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Teetering – How Chad Became Akebono: The Truth Lies Podcast S6E6

Japan podcast sumo international relations tv news journalism career geopolitics akebono

Our podcast The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, from See Through News, Series 6, Teetering – how a Hawaiian beach bum held my career in the balance, introduces a huge character.

In Episode 6, we crane our necks to meet Akebono, a pivotal character in this sumo story – massive, really.

Like all stories, it’s best to start at the beginning:

Episode 1 – Japan in 1993

Episode 2 – Seduced by Sumo

Episode 3 – Sumo Fan

Episode 4 – My Favourite Japan Story

Episode 5 – Can Gaijin Have Hinkaku?

Next: Episode 7 -Watching the Wide Shows (to receive notifications as soon as new episodes are released, subscribe to the See Through News YouTube channel or your preferred podcast platform).

Written, narrated and produced by SternWriter

Audio production by Rupert Kirkham

Podcast sting by Samuel Wain

Series sound composition by Simon Elms

If you enjoyed this series, why not try these ones…

The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories is a See Through News production.

See Through News is a non-profit social media network with the Goal of Speeding Up Carbon Drawdown by Helping the Inactive Become Active.

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Episode 6 – How Chad Become Akebono

Combing the beaches of his native Hawaii for potential sumo wrestlers, Jesse couldn’t believe his eyes.  

Jesse, remember, was the first Hawaiian to break into professional sumo in the 1960s, and was now running his own sumo stable. He was patrolling the beaches of his native islands in search of the next Hawaiian to follow in his size 14 footsteps.

Chad Rowan was far from the only 18-year-old Hawaiian beach bum to have had his Hoop Dreams dashed. Only a tiny number of high school basketball stars ever make the grade as a pro, and Chad wasn’t among them.  

But Chad was also well over 2 metres tall, and well on the way to weighing 200 kilos.

Jesse talked Chad into giving sumo a go, and once Chad started training at his Tokyo sumo stable, Jesse couldn’t believe his luck.

Years before, on a previous Hawaiian beach reccie, Jesse had bumped into another beach bum, by the name of Saleva’a.

Saleva’a, you may recall, became Konishiki, known to foreign sumo fans as The Dump Truck, to Japanese as the first non-Japanese to ascend to the second-highest sumo rank of ozeki, and the ABC News audience as the American denied promotion to the highest rank of yokozuna.

The moment Jesse saw Chad training, he knew his beach recruitment policy had paid off again. Lightning had struck twice. He had another winner on his hands.

Jesse gave Chad the fighting name Akebono, meaning ‘New Dawn’. He trained him up, then let him loose on Japanese professional sumo.  Akebono tore through the ranks, slapping, swatting and squishing all in his way.

As Akebono progressed, Jesse taught him how to enhance his gargantuan physique with canny technique. Chad was a willing student and a quick study. He rose to the top professional division in record time.

There, Akebono, as everyone now knew Chad, came up against his role model – Hawaiian sumo pioneer and the only colleague who could keep him elevated on a see-saw. Konishiki, the Dump Truck.

It was a historic match up in many ways. 

Spectacular, as the two heaviest wrestlers of all time came face to face in the dohyo

But as we journalists were all were quick to point out in our news reports around the world, it was also the first ever professional match-up between two foreign sumo wrestlers.

Akebono beat his fellow-Hawaiian, and soon joined Konishiki as the second non-Japanese to be promoted to ozeki, Champion status.

And then Akebono only went and won two consecutive tournaments, the last one of 1992, and the first of 1993.  

The moment he lifted the Emperor’s Cup, handling the massive silver trophy the way most of us would lift a pewter tankard, everyone knew the clock was ticking.

The pressure was on. The eyes, not only of the whole of Japan, but all of America and beyond, were trained on the nine men of the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee. What would they announce at their news conference tomorrow morning?  

Their previous decision to deny Konishiki his promotion to Grand Champion, a massive story at the time, was now revealed to have been no more than a warm-up event.

Would they promote a foreigner to yokozuna this time?  

Might they divine that Akebono possessed that mythical virtue of hinkaku, that had eluded The Dump Truck?

Japan was divided. Its 125 million citizens, so famously homogenous in their outlook and obsessed with consensus, were divided, caught between Japan’s past and future. 

‘Get with the times! Accept change! Move on!’, the Modernists urged the Traditionalists.

‘Don’t let foreign influence pollute, dissolve or obliterate our unique culture’, the Traditionalists told the Modernists.

On and off, Japan had been having this argument with itself since 1853. The appearance of an iron-clad American warship in Tokyo Bay shocked Japan’s sword-wielding samurai into realising their centuries of isolation were over. 

Having banned firearms to keep the samurai sword tradition alive for centuries, Japan had left itself utterly outgunned. Modernising reformers embraced this new reality, and the rest is history, but what about this time?

