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The first foreign-born grand champion of sumo, Akebono Taro, dies at age 54

TOKYO — Hawaii-born Akebono Taro, one of the greats of sumo wrestling and a former grand champion, has died. He was 54. He was the first foreign-born wrestler to reach the level of yokozuna — or grand champion — in Japan.

"It is with sadness that we announce Akebono Taro died of heart failure earlier this month while receiving care at a hospital in the Tokyo area," the family said in a statement.

His wife Christine Rowan, in an email to The Associated Press, said he died "within the past week" but declined to give details.

"I had to tend to personal matters that needed to be done prior to publicly announcing my husband's death," she said.

Akebono grew up on the rural side of the Koolau mountains from Honolulu and was born Chad George Ha'aheo Rowan.

He moved to Tokyo in the late 1980s and won his first grand championship in 1993.

At the prime of his career he was a real giant, reported at the time to weigh 500 pounds (225 kilos) and stand 6-feet-8 — or 2.03 meters.

The United States ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, sent his condolences on social platform X.

"I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Akebono, a giant in the world of sumo, a proud Hawaiian and a bridge between the United States and Japan," Emanuel posted.

"When Akebono became the first-ever foreign-born grand champion, sumo's highest rank, in 1993, he opened the door for other foreign wrestlers to find success in the sport. Throughout his 35 years in Japan, Akebono strengthened the cultural ties between the United States and his adopted homeland by uniting us all through sport."

Akebono was an 11-time grand tournament winner and he retired in 2001.

The family's statement said friends and family will hold a "private celebration of his life." He is survived by his wife, Christine, daughter and two sons.

"The family kindly asks for privacy during this time of mourning," the statement said.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 NPR]