By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Michael Tsai
In keeping with Japanese tradition, the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano could not begin without a powerful but humble address to the gods and a ritualistic purifying of the grounds. As was only appropriate, these solemn duties fell to the highest-ranking champion from the country's oldest and most revered sport.
With athletes from 72 countries looking on, Yokozuna Akebono took center stage that night and, in a show of awful, graceful power, performed the sacred rituals to cultural perfection.
It all made perfect sense: Who better to represent Japan to the world than one of the elites of its national sport? Who better to sanctify the arena of competition than the living embodiment of sumo's highest virtues?
What was striking about the scene, however, was that the central figure in the proceedings, Akebono, was gaijin, a foreigner. On the world's grandest athletic stage, the face that proudly ethnocentric Japan presented was that of Waimanalo-bred Chad Rowan.
In "Gaijin Yokozuna," the recently released biography about Rowan, University of Hawai'i-Hilo professor and author Mark Panek delves into the seemingly paradoxical statement made by that highly televised moment.
"Here was a gaijin leading the opening ceremony on the largest stage in the world," Panek said. "It was the whole book in one image."
Not content to simply chart Rowan's rise to the highest rank of the sport, Panek presents an intriguing study of Rowan as a outsider whose deft cultural performances evoked the Japanese identity so central to sumo's ages-old identity.
Panek's own life leads him to understand something of the gaijin experience.
The 39-year-old author grew up in Amityville, N.Y., a place where, in his words, "the sun rises to 12 degrees above the horizon, then goes back down."
After earning a degree in history from Colby College in Maine, Panek bought a one-way ticket to Hawai'i, arriving in Ho-nolulu with just $500 and a surfboard.
Panek spent his days at the beach and worked nights as a waiter. It was a comfortable life for a 23-year-old college graduate, but Panek knew it wasn't what he wanted to be doing in 10 years. When a friend from the bar circuit who was moving to Japan asked Panek if he wanted to come along, Panek jumped.
After a relatively easy cultural transition from the East Coast to Honolulu — "It was more loneliness and homesickness than cultural problems," Panek said — assimilation to Japan was harder than he imagined.
He got a "McTeaching" job as an English instructor but didn't speak a word of Japanese. Using a pay phone was a challenge. Ordering food was an adventure. But it was the stares that weighed on him.
"You eventually get tired of people looking at you all the time, and then you start to feel it even when they aren't," Panek said. "When you don't know the language, you maybe get self-conscious. When they laugh, you wonder if they're laughing at you.
"The Japanese are wonderful and hospitable," said Panek, who met his wife, Noriko, during a second stay in 1998. "But the stress of feeling different is still there. It's a thing that accumulates and you get tired. Eventually, a tiny thing can become a breaking point."
At night, Panek turned to the television for diversion, scanning the channels for something that made sense.
"Sumo was the only thing I could understand on TV," Panek said. "It was 1992, the year Koni-shiki was passed over for yokozuna. Sumo had become an international event. I would turn on the TV and see this local guy, Akebono, winning these tournaments."
The 6-foot-8, 510-pound sumotori continued to loom large in Panek's mind when Panek returned to Hawai'i after a year in Japan. Enrolling in a biography course at the University of Hawai'i, Panek found a reason and road map to pursue what was becoming a consuming fascination: the growing contingent of Hawai'i-born wrestlers.
Panek wrote letters to both Rowan and Konishiki (Saleva'a Atisanoe). Since he didn't know their addresses, he delivered the letters to post offices in Waimanalo and Nanakuli — then waited.
"Chad's mom called back," Panek said. "After 20 minutes on the phone, she invited me to her house."
Randy Rowan, Chad's brother, said Panek proved his mettle just by showing up.
"Our neighborhood is not a particularly good neighborhood for a guy like that," Rowan said, laughing. "But then this haole guys comes walking up like nothing. I gave him credit for coming. We figured, 'He's here. We might as well let him in.' "
And did they ever. After two hours absorbing photo albums and videos and small-kid-time stories, Panek drove back along the long, winding road, his mind buzzing with possibilities.
