May 11, 1992 12:00 PM

INTERNATIONAL INCIDENT, BLARED HEADLINES IN TOKYO, AND NO wonder. It was easily the weightiest issue to hit U.S.—Japan relations in, well, weeks. On one side, the ancient sport of sumo, whose ruling committee decides who shall attain the exalted rank of yokozuna, or “grand champion.” On the considerable other side, the 576-lb. American sumo wrestler Konishiki.

Born in Hawaii of Samoan ancestry, Konishiki—originally Salevaa Fuauli Atisanoe—moved to Japan in 1982. He is a consummate wrestler who in the past three sumo tournaments—six are held each year—has had two wins and a third-place finish. Yet under the sometimes cloudy rules of sumo, he has been denied the rank of yokozuna, which he feels he has earned. Two weeks ago, in exasperation, he finally broke his silence. “If I was Japanese, I would have been there already,” he said.

No non-Japanese has ever made yokozuna—a rank only about 60 men have attained in the last 300 years—and many Japanese would like to keep it that way. The title is conferred not only for athletic prowess but also for a certain aura of grace and dignity, called hinkaku. Only a Japanese can possess that, say Konishiki’s detractors, who over the years have called him “foreign meat bomb” and other less savory epithets.

Yet soon after Konishiki’s charge was carried in a Tokyo newspaper, he recanted, claiming variously that he had been misrepresented or impersonated by an apprentice. By then, political leaders had begun to stake out positions. Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe said, “Americans are very sensitive to racial discrimination, and I would like to ask that this problem develop no further.” And Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa said he was sure yo-kozuna status did not in any way depend on race.

Konishiki can put the matter to rest at the next sumo tournament this month. Most observers believe that if he wins, he will have a lock on grand-champion status. Whatever happens, Konishiki seems wed to his adopted homeland. In February, he married Sumika Shioda, a 110-lb. former Japanese model. And in the midst of all the furor, he made a statement that speaks louder than words: He got his application for Japanese citizenship.

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