Japanese sumo legend Taro Akebono dies

April 12, 2024
Taro Akebono
Taro Akebono

TOKYO — Sumo legend Taro Akebono, who drove a resurgence in the sport's popularity and became its first foreign grand champion, has died of heart failure at the age of 54.

The Hawaiian-born wrestler passed away in a Tokyo hospital earlier this month, his family said in a statement.

A towering figure of the sport, both literally and figuratively — the 210kg, 2.03m-tall (462lb; 6ft 8in) giant was famous for his unique fighting style that often saw him thrust his opponents out of the ring.

On both sides of the Pacific, fans and peers paid tribute to him as a pioneer who had blazed a path for other foreign sumo wrestlers to follow.

Akebono had been battling illness since collapsing in the city of Kitakyushu seven years ago, according to local media.

Born Chad Rowan in 1969, he grew up in Honolulu before moving to Japan in 1988 to pursue his wrestling career.

Within six years he would become Japan's 64th yokozuna — or grand champion — an honour which the sumo council had previously ruled was off-limits to non-Japanese athletes.

As well as breaking barriers, his devotion to the sport saw his popularity skyrocket and won him the respect of local fans.

"He makes me forget he is a foreigner because of his earnest attitude toward sumo," the editor of Sumo Magazine, Yoshihisa Shimoie, said in 1993.

During his career he went on to claim 10 more championship titles, while bringing in millions of viewers from around the world.

His famous rivalry with the Japanese brothers Takanohana Koji and Masaru Hanada is widely credited as breathing fresh life into the sport, at a time when it was struggling for relevance.

In 1996 he became a naturalised Japanese citizen, taking the name Taro Akebono. When he retired from sumo wrestling in 2001 due to repeated knee injuries, over 11,000 spectators attended his leaving ceremony — during which he had his topknot gradually cut off by 320 friends and former competitors.

"I feel sad, much more than I had expected. I feel my head is lighter. I think it is not the weight off my hair but the weight off my responsibility," he said at the time.

As tributes poured in on Thursday, some of the biggest names in the sport honored him for his strength, modesty, and kindness.

"It was all so sudden, and I cannot come up with words to send him. He was a person full of love," Hanada wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel praised Akebono for serving as a "bridge between the United States and Japan" and strengthening cultural ties between both countries.

Former sports broadcaster Neil Everett credited him with representing Hawaii in Japan and "carrying the weight of the entire state" on his shoulders.

Akebono is survived by his wife Christine Rowan, as well as their daughter and two sons. — BBC

April 12, 2024
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