By the time Panek reached home, the class research paper had turned into a master's thesis and — was it possible? — a book.
It wasn't until 1998, when Panek returned to Japan, master's degree in hand, that what was to become "Gaijin Yokozuna" began to take shape in earnest.
Panek had called Rowan's stable and got in touch with the stable boss, Hawaiian sumo pioneer Jesse Kuhaulua.
"I told him what I was writing about," Panek recalled, "and he said, 'Come Wednesday.' "
In Japan, Panek met with Kuhaulua and two other Hawai'i-born sumotori, George Kalima (Yamato) and future yokozuna Fiamalu Penitani (Musashimaru), whose nephews Panek had taught in elementary school.
Through Kalima, Panek gained insight into the cultural shapeshifting that gaijin wrestlers must master to gain acceptance and recognition within the sumo world.
Kalima, who started his sumo career at the relatively late age of 20, would also serve as a bridge between Panek and Rowan's similar but distinct experiences. Kalima is featured prominently in "Gaijin Yokozuna."
"When we got up there, we knew practically nothing about the culture," Kalima said. "We were fumbling in the dark.
"It is hard to live day by day," he said. "Japan is not what it seems like on TV, all nice and proper. It's really not."
For Rowan, Kalima and the blossoming contingent of Hawai'i wrestlers, the transition was especially jarring.
"When people watch the matches on TV, they think 'I can do that. That'll be me when I get there,' " Kalima said. "But no way. It's way harder than it appears to be.
"You get out of high school all wishy-washy behind the ears, and then you get there and you have to grow up fast. Some of these guys start at 15, and they're thrown into a big room with grown men who have been banging heads for years.
"When you come in and can't speak the language, it's even worse."
Following the sport's rigid, kohai-senpai seniority system, Kalima started at the bottom, sweeping floors, clearing bedrolls and taking orders from teenagers who had more sumo experience.
"It (irritates you), but there's nothing you can say," he said. "They can hit you, but you can't hit them back except in the ring. For us, practice time was payback time."
While Kalima would rise to the prestigious Makuuchi division, he remained ever aware of the cultural gulf that separated him from the crowds that packed his matches.
"You always felt different," Kalima said. "They have a saying, 'If you aren't Japanese, you cannot understand.' And if you do understand, then go back to Rule No. 1 — you don't understand.
"Most of the time, you wouldn't hear anything, but then there's that one (expletive) in the crowd yelling, 'Don't lose to the gaijin!' It dampens your morale until you hear someone else yell 'Yamato!' I'd make sure I won for that one guy."
Kalima admits he was taken aback when he saw Panek, "that haole," walk in ("late!") to one of the daily practices at his stable. He was reluctant to talk to Panek at first, but soon warmed to what the would-be biographer was intending. They would become good friends over the next several years.
"He definitely understands," Kalima said of Panek. "If he was a Japanese (author), he wouldn't have experienced the racism, the dirty talk and the dirty looks that go on. If he wasn't a foreigner like us, he'd never have felt like a foreigner. He pretty much got the experience we got, just not in the sumo world."
FINDING THE STORY
Rowan would recognize that same depth of understanding. During their initial meetings, the yokozuna offered the young author rare access to his unique story.
"After I turned the tape recorder off, I told him that I was thinking of writing a book about him, not just a dissertation," Panek said. "He sort of tilted his head then said, 'Yeah, I've been looking for someone to do that.' "
They agreed that Panek would accompany Rowan on an exhibition tour. Before they parted, Rowan also gave Panek four pages of his own writing.
Panek followed Rowan for a month — an experience he likens to the film "Almost Famous" — gradually accumulating the information and the insight he would need for his book.
From Rowan, Panek heard another perspective on stories shared with him by the yokozuna's family — the Jehovah's Witness upbringing, the complicated relationship with Rowan's loving but troubled father, the low expectations that came with being an awkward, late-blooming kid from Waimanalo.
