KAHULUI, Maui >> Sumo legend Jesse Kuhaulua went from speaking pidgin English to fluent Japanese when he left Maui for a career in sumo and life in Japan 50 years ago.
He broke cultural barriers, reached the third-highest rank in the centuries-old national sport and became a coach to up-and-coming wrestlers. But Kuhaulua still remembers his roots fondly and holds the Valley Isle close.
“Still my heart is on Maui. I will never forget,” a white-bearded Kuhaulua told The Maui News during a visit home last week.
Kuhaulua was a 19-year-old recent Baldwin High School graduate when he left for Japan in 1964. He has never lived anywhere else since.
Although he was treated graciously, even having American food cooked for him when he first arrived in Japan, the training was tough. He endured hours of exercise, the food was different, and teachers whacked students when they behaved badly or performed sumo techniques incorrectly.
“They would hit a rikishi (sumo wrestler) with a broomstick,” Kuhaulua said. “You call it encouragement.”
Adjusting to a foreign culture and the endless physical training was grueling for Kuhaulua, who fought under the name Takamiyama.
The “first three years was hard,” he said, but “something just kept me there,” he remembered.
He recalled receiving letters of encouragement from Hawaii. “(It) made me feel I got to try harder,” he said.
Kuhaulua reached sumo’s third-highest rank, sekiwake, in 1972. That was the highest by a foreigner until fellow Hawaii wrestlers Salevaa Atisanoe, or Konishiki, reached the next highest rank of ozeki, or champion, and Chad Rowan, who wrestled as Akebono, and Fiamalu Penitani, who wrestled as Musashimaru, attained the highest rank, yokozuna, or grand champion.
Kuhaulua also was the first foreigner to win sumo’s coveted Emperor’s Cup for winning a tournament in 1972.
He stopped wrestling at 39 after an injury, but he went on to coach up-and-coming wrestlers at his own sumo stable for 25 more years until the mandatory retirement age of 65.
Sumo is a sport where bigger is often better, but Kuhaulua now sticks to a specific diet most days. Though on vacation in Hawaii, he had an orange, oatmeal and milk for breakfast.
Kuhaulua said he’s lost around 115 pounds after dieting for about a year. He’s now down to about 300 pounds.
Attending the 50th reunion for his Baldwin High School class last year prompted him to eat healthier. He also wants to be alive for the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo.
Kuhaulua said he did not face prejudice or animosity as a gaijin, or foreigner, from America. But as a gaijin, he had to push himself to do better than others.
“You got to work hard,” he said.
While his life is comfortable in his adopted homeland, Kuhaulua says that at times he still longs for Maui.
“The weather, the people and the warm aloha” are what he misses most, he said.