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Akebono Taro: First foreign-born sumo champion dies at 54

April 11, 2024

Born in Hawaii, Akebono had taken up Japanese citizenship and spent 35 years there. US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel said he was "deeply saddened" to learn of Akebono's passing.

Taro Akebono performs a special "dohyo-iri" or ring-entering ceremony in 1995
Akebono retired from sumo wrestling in 2001Image: TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP via Getty Images

Akebono, the first non-Japanese grand champion or "yokozuna" of sumo wrestling, died of heart failure this month at age 54, said his family in a statement received by the office of Hawaiian Governor Josh Green.

"It is with sadness that we announce Akebono Taro died of heart failure earlier this month while receiving care at a hospital in the Tokyo area," the statement said. He is survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter.

At a height of 2.03 meters (six feet, eight inches) and weight of 233 kilograms (513 pounds), he was known for using his body to thrust opponents out of the fighting ring.

Who was Akebono?

Born in Hawaii, Akebono was an American citizen named as Chad George Ha'aheo Rowan. He was recruited by a Hawaiian head of a Japanese sumo stable as a college basketball player.

He began his sumo career in 1988 and reached the highest rank of yokozuna soon after, in 1993. He was the sport's 64th yokozuna. As a wrestler, he won 11 championships, the tenth highest number in modern sumo history.

He eventually became a Japanese citizen and took the name Akebono Taro. 

Akebono was not the first foreigner to enter the world of sumo wrestling. He was preceded by Konishiki Yasokichi who also came from Hawaii, and was a contemporary of Musashimaru Koyo hailing from Samoa, who had also reached the rank of yokozuna.

Akebono 'strengthened' US-Japan ties, ambassador says

"Throughout his 35 years in Japan, Akebono strengthened the cultural ties between the United States and his adopted homeland by uniting us all through sport," US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel posted on social media platform X.

Akebono had retired from sumo wrestling in 2001, but continued to fight in mixed martial arts and wrestling events.

His family and friends will hold a private memorial in "celebration of his life," the statement said. 

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tg/wd (AP, Reuters)