) He lost most of his weight and looks normal, but she is not aging well.

    My wife couldn’t handle him, however. She thinks he acts like a showbiz phoney.

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