An Unassuming Sumo Champion

American Chad Rowan says he was transformed by Japanese spirit

PRESIDENT Clinton's new ambassador-designate to Tokyo might take a few lessons from a gentle giant of an American who already knows how to throw his weight around in Japan - even against a reporter.

Chad Rowan, a Hawaiian, came to Japan just five years ago at the age of 18 and quickly rose through the ranks of the most ancient and traditional Japanese sport, sumo wrestling.

Sumo, he discovered, is not so much a sport as a way of life. Japan, too, is not so much a country as a way of being. To truly know its uniqueness means absorbing it on its own terms.

When Mr. Rowan was finally chosen in January as sumo's grand champion - the first foreigner to reach the top rank, called "yokozuna" - the Japanese admired him less for his sports skill than his transformation into someone with Japanese "spirit." He is not a boastful victor but has become a humble, dignified, and gracious leader - all 6 ft., 8 in. of him.

If he had stayed in Hawaii, he says, he probably would have been a beach bum. Instead, he has become a sumo star with the new name of Akebono, or "dawn," having gained a good command of Japanese and an unstoppable bulk of 462 lbs.

The fact that he was chosen as a champion by one of Japan's most exclusive and conservative groups, the sumo association, is less impressive than his transformation as a person.

"When I came here, I just threw away everything I had learned in 18 years in Hawaii," Akebono says. "I threw it all away. It was just like being born again." He so impressed a group of foreign reporters recently that they threw out any pretense of objectivity and applauded him for his self-effacement and witty insights. Many beseeched him for autographs.

Instead of an autograph, this reporter received a hand thrust to the throat. Akebono had been asked to demonstrate his winning technique, and I was chosen as the nearest dummy, since I head Tokyo's foreign press corps. Even though I appear sumo-like in height and, some say, in girth, Akebono was gentle. A mere touch to my Adam's apple sat me back in my chair.

At first sight, sumo looks like a bunch of blubbery boys in silky G-strings belting each other out of a dirt ring. But if one looks closer, sumo's rituals, its Marine-like training, subtle tactics, and the attitude of the players become more important than the wrestlers' distended physiques or even who wins.

Unlike the other great Japanese sport, judo, sumo will never be in the Olympics, says Akebono: "If you take it outside of Japan, it won't work."

While Akebono says he has become more Japanese, he has not lost touch with his roots. "I'm still proud to be an American," he says with an old pride.

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