U.S.-born wrestler retires from sumo To Japan's astonishment, Konishiki reached second-highest level


TOKYO -- He is to other men what Mount Everest is to a hillock, and for 15 years the 600-pound wrestler known as Konishiki has been one of the most famous and even influential foreigners in Japan, helping to open the ancient sport of sumo to the outside world.

Yesterday, after an extraordinary career that began when he first entered the ring in 1982, Konishiki announced his retirement. His withdrawal from sumo competitions is a landmark event in Japan, treated as far more serious by most people than the departure of any ambassador.

Rumors of his retirement have blazed across the tabloid front pages for days.

Born Salevaa Atisanoe in American Samoa and raised in Hawaii, he took the name Konishiki when he began competing in sumo. And although he never was awarded the highest rank, he was the first foreigner to achieve the second-highest rank.

More broadly, Konishiki helped pry open sumo to international competition. He forced Japan to confront questions about whether its sacred national essence could ever be mastered by foreigners. The answer came in the affirmative when another American was later elevated to the highest rank of sumo.

"I've had all kinds of different feelings over the years," Konishiki // said on Japanese television last night. "But I'm glad that I've continued with sumo, because I've learned a lot from sumo, and I've also learned the Japanese language and lifestyle."

Konishiki, 33, retired because he had suffered a growing number of defeats and would have been demoted to a lower division if he had stayed.

One reason for Konishiki's poor record in recent bouts is health problems and chronic injuries, some relating to his vast bulk. He suffers from gout, a stomach ulcer and longtime knee problems.

Konishiki, who acquired Japanese citizenship in 1994 but is still widely regarded as a foreigner with a Japanese passport, will remain in Japan as an elder in sumo circles using the name Sanoyama.

It is difficult for foreigners to appreciate how startling and unsettling it was for many Japanese when Konishiki first began soaring through sumo rankings, winning upset victories over grand champions. Sumo is more than a sport in Japan -- it is also a profound ritual that has close connections to Shinto, the traditional religion, and is closely tied to imperial history.

Legend has it that the Japanese gods used to have sumo matches, and from them the sport supposedly spread to humans more than 2,000 years ago. In ancient times the emperors are said to have served as referees.

Konishiki's critics complained that he triumphed by virtue of bulk rather than skill, and that he lacked the aura and dignity of a yokozuna, or grand champion, the top rank in sumo.

Still, Konishiki's successes paved the way for another American, Akebono, to be promoted to yokozuna in 1993.

Pub Date: 11/23/97

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