Akebono, sumo wrestling legend, dead at 54

TOKYO — Akebono Taro, a Hawaiian-born sumo wrestler and former yokozuna, has died. He was 54 years old. He was the first foreign-born sumo wrestler to reach the level of “yokozuna”, or grand champion, in Japan.

“We regret to announce that Taro Akebono passed away due to heart failure while receiving treatment at a Tokyo hospital earlier this month,” the family said in a statement.

His wife, Christine Rowan, said in an email to The Associated Press that he died “within the past week,” but did not provide further details.

Sumo legend Akebono passed away at the age of 54. Reuters

“I had to deal with some personal things that I had to do before publicly announcing my husband’s death,” she said.

Akebono grew up in the rural Koolau Mountains from Honolulu and was born Chad George Ha’aheo Rowan.

In the late 1980s, he moved to Tokyo and won his first Grand Championship in 1993.

At the height of his career, he was a true giant, weighing 500 pounds (225 kilograms) and standing 6 feet 8, or 2.03 meters, according to reports at the time.

On July 15, 2000, during the 15-day Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament, Akebono (left) pushed lower ranking wrestler Tama Kasuga (right) out of the ring. Jiji Press/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel expressed his condolences on social platform X.

“I am very saddened to learn of the passing of Akebono, a giant in the sumo world, a proud Hawaiian, and a bridge between Japan and the United States,” Emmanuel wrote in a post.

“In 1993, Akebono paved the way for other foreign wrestlers to succeed in the sumo world when he became the first foreign-born Grand Champion, the highest ranking in sumo.” By uniting all of us, he strengthened the cultural bond between the United States and his adopted homeland.”

Akebono, a native of Hawaii, became Japan’s first foreign-born sumo wrestler. Reuters

Akebono won the Grand Tournament 11 times and retired in 2001.

A family statement said friends and family will “privately celebrate his life.” He is survived by his wife Christine, a daughter, and two sons.

“The family asks that their privacy be respected during this time of mourning,” the statement said.