By 1993, this was no longer just a Japanese internal matter. The impending decision of the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee on Akebono’s promotion meant the rest of the world now joined the argument.

We journalists couldn’t believe our luck. Japan news, always important, was suddenly urgent too.

For Tokyo-based journalists, it was always a struggle to grab the attention of editors, be they in New York, London, Paris, Brasilia, Wellington, Bangkok or Abu Dhabi. 

If we couldn’t offer up a natural disaster, or a terrorist attack, well –  there was a lot of competition on any given day. As I’d learned over the past year or so, coming up with imaginative hooks, spurious excuses and contrived anniversaries was any Japan-based foreign journalist’s  stock-in-trade.  

Finally, we had a single event that would prove Japan today was radically different from Japan yesterday.

Not only that, but a visually spectacular event to symbolise the tension in the world’s most important bilateral relationship. Despite the efforts of grandstanding congressmen with sledgehammers, current account deficits and non-tariff barriers were tough propositions to illustrate in a tight 2-minute news package.

Suddenly, were were spoiled for choice. Now, we were all black belts in Mixed Martial Metaphors. Japan was tying itself up in knots, while giving itself a black eye, painting itself into a corner and shooting itself in the foot.

The Japan Sumo Association had handed the foreign media this story on a plate. We had spectacular pictures, the chance to repeat old gags like the ’two waterbeds mating’ line, and a cracking metaphor for the biggest trade war between the world’s two biggest economies. In trade terms, it was King Kong versus Godzilla.

Of all the foreign media, America has the biggest dog in this fight. And of all American media, we at the top-ranked ABC News – the yokozuna of the networks, if you will – were top dog. 

After Akebono’s victory, the ABC News Tokyo Bureau, like our network rivals at NBC, CBS and CNN, pulled an all-nighter. Sunday is usually a slow news day, but no one ever expected a sumo story to lead the US news.

Following his second consecutive tournament win, we did an extended report on Chad Rowan’s transformation into Akebono. His epic journey from Hawaiian beach bum to potential Grand Champion.

Just as I’ve done for you, we explained sumo’s arcane traditions to an American audience.  Akebono had fulfilled the unofficial criteria of two consecutive tournament victories, we said, and in some style, losing only 3 out of 30 bouts, we added.

We covered the sporting angle, sagely observing that the last yokozuna had retired months before, leaving sumo without a single active Grand Champion. This wasn’t the first time in sumo history there’d been a vacuum at the top, we said, but it didn’t happen often, and sumo had never been bigger not just in Japan, but around the world.

Moreover, Akebono’s diligent attitude and modest demeanour had been exemplary. Being in the TV game, we showed a montage of him bowing, lowering his eyes and generally trying to look as small and humble as was feasible for a 6 foot 8 bloke who weighed a quarter of a ton.

We raked over the embers of Konishiki’s tearful apology.  We explained hinkaku, the invisible trade barrier of grace and refinement the sumo elders had claimed prevented Konishiki from being elevated to the top rank.

Look at him, we implied – how could anyone seriously argue Akebono lacked hinkaku?

As evidence, there was an absence of any footage of him doing anything other than practise diligently, covered in sweat and sand, under the hard-but-fair scrutiny of his stablemaster, and Hawaiian pioneer, Jesse.

Akebono’s sound bites were all models of sumo post-match interviewees. Akebono mumbled, eyes demurely lowered, attributing any success to hard work and the support of his stablemaster and stablemates.

Our Sunday report ended on a cliffhanger, guaranteeing another slot on tomorrow’s news bulletin. 

Tomorrow morning, the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee would meet, deliberate, and hold a historic press conference.

Would they announce that for the first time, a foreigner had ascended to the most elevated position in this iconic Japanese sport?

In the two years since I’d fallen into TV news, I’d picked up the basics of the business. Neither my American bosses nor my senior Japanese colleagues were the types to shower praise. I was in a cut-throat business in a culture of tough love. But I felt I was starting to be seen as a reasonably competent TV news producer.

But for this story, all the details and nuance I’d acquired from my personal sumo hobby were paying off in spades.  

The American bureau chief and correspondent, not easily impressed, were amazed by my command of every recondite detail of this story.

Even my Japanese colleagues raised eyebrows, tilted heads and sucked air, when I demonstrated the nerdy depths of my sumo know-how.

As I rattled off Akebono’s career stats without hesitation or recourse to any newspaper cuttings, I felt, maybe for the first time, like a proper journalist. 

But none of this mattered.  This was nothing, compared to what happened a few hours later, after that Yokozuna Deliberation Committee press conference.

In Episode 7, Watching the Wide Shows, we’ll hear the verdict of the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee.