The 432-pound man sitting on a stack of towels in the locker room of Kuramae Kokugi Hall used to be as curious to the Japanese people as double cheeseburgers and foot-long hot dogs once were.
The name is Takamiyama, and he is Japan's first foreign born, big-time sumo wrestler. His arrival from Hawaii in 1965 and his first bouts in Tokyo were as dramatic, and often as traumatic, as Jackie Robinson's joining the Brooklyn Dodgers.
It took far longer for the Japanese to digest the idea of an American sumo contender than the arrival of American fast food.
He received hate mail. Fellow wrestlers challenged him to fight. Sumo fans would approach him on the street and tell him to go home.
And here at the 1981 Tokyo tournament, as he awaits his featured afternoon bout with Chiyonofuji--arguably the best, and easily the most versatile wrestler around--Takamiyama holds court in the arena's steamy dressing room signing autographs, shaking hands with nervous schoolchildren and chatting with reporters from Japan, Europe and the United States.
Despite the poor ventilation and the sheer tonnage of the occupants, the smell in the room is not of sweat and grime but of perfumed soap. The wrestlers are meticulously clean, and many of them towel off perspiration just before a bout as a courtesy to their opponents. Imagine Jack Lambert performing such an act of grace for John Riggins.
Takamiyama wears nothing but a dash of baby powder and a pair of cotton Lion-Do boxer shorts, the waistband of which is lost in the shadow of his pendulous gut. His huge muttonchops do little to conceal a cauliflowered left ear, and because he has absorbed so many sharp parries to the throat, his voice is a gravelly whisper.
No matter how incidental the remark, everyone strains to hear him talk about his afternoon bout, for Takamiyama has become a sumo idol. There are at least a dozen wrestlers better than he, but there are hundreds who are not. Like Vitas Gerulaitis or Earnie Shavers, he has made a career as a perennial contender.
Takamiyama was born Jesse Kuhalua in 1945 in Hawaii and knew almost nothing about sumo until his high school football coach, a second generation Japanese-American, advised him to begin a regime of weightlifting and sumo agility drills. After graduating, he attended a sumo clinic given by some visiting Japanese coaches and wrestlers.
The coach of the Takasago-beya gym was so impressed with the youngster's size and potential that he invited him to begin training in Tokyo.
Kuhalua, like all sumo wrestlers, took a sumo name--Takamiyama--but acceptance came very slowly. After his controversial start, he proved himself a sturdy performer. With 14 years in the maegashira division, Takamiyama holds the sumo record for most consecutive matches.
He has become a Japanese citizen and speaks Japanese the way he speaks English--like a broken trombone.
"The Japanese respect me after all I've been through, the insults, the hard times," he says towelling off his immense palms. "My sport is tough, 365 days a year, all the time training."
The interview is over, and Takamiyama stands up, an act worthy of seismographic consideration.
Chiyonofuji takes measured strides toward the packed clay sumo ring. As he walks, the muscles in his chest, legs and back swell and recede. Although he will wait another 15 minutes before wrestling Takamiyama, Chiyonofuji is the focus of all eyes, the champion of an ancient sport.
In a world populated by men with global bellies, Chiyonofuji has a linebacker's physique. Sumo's most recently crowned grand champion yokozuna explodes out of a crouch and into the solar plexus of his opponents with agility and ferocity.
As the last two syllables of his name imply, Chiyonofuji stands atop a distinctly Japanese summit, and any comparisons with frolics as nouveau as American football can only sully sumo's name. There are no strikes, no whirlybird dunk contests, no nostril flaring brouhahas in his world.
Chiyonofuji's serene demeanor has its origins in Japan's samurai tradition and few wrestlers ever defy the code of dignity. An exception was Tenryu, who bolted sumo for professional wrestling, a move comparable to Herbert von Karajan leaving the Berlin Philharmonic for the Psychedelic Furs.
A wrestler begins his single-minded dedication to the sport usually after junior high school when he enters a sumo academy or gym. There he lives, eats, trains and learns the do, or way, of sumo. The slightest display of temper over an official's decision or, for that matter, jubilation after a victory, is likely to earn him a swift reprimand or worse from federation commissioners. But such incidents are rare.
