Hawaiian set to be top sumo wrestler

FOR THE first time in the 2,000- year history of sumo wrestling in Japan, a foreigner is to be awarded the highest title of yokozuna, or grand champion.

A formal announcement is expected tomorrow. Officials from the Sumo Association have left little doubt that they will confer the honour on 23-year-old Chad Rowan, a Hawaiian who fights under the name of Akebono and who on Sunday won his third national sumo tournament.

The decision to make a Hawaiian head of Japan's national sport was not easy, and comes at the end of several years of acrimonious debate over the presence of foreigners in sumo. Sumo has strong links with Japan's Shinto religion, replete with hosts of good and bad spirits, and the sport's main patron is the Emperor himself.

Last year another Hawaiian, Konishiki, seemed on the verge of winning the title, but was put off. Konishiki later said in an interview that he was a victim of racial discrimination. Several officials of the conservative Sumo Association have publicly voiced their opposition to foreigners in the sport, and public-opinion polls still show significant resistance to the idea of a foreign yokozuna.

But the growing strength of foreigners - mostly from Hawaii or other Pacific islands - in sumo, their proven dedication to learning the Japanese language and culture as well as the art of wrestling, and a perceived need for more kokusaika, or internationalisation, throughout Japan finally made Akebono's promotion almost as inevitable as his 466lb bulk is unstoppable in the ring. He clinched the New Year tournament with a victory over the ever-popular Takahanada on Sunday, and was almost immediately proclaimed a grand champion by sports commentators.

Akebono's appointment to yokozuna brings a heavy burden of tradition and symbolism with it. At the opening of the next sumo tournament in March, all eyes will be on him as he enters the ring for the opening ceremony, wearing the distinctive yokozuna's belt of white rope, which is associated with sacred objects in the Shinto religion.

He will then clap his hands to summon the gods, rub his hands together in a gesture of purification, turn to face the Emperor, raise his right leg high in the air, and bring it crashing down on the ring, to scare away all the evil spirits. And assuming he achieves all this with the necessary air of hinkaku, or dignity, he will receive roars of approval from the crowd for his mighty act.

Becoming yokozuna is not something to be taken lightly. There have only been 63 so far in the history of the sport.

At a press conference yesterday, Akebono said: 'Yokozuna to me is like becoming a god - I always thought it was beyond my reach.' He had earlier tried to defuse the racial debate over his success: 'I hope people will look at me as just a sumo wrestler, not as a foreigner or Japanese.'

(Photograph omitted)