Former Sumo Grand Champion and Hawaii native Akebono Taro dies at 54

TOKYO (NEXSTAR) — Hawaii-born Akebono Taro, one of the greats of sumo wrestling and a former grand champion, has died at 54. He was the first foreign-born wrestler to reach the level of “yokozuna” — or grand champion — in Japan.

Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, they plan to honor his memory with a private celebration of life.

Sumo legend Akebono remembered by friends

“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 family said in a statement.

Accompanied by a sword-bearer, grand champion Akebono performs the ring-entrance ritual during the annual New Year's dedication at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, on Jan. 8, 1997. Hawaii-born Akebono, one of the greats of sumo wresting and a former grand champion, is reported to have died earlier this month of heart failure while receiving care at a hospital in Tokyo, the United States Forces in Japan said in a statement on Thursday, April 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, File)
Accompanied by a sword-bearer, grand champion Akebono performs the ring-entrance ritual during the annual New Year’s dedication at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, on Jan. 8, 1997. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, File)

His wife, Christine Rowan, in an email to The Associated Press, said he died “within the past week” but declined to give details.

“I had to tend to personal matters that needed to be done prior to publicly announcing my husband’s death,” she said.

Akebono grew up on the rural side of the Koolau mountains from Honolulu and was born Chad George Ha’aheo Rowan.

He moved to Tokyo in the late 1980s and won his first grand championship in 1993. He was an 11-time grand tournament winner and retired in 2001.

At the prime of his career he was a real giant, reported at the time to weigh 500 pounds (225 kilos) and stand 6-feet-8 — or 2.03 meters.

“At that time, late 80s and 90s. I mean, everybody was looking at Chad, everybody was looking at Kunishige. But Chad was the first. Chad was the first to break that ceiling,” said Kena Heffernan, Aloha State Sumo Association.

Heffernan said he helped pave the way, inspiring future generations.

“They know that, from watching these guys and from their practices, they gotta be all heart and fighting spirits gotta be coming first. And he cannot separate the sport of Sumo from the spirit,” Heffernan explained.

“Sumo goes all the way back to Japanese creation myths. In other words to the beginning of time,” explained author Mark Panek. “Up until Akebono time, he was only the 64th person to have reached this top rank.”

Panek spent a great deal of time with Akebono, writing his biography “Gaijin Yokozuna: A Biography of Chad Rowan.” Panek said Akebono was able to break down those cultural barriers and rise to the highest level of sumo because of his upbringing in Waimanalo, Hawaii.

“His accomplishment and what he has done not just for Japan, but for Hawaii, was done completely from the heart and he got really nothing materialistically or monetarily in return for that,” Panek added. “It was just all giving. And that really matches kind of the reason why he was able to have this cultural success over there. Is that not that he kind of learned how they do it, but that he did it in a Waimanalo way.”

Friend and restaurant owner Ryoji Soranaka said Akebono never forgot where he was from.

“We had karaoke at our restaurant, he would always sing ‘Waimanalo Blues,’” Soranaka said smiling. “Local boy at heart, he used to always come into the restaurant and say he needed to recharge…He was the real deal, he made it to yokozuna, and that’s what we always called him out of respect, not Chad but yokozuna, yokozuna. But he was always down to earth, just one of the boys.”

Those close to him say they’ll miss his heart and fighting spirit most.

“It wasn’t just some guy, this was like the embodiment of what Hawaii likes to think of itself as full of Aloha love and care for others,” Panek said. “To have even a single person like that pass is a real loss.”

The United States ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, sent his condolences on social platform X.

“I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Akebono, a giant in the world of sumo, a proud Hawaiian and a bridge between the United States and Japan,” Emanuel posted.

“When Akebono became the first-ever foreign-born grand champion, sumo’s highest rank, in 1993, he opened the door for other foreign wrestlers to find success in the sport. 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.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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