Not only are sumo wrestlers usually more restrained than Western athletes, they are also paid less. The three present yokozuna, Chiyonofuji, Kitanoumi and Wakanohama, earn salaries around the $40,000 range, while a maegashira like Takamiyama earns $20,000. Apprentices are lucky to get room, board and the coveted right to learn from the champions.
While commercial endorsements have made Takamiyama and a few others relatively wealthy, sumo wrestlers will never realize the salaries of average baseball players, let alone those of a Dave Winfield.
To Westerners, sumo can be as disorienting as a no drama. One used to the ethos of professional football might find the solemnity of sumo, the ritual squatting, the stamping and salt tossing, and especially the sheer obesity of so many wrestlers exotic or grotesque.
Whatever it may seem, though, sumo is nothing if not purely Japanese.
Except Takamiyama, of course.
Technically speaking (and Japanese sumo fans speak with the technical ability of the most ardent baseball fans), there is nothing crucial riding on this match. Even in the unlikely event of a loss, Chiyonofuji will retain his commanding lead in this Tokyo tournament.
Still, the match has its drama.
While Chiyonofuji is tradition itself, Takamiyama has managed to become Japan's most popular wrestler in spite of his gaijin, or foreigner, tag.
The Japanese call him Jesse, and they admire him not only for his skills and durability, but also for his light-hearted television ads for everything from portable bathtubs to Sony radios. He has entered a virtually closed society and has emerged, as the old joke goes, anywhere he wants.
The sumo ring is covered by a structure similar to the roof of a Shinto shrine. Chiyonofuji looks up to the roof as Takamiyama enters from the west gate. People put down their chopsticks and sake cups and begin to cheer.
While Chiyonofuji draws hushed respect, Takamiyama receives more applause than any other wrestler, even the legendary yokozuna Kitanoumi.
The penultimate match ends and an official half-chants, half-screams the names Chiyonofuji and Takamiyama.
The referee is dressed a bit like Merlin the Magician with a glittering purple kimono and a conical hat. With a fan, he signals to four officials sitting around the ring. In case the referee cannot determine who pushed whom out of the ring first, the judge closest to the action makes the call. And no one, except perhaps a single sake-sodden spectator, utters a syllable of derision.
Takamiyama and Chiyonofuji mount the ring and begin the ritual warmup process known as shikiri-naoshi. The object of the match itself is easy to grasp--whoever hits the clay or steps outside the ring first loses--but these preliminary exercise make Luis Tiant's prepitch gyrations look routine.
Butt to butt, the two wrestlers lift their trunklike legs and slam them to the floor. First the right, then the left, in perfect synchronization.
They turn and face one another and toss handfuls of salt across the ring; it is an act of purification. Then the staring begins. But serious. No Ali-style mugging. Just seriousness.
They move to the center of the ring and squat, facing each other. They stare. They retreat to the corners.
Four minutes are up and the judge readies his fan:
Ready to wrestle.
The bout will be as brief and concentrated as a double-match point in tennis, so every move must be quick and true. There are 60 recognized sumo throws, shoves and holds. Sometimes one man with a slight shift or parry will ever so delicately ease his opponent out of the ring; sometimes both men will come flying out of the ring head first, a 750-pound rocket of flesh.
Victory is to the quick and there are none quicker than Chiyonofuji. An instant after the referee gives the signal, he slams his right shoulder into Takamiyama's solar plexus.
Takamiyama's best and only chance for a victory is to push the smaller man out of the ring, and he tries desperately. His eyes bulge with strain. He must use his 50-pound weight advantage to the fullest or end up on his back.
That is precisely where he ends up. Takamiyama falls victim to a right hip throw, a sukui-nage. And it is all over.
Elapsed time: five seconds.
Takamiyama gets up and brushes the reddish clay from his thighs and back. His eyes are no longer huge white globes, but he is still breathing hard and sweating copiously.
Cool and relaxed, Chiyonofuji bows and squats to receive his due, the winner's cash envelope. As it was 2,000 years ago when Taema-no-kehaya felled 7-foot-10 Nomi-no-sukune before Emperor Suijin and his court, sumo is an arena of respect. The applause for Chiyonofuji, the latest inheritor of the tradition, is appropriately restrained, sounding more like rain than thunder.
Washington Post Staff Writer David Remnick taught English last year at Tokyo's Sophia University.