Japanese pride muscles Hawaiian out of sumo's highest rank

March 23, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- No tears of joy this time from Konishiki, the 577-pound sumo wrestler from Hawaii. No promotion to the sport's highest rank, either.

Konishiki won his third Emperor's Cup in a crunching victory yesterday, but becoming first foreign grand champion in Japan's most ancient and distinctive national sport was another matter.

It's not that the the sumo world is riddled with xenophobia, as the explanation went. Please understand that it was just that, well, the foreign behemoth "did not look good" in two matches he lost during the 15-day Osaka Spring Grand Sumo Tournament.

The undertone for weeks said otherwise.

"Speaking frankly . . . we don't want to see Japanese wrestlers walking behind foreign wrestlers," an unidentified Sumo Association insider told the Mainichi newspaper last month. "We don't show this opinion to outsiders, but just as before, there is ``TC strong anti-Konishiki faction."

Japanese sportswriters had written that winning the Osaka tournament would mean that the first foreign yokozuna (grand champion) in sumo history would be this Hawaii-raised son of American Samoan parents, a former high school football lineman whose stateside name is Salevaa Fuauli Atisanoe, or "Sally" to his Hawaiian friends.

But when Konishiki lost his eighth and ninth matches last week, some Sumo Association officials did not wait for the tournament's outcome. Instead, they seized the chance to declare their opposition to his promotion even if he won the tournament.

Yesterday's victory against a fellow champion gave Konishiki his second Emperor's Cup in five months. With it came silver cups, giant jugs of sake, a 4-foot silvered Coke bottle and, literally, truckloads of other trophies. There also was a third telegram from President Bush.

"I'll devote this championship to my beloved wife, Sumika," Konishiki said in fluent Japanese after his match. As good sumo manners require, he never uttered the word "yokozuna" and became dutifully vague when a questioner raised it.

TV analysts busied themselves attributing a rebirth of his fighting spirit to his marriage last month to Sumika Shioda, a willowy model weighing less than one-fifth as much as the bridegroom, in one of the year's most publicized weddings.

But as Konishiki collected his awards, Sumo Association officials were already putting out word that the foreigner wasn't ready to be a yokozuna just yet, after all.

"Winning a tournament is a big factor, but Ozeki [champion] Konishiki's promotion may be discussed after the next tournament," said Sadogatake, a director of the association's referee department and a former grand champion. The next tournament is in Tokyo in May.

Konishiki "did not look good" in the two matches he lost, Sadogatake explained.

Konishiki, the biggest man in sumo's history and among the best-known wrestlers of any kind competing anywhere today, took the day's events with little show of emotion, just more of the familiar mixture of triumph and tribulation.

It was a stark contrast with the emotion-laden years in the mid-1980s, when he arrived from Hawaii and made one of sumo's fastest ascents.

In only 14 months, at age 21, he reached sumo's equivalent of the major leagues by 1984. He was far from the first foreign sumo, but he was by far the fastest riser.

In sumo, a sport where two obese and inconceivably quick young men in loincloths loudly smack their bodies together and then grapple in a 15-foot-diameter circle of packed sand, ritual is supposed to count for as much as size or strength. Steeped in Shinto religious ritual and known for centuries as "the sport of shoguns," it has been better known in this century as a personal obsession of the late Emperor Hirohito.

To purists, Konishiki was a 6-foot-2-inch outsider who could muscle grand champions out of the ring before he knew how to bow properly. A threat, therefore, to national pride.

What followed was more than two years of what Japan's sportswriters called the "Konishiki tempest."

Officials scheduled him against the biggest and toughest. Competitors publicly vowed to "stop Konishiki."

All young sumo wrestlers face a daunting regimen of hazing, catering to elder stable mates and stoking up on a high-calorie fish stew called chankonabe. Foreigners find the life more daunting than most Japanese, and many go home without ever competing.

Konishiki's abrupt rise added new trials. Late-night telephone callers told him to go back to Hawaii. Hate mail warned of unspecified violence. "I was so scared I could hardly sleep," he said years later.

Size was not all that alarmed his detractors.

He rented a garage to lift weights. He studied videotapes of previous matches. He brought a trombone from Hawaii and played it to relax.

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