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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 6, 2010

Team ’Tiser chronicled sumo history in making

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Ferd Lewis.

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Editor's Note: Ferd Lewis has been with The Advertiser since 1974, first as a reporter and the past 20 years as a columnist. He is the last of the Ferds on the staff after the passing in 2006 of Ferd Borsch. Ferd Lewis is graduate of Foothill High School (Bakersfield, Calif.) and Fresno State University and attended graduate school at the University of Hawai'i.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Reporter Ferd Lewis and photographer Greg Yamamoto covered Akebono becoming the first foreign-born yokozuna in the centuries-old sport.

Advertiser library photos

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

The Lewis-Yamamoto team were welcomed back to Fukuhachi to report on the end of Akebono's reign and the rise of Wai'anae's Fiamalu Penitani, or Musashimaru, above.

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The gray Tokyo skies grew darker on the late January 1993 morning as throngs of fans made their way down the gravel path under the giant torii leading into the venerable Meiji Jingu.

The Shinto shrine to the spirits of Emperor Meiji was the site for something unique in the history of the nation's centuries-old sport of sumo: Chad Rowan, a hulking 6-foot, 8-inch native of Waimanalo was to be ritually installed as the first foreign-born yokozuna in sumo's proud history.

He had earned the promotion to the sport's most exalted rank days earlier, defeating Takanohana in a championship bout of such anticipation and import that more than 40 percent of Japan's households tuned in on television.

This time the massive former Kaiser High basketball player, whose ring name was Akebono, was a curious sight, his 400 pounds of flesh wrapped only in a belt-like mawashi and ceremonial cotton rope fronted by zig-zag-shaped squares of white paper.

Yet so great was the pressure and visibility of his first public ring-entering ceremony required of newly minted yokozuna that even as temperatures dipped under 30 degrees, the beads of sweat grew on Akebono's face.

Meanwhile, Advertiser photographer Greg Yamamoto and I, having staked out prime spots amid the forest of Japanese news media, tried to keep our hands warm while holding on to cameras and note pads and assuring security that, honto ni (really), a newspaper from Honolulu had sent us there to write and photograph it all.

And, then, it began to snow and excitement rippled through the gallery of onlookers as the snowflakes were collectively read as a sign reaffirming the importance of the occasion. For in Japanese history a number of events, including the so-called 2-2-6 Incident on the pivotal path to World War II, took place amid snowfalls.

Fans pressed against the ropes to watch Akebono's every movement for clues as to whether he would be a fitting yokozuna. Akebono, who changed later to flowing robes, solemnly performed his ritual public duties after days of behind-closed-doors tutelage from former yokozuna. He did it with sufficient form and dignity that he was hailed as a "worthy" figure head for the sport.

For Yamamoto and I, it was but Day 2 of a marathon up-close and revealing behind-the-headlines look at sumo the way few — Japanese or foreign — have been privileged to see it.

We got beyond the considerable barricades of the ruling Japan Sumo Association and into the stables, locker rooms and hangouts of the sumotori thanks to Hawai'i-born Jesse Kuhaulua, the Hawai'i contingent and Toshiharu Kyosu, the Peter Gammons of sumo.

It was a whirlwind nine days, time of little sleep, demanding deadlines — and a string of experiences we will long cherish.

We ate breakfast in a sumo stable, tried to explain the lyrics of a Brother Iz song to some young sumotori and, over drinks with our Japanese colleagues, complained about the bane of reporters and photographers everywhere: editors.

We also discovered our "Cheers" — a tightly packed 12-seat yakitori bar named "Fukuhachi" — in the smokey warren of 1920s alleyways behind Shinjuku Station where we made our pau hana headquarters.

Years later, Yamamoto and I returned to Tokyo to chronicle the end of Akebono's reign and the rise of Wai'anae's Fiamalu Penitani as Musashimaru when Hawai'i sumotori were a staple of the sport.

They warmly welcomed us back to "Fukuhachi" — the "two sumo kisha (reporters) from Hawai'i" — where, somehow, a copy of one of the stories we had done from the previous visit was framed on the wall.