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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 7, 2007

Maui-born Kuhaulua able to bridge generation gap

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Columnist

Photo galleryPhoto gallery: Jesse Kuhaulua
Video: Former Hawai'i sumotori embrace event this weekend
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Retired sumo wrestler Jesse Kuhaulua, or Takamiyama, finds a young fan in 7-month-old Elle Mizue.

GREGORY YAMAMOTO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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One after another they approached him, pictures and posters in hand, many of the bearers either too young to remember or not even born when Jesse Kuhaulua last caused the earthen sumo ring to rumble in competition nearly a quarter-century ago.

Apparently there is no expiration date on the legend of Takamiyama. No limit on the shelf life of being Hawai'i's first sumo superstar.

"A lot of people told me their grandfather or grandmother had been fans of mine," Kuhaulua said. "And, that's how they knew me."

From Baldwin High football player to the first foreign-born holder of an Emperor's Cup, symbolic of a tournament championship in Japan's national sport, Kuhaulua's story has indeed been one for the generations. In Japan, his tale was used in English textbooks, the better to inspire students. In two countries and two languages, he is known simply as "Jesse."

So, it was small wonder a line was waiting for Kuhaulua when he sat down yesterday morning at Shirokiya and a steady stream of people kept him busy. At times, however, it was hard to tell who was most touched, the fans who sought autographs or the mountain of a man who signed them.

"It made me very happy," Kuhaulua said later in his trademark hoarse, whispery voice, the result of a blow to his vocal chords decades ago when he wrestled as Takamiyama, mountain of the lofty view.

Some fans were noticeably moved by the opportunity to shake his meaty hand or take a picture. Admirers in their 70s looked like hero-worshipping teenagers. One man brought posters from a 1978 ad campaign Kuhaulua did for Panasonic.

Kuhaulua has made these public appearances at Shirokiya for decades since taking up the sport in Japan, always drawing crowds. But yesterday's appearance is likely his last, lending a poignancy that both the Maui-born Kuhaulua and his fans sensed.

Kuhaulua's 63rd birthday is next week, meaning the clock is ticking on his mandatory retirement from the sport that has furnished the only full-time job he has ever known. A ground-breaking stable owner and coach since his last competitive match in 1984, Kuhaulua is back home to help promote and oversee the Hawai'i Grand Sumo Tournament, which runs Saturday and Sunday at Blaisdell Arena.

And to say his good-byes as a member of the sumo fraternity "because the people from Hawai'i really supported me," Kuhaulua said. In his early years as a raw sumo recruit, fans from home dropped into his stable to wish him well and shouted "geev 'um" at his matches. The 442nd Veterans Club furnished some of his kesho mawashi, the expensive ceremonial aprons, before he could afford such trappings of the fast rise in rank.

When he came home, they turned out in huge numbers at the state capitol and for almost biennial appearances at Blaisdell in the middle of his career. Numbers that, at the time, were matched only by the tributes for the Fabulous Five University of Hawai'i basketball team.

This week's senior walk is altogether fitting because Kuhaulua was a trailblazer who opened the doors of the sumo world for the two dozen Hawai'i hopefuls who followed in his massive footsteps. In time, Konishiki, Akebono and Musashimaru would win more tournaments and achieve higher ranks. But none ever forgot who had cleared the way for them. None failed to pay him homage, including Musashimaru, who shared the dais with Kuhaulua yesterday.

This week Kuhaulua went back to Maui to a reunion of sorts with schoolmates from the class of '63. The fact that "they're all retired," as Kuhaulua put it, was further reminder of the urgency of putting his sumo affairs in order. Kuhaulua said he plans to turn his stable over to Ushiomaru, his maegashira 15 protege, upon reaching 65. Then, he'll divide his time between Hawai'i and Japan. In the meantime, there is the matter of saying good-bye here.

Unlike the last time he stepped into the ring at Blaisdell in 1984, when then-president Ronald Reagan sent a telegram to be read and fans demanded Kuhaulua be there for curtain calls, he figures to go out with less fanfare this weekend.

But, as yesterday demonstrated, with a considerable legacy secure in the hearts of generations of fans.

Reach Ferd Lewis at flewis@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8044.