The Grand Sumotori Are Coming!

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - February 21, 2007
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There is something interesting about Hawaii sumotori. They appear to have the natural ability to seemlessly balance between two cultures. Maybe it’s the equal familiarity of Kikaida and musubi. Or quite possibly the shared belief in the importance of family and the submission of the individual to the greater good of the community. Whatever it is, Yokozuna Musashimaru is home no matter where he is.

Better known to those at Waianae High as Fiamalu Penitani, the man who had a winning record in 55 consecutive events - nearly 10 years - was in town last week to help promote the 2007 Grand Sumo Tournament that takes place June 9-10 at the Blaisdell.

Though some 500 pounds, Musashimaru carries himself with a great deal of confidence and a regal nature that epitomizes the ancient sport. As he sits straight-backed with his head held high, it can be a bit intimidating to approach him. Not because of his large frame, or the hands that can swallow half your arm, but because he’s a yokozuna, a living symbol of an entire nation. Pretty heady stuff. Yet all this melts as soon as he opens his mouth and the pidgin starts to flow. Suddenly he turns from untouchable star to just another local boy from the Leeward side.

“I’m just a normal guy,” he says. “Nothing changed except my rank. I’m just the same guy.”

While the life of a high ranking sumotori is one of privilege and deference, for the lower level wrestlers things can be downright brutal. Not only do they begin arduous training that runs from 4:30 a.m. to noon, but they also must do all the cooking and cleaning while serving as near indentured servants to the higher-ranking members of the stable. It would seem that this part of the sumo business would take the most getting used to for outsiders. But for Musashimaru it was never such a big thing. Evidently, life in the stable is much like that in the Penitani household - chores to do, no questions asked.

Musashimaru splits his time between Japan and Hawaii, visiting family and friends about every other month while getting the rare opportunity to be Fiamalu and not the stunning look-alike of Saigo Takamori, the 19th century military hero who helped defeat the Tokugawa shogunate and restore rule by the emperor.

The wrestler with a career 706-267 record has another two years before he has to decide if he wants to continue in the sport - it’ll cost him about $2 million to purchase stock in the sumo association that will allow him to remain in the sport in an official capacity. Currently, he is undecided and is in no hurry to jump into a decision. After 14 years of steady competition and training, he says he is happy to impart his knowledge to the next generation. Not to mention the much more relaxed 8:30 a.m. start times.

With Hawaii’s love for physical sports, it’s a bit surprising more young men from the 50th State are not trying to make their way in Japan. The movement that began with Jesse Kuhaulua in 1964 has sputtered out after the highly successful careers of Konishiki, Akebono and Musashimaru. Whether or not future wrestlers follow in their footsteps, it may come down to how well these men are able to sell the sport.

For Musashimaru, it’s easy: “I’m still going to carry the word sumo with me. I’m proud to be a sumo wrestler. If it wasn’t for sumo, I wouldn’t be here.”

While some top ranked sumotori have made headlines over the years for dating starlettes or getting into squabbles with officials and family, Musashimaru stays largely out of the spotlight and therefore out of trouble. He’s single and pretty much keeps his routine between stable and his apartment that is within walking distance. When he is out and about in Tokyo, Musahsimaru is careful. Even adoring crowds can become dangerously out of control as many see it lucky to shake hands with or touch a yokozuna:

“That’s the hard part about being famous - everyone wants to touch you. So I have to be careful that no one gets hurt.”

Tickets start at $35 - a bit less than the thousands it would cost to attend the same event in Japan. No airfare either.

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