Gaijin Yokozuna: A Biography of Chad Rowan
320pp. May 2006
Gaijin Yokozuna: A Biography of Chad Rowan
Author: Mark Panek;
At the age of eighteen, Chad Rowan left his home in rural Hawai'i for Tokyo with visions of becoming a star athlete in Japan's national sport, sumo. But upon his arrival he was shocked less by the city crowds and the winter cold than by having to scrub toilets and answer to fifteen-year-olds who had preceded him at the sumo beya. Rowan spoke no Japanese. Of Japanese culture, he knew only what little his father, a former tour bus driver in Hawai'i, had been able to tell him as they drove to the airport. And he had never before set foot in a sumo ring.

Five years later, against the backdrop of rising U.S.–Japan economic tension, Rowan became the first gaijin (non-Japanese) to advance to sumo's top rank, yokozuna. His historic promotion was more a cultural accomplishment than an athletic one, since yokozuna are expected to embody highly prized Japanese values such as hard work, patience, strength, and hinkaku, a special kind of dignity thought to be available only to Japanese. He was promoted ahead of his two main rivals, the brothers Koji and Masaru Hanada, who had been raised in the sumo beya run by their father, the former sumo great Takanohana I. Perhaps the defining moment of the gaijin's unique success occurred at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, when Rowan, chosen to personify "Japanese" to one of the largest television audiences in history, performed a sacred sumo ritual at the opening ceremony.

Gaijin Yokozuna chronicles the events leading to that improbable scene at Nagano and beyond, tracing Rowan's life from his Hawai'i upbringing to his 2001 retirement ceremony. Along the way it briefly examines the careers of two Hawai'i-born sumotori who paved the way for Rowan, Jesse Kuhaulua (Takamiyama) and Salevaa Atisanoe (Konishiki). The author shares stories from family members, coaches, friends, fellow sumo competitors, and of course Rowan himself, whom he accompanied on three Japan-wide exhibition tours. The work is further informed by volumes of secondary source material on sumo, Japanese culture, and local Hawai'i culture.

20 illus.

"A sumo fan since 1992, a biographer of his subject, former yokozuna Akebono since 1998, Panek got as close to Akebono as anyone from the outside could without actually joining his stable, family, or entourage. He also interviewed many people around Akebono, both in his native Hawai‘i and in Japan, while deeply researching sumo as a way of life, as well as a professional sport and cultural touchstone. The result is a solid, insightful, sympathetic portrait of Akebono and sumo. . . . Unlike writers about sumo who only skim the exotic surface, Panek reveals the not-always-wonderful realities of Akebono’s sumo career. . . . Gaijin Yokozuna is the best sumo biography in English, and few books in English or Japanese can match it in bringing sumo—and one sumotori—to vivid, compulsively readable life." —Japan Times

"A hybrid that is part sociological study, part memoir, and part examination of the sumo world. Panek, a sympathetic critic of this last subject, writes extremely well of Akebono’s struggles to adapt his completely unsuitable body to the ring, which ‘he found a small and circular test of truth.’ But what takes Gaijin Yokozuna above the standard sports biography is Panek’s argument that Akebono’s success was not only in winning bouts, but also in acting assimilated when he had to." —Daily Yomiuri

"I received this book just three days before writing this review, and simply put, just could not put it down. . . . There is a great amount of narrative about the sport itself without even mentioning the yokozuna’s name, and I must admit, these are the parts that gave me goose bumps . . . It’s an amazing portrait of sumo experiences." —Sumo Fan Magazine

"An excellent, well researched, and most importantly, interesting biography of Akebono . . . . Panek keeps the story moving while weaving in various characters that populated Akebono’s life as a rikishi. Panek’s access to the Rowan family has allowed an honesty to flow throughout the book that is not evident in many ghost-written autobiographies. It is thought-provoking, and for many of us who lived in Japan, it is a reminder of the effort it can take to be accepted in that country. I would highly recommend this book to any sumo fan or someone who has an interest in Japanese culture." —

Author: Mark Panek;
Mark Panek's interest in sumo began in 1992, when an increasing number of foreign athletes attaining high ranks sparked interest in the sport at home and abroad. He returned to Japan six years later to follow Japan Sumo Association exhibition tours, attend major tournaments and daily practices, interview many of the main figures that appear in this book, and write. He is currently professor of English at the University of Hawai'i, Hilo.
Read the prologue (PDF).