Rowan described the shock of arriving in Japan without knowing the language and culture — and, later, his experience of unprecedented success as a Hawai'i-born yokozuna.
Had Panek been willing to follow the popular model for "definitive biography," that would have been enough. In the wake of his mentoring by Hawai'i-based biography experts such as George Simpson and Craig Howes, however, Panek recognized the complexity of the story.
"What I got was background, but there was stuff that was happening before my eyes," Panek said. "I had trouble with how to handle that. The information he gave me about his past took us into what he was telling me about the present. There were levels of narrative time in his story."
UPS AND DOWNS
Panek also was conscious that Rowan, while a cooperative and thoughtful interview subject, was presenting him — directly or indirectly — with his own interpretation of his life, a self-constructed framework of information from which Panek would have to mold his own narrative.
Panek struggled with these questions throughout his stay in Japan.
His sense of cultural isolation, at least, was relieved when — homeless, jobless and broke — he met Noriko and was welcomed into her family. He tightened his shaky grasp of the Japanese language by sharing meals with Noriko's mother. He got a job teaching and worked his way out of debt.
"For so long, I had been lonely," he said. "And now I had a family."
Panek returned to Hawai'i in 2000, and continued to parse out the story.
Panek and Chad Rowan have spoken only sparingly since the 1998 exhibition tour, most recently at the funeral for Percy Kipapa, another former sumo wrestler from Hawai'i.
Still, Panek followed Rowan's career all the way to the wrestler's career-closing 11th tournament victory in 2000. He was at Rowan's retirement ceremony in 2001.
Rowan "provided a nice ending by going out on top," Panek said. "What I had to do was take a good step back to write."
'A HAWAIIAN WRAPPED IN ONE HAOLE BODY'
The human subject of "Gaijin Yokozuna" is never in doubt, yet Panek added a different level of meaning by interweaving his own experiences as a gaijin in Japan and a biographer grappling with practical, theoretical and ethical challenges. Panek says his book is "a biography," not "the biography" of Rowan.
One of the issues Panek struggled with was how to handle the very personal and previously unspoken stories that Rowan's family had shared.
"Writing can be invasive," Panek said. "You can do harm to something just by writing about it. Jan (Rowan's mom) was extremely open about very personal things. I needed to put certain things in to prove the thesis, but not in a sensational or sleazy way."
To Randy Rowan, the sumotori's brother, Panek had found just the right touch.
"My father used to tell me no share family stuff with nobody," Rowan said. "What Mark wrote, nobody else would have heard that. It had to come from Chad or from my mom, and when I read those things, I could hear Chad's voice. It was like Mark wen' sit down with bradda and just talk story.
"I never felt that (Panek) was trying to make us look bad," he said. "The stuff about my mother and father was true. The book shows the hardships and the good that came in the end. That's what makes it good to me."
For all of Rowan's accomplishments, and for all of his skill in observing proper Japanese etiquette and protocol, he left the sumo world just as he had entered it: a gaijin. It was a scenario that repeated itself with each of the Hawai'i-born athletes who dared to leave home and wrestle in Japan.
Yet Rowan, now a mixed-martial-arts fighter, always has Hawai'i to call home.
So does Panek, who now lives in Hilo with Noriko.
"To me," Randy Rowan said, "Mark is a Hawaiian wrapped in one haole body."
Reach Michael Tsai at email@example.com.
Correction: Book signings for "Gaijin Yokozuna: A Biography of Chad Rowan" by Mark Panek will not be conducted this week; dates in a previous version of this story were in error. The signings will be 3 to 4:30 p.m. Sept. 21, Kuykendall 410, University of Hawai'i-Manoa; noon to 1 p.m. Sept. 23, Borders-Ward Centre; 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. Sept. 23, Barnes & Noble-Kahala Mall; 1 p.m. Sept. 24, Barnes & Noble-Ala Moana Center.