Taro Akebono: Hawaii-born Japanese sumo legend dies

  • By Hannah Ritchie
  • BBC News

image source, Good pictures

image caption, Hawaiian-born Taro Akebono was considered a trailblazer for foreign sumo wrestlers.

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

The Hawaii-born wrestler died earlier this month in a Tokyo hospital, his family said in a statement.

A towering figure in the sport, literally and figuratively – the 210kg, 2m-tall (462lb; 6ft 6in) giant was famous for his unique fighting style that often saw him knock his opponents out of the ring.

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

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

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 – a title the sumo council had previously ruled off-limits to non-Japanese athletes.

Breaking down barriers, his devotion to the game saw his popularity rise and earn him the respect of local fans.

Sumo magazine editor Yoshihisa Shimoi wrote in 1993, “He makes me forget that he is an outsider because of his serious approach to sumo.

During his career he won 10 more championship titles while bringing in millions of viewers from all over the world.

His legendary rivalry with Japanese brothers Takanohana Koji and Masaru Hanada was widely credited with breathing new life into the sport at a time when it was struggling for relevance.

In 1996, he became a Japanese citizen, taking the name Taro Akebono. When he retired from sumo wrestling in 2001 due to repeated injuries, more than 11,000 spectators attended his exit ceremony – during which his top knot was gradually untied by 320 friends and former competitors.

“I feel more sad than I expected. My head feels lighter. I think it's not the weight of my hair, but the weight of my responsibility,” she said.

As tributes were paid on Thursday, some of the sport's biggest names honored him for his strength, humility and grace.

“It happened so suddenly, I can't find the words to send him off. He was a man full of love,” Hanada wrote on X, earlier on Twitter.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel praised Akebono for serving as a “bridge between America and Japan” and strengthening cultural ties between the two countries.

Former sports broadcaster Neil Everett credits Hawaii for representing Hawaii in Japan and carrying “the weight of the entire state” on his shoulders.

Akebono is survived by his wife Christine Rowan and their daughter and two sons.

Additional reporting by Shaima Khalil and C Kobayashi in Tokyo

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