Biographers of living celebrities must make a fundamental choice: write from the inside or the outside. At one extreme are the insiders — friends, relations or paid hacks — who may see and hear much outsiders don’t, but end up writing book-length fan letters. At the other extreme are the writers, usually hacks of another sort, who recycle gossip and scandal, with a eye on the sales charts.
Then there is the third way, which Mark Panek attempts in “Gaijin Yokozuna: A Biography of Chad Rowan.” A sumo fan since 1992, a biographer of his subject, former yokozuna Akebono, since 1998, Panek got as close to Akebono as anyone from the outside could without actually joining his stable, family or entourage. He also interviewed many people around Akebono, both in his native Hawaii and in Japan, while deeply researching sumo as a way of life, as well as a professional sport and cultural touchstone. The result is a solid, insightful, sympathetic portrait of Akebono and sumo.
But Panek also agonized over how to present his material, putting the book through several rewrites. The University of Hawaii Press finally published it this year — not long perhaps in the geologic time frame of university presses, but an eon in the here-today-gone-tomorrow world of celebrity journalism. Akebono, meanwhile, retired in 2001 and left the sumo world in 2003 for a mostly losing career as a K-1 fighter. Now a pro wrestler with an uncertain future, he has fallen from a respected (if not always loved) national figure to a variety-show punch line.
Panek’s book, which ends with Akebono’s loss to former NFL player Bob Sapp in his first K-1 bout, on New Year’s Eve, 2003, presents a last glimpse of Akebono as a battered-but-unbowed champion, not the over-the-hill athlete he actually was. This approach — focusing almost entirely on Akebono’s early life and sumo career — gives “Gaijin Yokozuna” a period air, as if instead of being fresh from the publishers, it is a leftover from the 1990s.
The strongest sections of the book are about Akebono’s early days, which relate, with carefully rendered dialogue and revealing anecdotes, his sumo apprenticeship at Azumazeki stable, where he struggled with the strange food, bullying and homesickness, and his boyhood as Chad Rowan in Waimanalo, Oahu, the Polynesian community where he first became involved in sports — baseball, basketball and football — and developed the work ethic that was to serve him so well in sumo.
Unlike writers about sumo who only skim the exotic surface, Panek reveals the not-always wonderful realities of Akebono’s sumo career, including his rocky relationship with his Hawaiian-born oyakata (coach) and his relegation to the role of foreign bad guy in his rivalry with ozeki Wakanohana and yokozuna Takanohana, two brothers who were heirs to a sumo dynasty.
But Panek clearly admires his subject so much as a fan and friend that he either can’t see or bring himself to frankly describe the forces from within and without that would make Akebono’s post-sumo life so difficult. That said, “Gaijin Yokozuna” is the best sumo biography in English and few books in English or Japanese can match it in bringing sumo — and one sumotori — to vivid, compulsively readable life.