Akebono Tarō, born Chadwick Haheo Rowan, died at 54, according to Japanese news outlets. The cause of death was reportedly heart failure, but that has not been independently verified. 

Akebono, who grew up in Waimanalo on Oahu, made history in 1993 by becoming the first non-Japanese born wrestler to reach yokozuna (“grand champion”), the highest rank in sumo. 

He went on to win a total of 11 tournaments and was a runner-up 13 times. He was also known for his grand stature — standing 6’8” and weighing over 500 pounds. 

The U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel remembered Akebono in a post on X, formerally known as Twitter.

Gov. Josh Green released a statement on the passing of Akebono: 

“Jaime and I share our community's sadness over the passing of Waimānalo's Chad Rowan. He gained fame as Akebono, the first non-Japanese-born sumotori to achieve the ancient sport's top rank of yokozuna, and by his example, he also inspired untold numbers of our youth that with determination and hard work, attaining your dreams is possible. A champion in both the land of his birth and his adopted island home, he served as an ambassador for Hawaii in Japan and his legacy will live on.”

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono shared her condolences in a post on X, saying he "was a mighty force in sumo wrestling" and a "true Hawaii icon."  

He retired from sumo in 2001, but instead competed in kickboxing, mixed martial arts and wrestling circuits, including World Wrestling Entertainment and All Japan Pro Wrestling. 

In 1996, he became a Japanese citizen and legally changed his name to Akebono Tarō. He continued to live in his adopted homeland, Japan, even after retiring from sumo. 

In 2017, Akebono suffered from acute heart failure, according to the Star Advertiser. He was placed in a medically induced coma for a week, but improved through physical therapy. 

He is survived by his wife Christine, daughter Caitlyn and sons Cody and Connor. 

Michelle Broder Van Dyke covers the Hawaiian Islands for Spectrum News Hawaii. Email her at michelle.brodervandyke@charter.com.

Editor's note: This aritcle has been updated to include Gov. Josh Green and U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono's statement. (April 12, 2024)