Retired sumo champ Akebono on Japanese promo for “Glee!”

I saw this on Angry Asian Man and it made me smile, both because Erin and I really enjoy the Fox series “Glee!” and because it’s good to see that Akebono, the sumo wrestler who sings “Don’t Stop Believin’” on the commercial, is still a star with drawing power in Japan.

You might notice that for a sumo wrestler, Akebono sings the Journey chestnut with nary a Japanese accent. He may not be a great singer (ahem) but his accent is American. That’s because he was born in Hawai’i, and his real name is Chad Haakeo Rowan. In 1993, he shocked Japan and the sumo establishment by becoming the first foreigner ever to win the coveted title of Yokozuna — Grand Champion.

I remember my mom, who’s addicted to watching sumo via NHK satellite here in Colorado (her schedule revolves around being home for the matches, or as a last resort videotaping them), expressing her amazement and incredulity: “Hehhhhhhhhhhh? Hahhhhhhhhhhh? He’s not Nihonjin!”

Akebono was Yokozuna for eight years and won 11 championship tournaments during his reign, and became a Japanese citizen in 1996 before retiring from sumo competition in 2001 to become a coach.

He probably relished the chance to sing a Journey hit for the commercial (the song was part of an episode of “Glee!” last season). Akebono was born in 1969 and grew up in Hawai’i — he played basketball and football in high school — so he may have been a young fan of Journey when the song was a huge hit in 1981.

The commercial is an interesting cross-cultural artifact on several levels of the ongoing give-and-take relationship between the United States and Japan. And, it made me smile. Rock on, Akebono!

UPDATE: Japanese TV viewers can expect to see more of Akebono in a series of promos for “Glee!,” which debuts its first season Feb. 11 (with subtitles), while we in the U.S. wait until April for the start of the series’ second season. Here’s another spot, with Akebono playing a salaryman:

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5 Responses to Retired sumo champ Akebono on Japanese promo for “Glee!”

  1. David Shin says:

    I produced the promo. I grew up in Hawaii as well and in the meeting with Chad as I was pitching the promo, he started singing the Journey song in the meeting. Everyone in the room cracked up. We all knew we had something at that moment.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    That’s very cool, David. Thanks for the behind-the-scenes info! It’s a great promo, and I hope it’s successful in Japan.

  3. reiko says:

    This is fabulous. Go Hawaii!

  4. emily says:

    love sumo wrestling! always wanted to see it live!

  5. Gil Asakawa says:

    It’s hard to tell non-Japanese who only see sumo wrestlers as ready-made caricatures, how spiritual and important the sport’s been in Japan for hundreds of years. It’s so full of ritual. I remember being enchanted with it when I was a kid in Japan, and my mom is seriously hooked on it via NHK.

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