FROM SUMO TO MUSIC: Former Ozeki KONISHIKI to be Grand Marshal of parade

KONISHIKI. courtesy of Cherry Blossom Festival Committee

Hail the conquering hero … once again. When KONISHIKI last came to the Bay Area in 1996, the much celebrated sumo wrestler in Japan was taking a victory lap of sorts at a tournament in San Jose while he wound down a history-making career. Sunday, April 16 in San Francisco, the Hawai‘i-born KONISHIKI will return to serve as the 50th annual San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival Grand Parade’s Grand Marshal while in the midst of a second career — recording artist.

The festival runs from April 8-16, with the Grand Parade scheduled for the final day (sfcherryblossom.org).

“I am really excited to come back to California because it’s been a long time,” he told the Nichi Bei Weekly via FaceTime from Tokyo. “To be able to represent Japan, a country I’ve lived in now for 35 years while getting honored by a country I was born in is really, really special to me.”

The 53-year-old joins an illustrious list of those who served in the past as grand marshal — one that includes legendary actor Toshiro Mifune, Olympic figure skating gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi, civil rights icon Fred Korematsu, civic and national leaders and even Hello Kitty. According to Shinichi Seino, who along with Kiyomi Takeda and Richard Hashimoto is a festival tri-chairperson, because it is the event’s 50th year, they were looking for both Japanese natives as well as non-Japanese who achieved high enough in Japanese culture to be recognized in both the Nikkei and Bay Area communities.

The first foreign-born wrestler to achieve sumo’s second highest rank of ozeki in what many call Japan’s national sport, the affable KONISHIKI’s career was almost an accident. After deciding he wanted to study pre-law while staying in Hawai‘i, then 18-year-old Saleva’a Fuauli Atisano’e surprised his parents by joining the Takasago sumo stable. Here, he was renamed KONISHIKI Yasokoichi, after the 19th century wrestler who reached the rank of yokozuna or grand champion while with the group. The then-gigantic warrior who weighed in upwards of 600 pounds for much of the time, accumulated record of 733-498-95 while winning seven championships, three of those were in makuuchi division, the sport’s highest, by the time he retired in 1997.

While in retirement, he had to give up his given name and changed it to its current all capital letters version, KONISHIKI pursued a childhood passion of playing music and went on to record 14 albums — the latest of which is an originally composed work released in November called “Colors,” the first album in which he collaborated with Chie, his wife of 13 years.

“I never knew it was this easy to make more money than in my 16 years in sumo,” he said with a chuckle.

“I was bleeding myself that whole time to find out that all I had to do was sing and laugh and dance in front of the camera … life is funny like that.”

Other changes in his life have played a factor, including 2008 gastric bypass surgery and accompanying lifestyle changes that dropped a considerable amount of weight from his frame.

This better health has allowed him to travel to spend time with his father, someone he wrote a touching song “You da Man” for. The couple has been active in several charities for children, as well as those for the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake relief and KONISHIKI has embraced his role as a bilingual ambassador of sorts on behalf of a country he has become a naturalized citizen of.

In addition to his honor, KONISHIKI is looking forward to being a tourist in a “great city.”

“My wife has never been, so we’re looking forward to going there,” he said. “There are so many things to see, and I have a lot of family here. Hey, I’m Samoan after all — we’re all related somehow.”

The one thing not planned, is any scheduled musical concerts for the couple … yet. “I think I’ll bring my ukulele just in case,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m up for it.”

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