10 September 2006

A Foreign Sumo Recruit's Big Mistake

When the television crew left, Boss went upstairs to his third-floor apartment, leaving Chad in the big room with twelve other boys ranging in age from fifteen to twenty-one. They also ranged in size, from surprisingly scrawny younger kids to the imposing, four-hundred-pound Samoans from Hawai‘i, Taylor Wylie and John [Feleunga]. Chad looked from one to the next as they stared at him, sizing him up like a battle-seasoned army platoon eyeing an unlikely recruit. Each had his hair tied into a single knot that was folded over, looking like a samurai in the movies Chad had watched on TV. Purple welts and bruises covered most of their faces. Many of them had their arms folded so that the fabric of their robes stretched tight enough to display bulging biceps. Chad understood the energy he was sensing from them: testosterone. These guys fought for a living, day after day. They fought. As of yet, he did not.

Some of the younger Japanese boys began barking at him in words he could not understand, as if to order him around. Their guttural commands were more reminders of those samurai movies he and his brothers used to mimic in exaggerated grunts and mumbles. He turned to John and said, "Excuse me, John-san, what they wen' say to me?"

"What I look like?" the Samoan glared at him. "Your fuckin' interpreter?"

The blast of cold wind back at the airport had shocked him less. He stood motionless, trying to figure out the reaction somehow. It made no sense to him. While he might have expected trouble from the Japanese, John had been through exactly what he was now dealing with. He could have made things smoother for Chad with a few simple words: "they wen' tell you for layout your futon," or "they like know why you so tall." Support from John did not have to last forever, Chad thought, but he had only been in the country a matter of hours. Instead it was, more or less, "just 'cause I local no mean I going help you—you're on your own, Hawaiian."

Confined now to silence, Chad continued to look around and take in the complex web of power surrounding him, one based on age, time served, and strength. In the last and most important of these, it was immediately clear that Taylor was The Man. Only eighteen as well, Taylor had come to Japan the year before and now ran the heya, as Chad could already tell, based on the obvious fact that he could kick anybody's ass in the room. The big Samoan ordered two of the boys to set out a futon for Chad in the corner of the room, which they did immediately. They then showed Chad where he was to lay his futon out in the evenings and store it in the mornings, and finally, a personal storage area much too large for his small bag.

All of the boys, as it happened, shared the big room. As far as he could tell, they spoke more or less freely with each other, laughing occasionally from one corner to the other as much as the boundaries he had noticed permitted. But beyond Taylor's initial gesture, no one made any effort to include him, including the other boys from Hawai‘i, who bantered fluently in Japanese. Chad realized as he lay on the cold, hard floor that his time in the spotlight was over. This was not the sumo he had seen on television. Konishiki's limo, stardom, big money—it all may as well have been another ten-day-long flight away from this hard, cold floor. They'll take care of everything. Right. All he could think about as he drifted off to sleep was home, and what a huge mistake he had just made by leaving.
SOURCE: Gaijin Yokozuna: A Biography of Chad Rowan, by Mark Panek (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2006), pp. 16-17

The 2006 Aki Basho (Fall Tournament) is now underway, with one gaijin yokozuna at the top of the banzuke, two gaijin ozeki, one gaijin komusubi, and seven gaijin maegashira: from Mongolia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Estonia, and Russia. But not a single Polynesian, I'm sad to say. I'm rooting for the Okinawan rookie Ryuho (Ryukyu Roc/Phoenix), who just made his major league (makuuchi) debut.

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