The sumo world is saddened by the passing of Larry Loyes Kukahiko Aweau, the man most responsible for the sport’s “Hawaiian invasion.” A judo black belt whose cousin was among the first Americans to wrestle in Japan, Aweau spent decades combing the 50th state in search of sumo talent. His greatest scouting find was an ex-basketball player named Chad Rowan—a man now better known to history as Akebono.
Aweau met the teenage Akebono at a funeral, and was immediately struck by boy’s size and athleticism. But despite the scout’s best efforts, Akebono decided to play basketball at Hawaii Pacific University instead. The classwork was a killer, though, and Akebono dropped out after just a year. He took a job at a flower nursery and fretted about the future:
As he lugged cinder blocks, he tried to think of an alternative to college if he as still to help take care of his parents and his brothers. To become a hotel manager in Waikiki, he would have to be able to speak Japanese. Uncle Larry [Aweau] had offered him that chance months ago, and he hadn’t forgotten it…”If you go up there,” Uncle Larry had once told him, “you’re going to get all the glory in Japan. With your mind, I think you can be a yokozuna—the greatest champion in sumo. You’ll never regret going. I know you’ve got everything in you to make it. You just concentrate, and learn from them.” It was a free ticket—they would take care of everything. If Chad went to Japan for a couple of years, at the very least he would learn the language. And what if Uncle Larry was right? Yokozuna. He didn’t know anything about sumo. But he didn’t know that much about football, either, and they wanted him for that at the University of Hawaii. Sumo couldn’t be that hard. Just push the other guy out of the ring.
The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Learn more about the relationship between Akebono and Aweau in the great Sumo East and West, a documentary about sumo’s increasingly international flavor.