Japan-born Wrestler’s Olympic Dream Comes True as Samoan; Ex-Pat Gaku Akazawa Qualifies for Paris

Courtesy of Gaku Akazawa
Gaku Akazawa, center, poses with fellow Samoan wrestlers

Gaku Akazawa achieved his lifetime dream by qualifying in freestyle wrestling for the upcoming Olympics, but he won’t be vying for a medal in Paris for Japan. In a rare case of a Japanese wrestler switching nationalities, he will be competing for his adopted country of Samoa.

“Achieving a good result will be payback for all that people have done for me in both countries,” said the 33-year-old Akazawa, who gained Samoan citizenship in December last year.

Akazawa earned his ticket to Paris in the 65-kilogram weight class with an emotional victory at the Africa-Oceania Qualifier held in March in Alexandria, Egypt. Falling behind in the first period against his Guinea-Bissau opponent, he came back to win by fall in the second period, which he topped off with a scream of triumph.

“It has been a long, tough journey,” he said.

Born in Tokyo, Akazawa competed in kendo before switching to wrestling in the sixth grade with a dream of someday competing in the Olympics. He became a national junior high school champion in his third year, and added a national high school title while at powerhouse Hanasaki Tokuharu in Saitama Prefecture.

But his promising career took a dark turn at Nihon University, where he constantly battled injuries that led to surgery on both shoulders and derailed his bid to make the 2012 London Olympics.

Looking to get back on track, he made the bold decision to venture by himself to Russia to hone his skills in the hotbed of wrestling. But he still came up short in qualifying for the next Olympics.

“I don’t want to give up my dream,” he thought. Amid his disappointment, the idea occurred to him of changing  nationality. Among the wrestlers he trained with in Russia, one had won a medal after switching to another country.

“It’s just a piece of paper that’s going to change,” the wrestler told him. “There are many people who will support you as a human being.”

Encouraged by the words, he told his parents and friends about his decision, and they showed their understanding.

Helped by connections

How about an country in Oceania that doesn’t have a lot of wrestlers? As that thought crossed his mind, he remembered he had a junior high school teacher who had once worked in Samoa. He contacted the teacher, who gave him the name of a former student that he had taught in Samoa.

In 2017, Akazawa flew to the South Pacific. He visited the local office of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, where he was informed that the teacher’s former student was working at the nearby Japanese embassy. That contact led to an introduction to an influential person, and a new path of his life was opened.

“I want to promote wrestling in Samoa and compete as a representative of Samoa in the Olympics myself,” he told the person, who promised support. Mats and a training gym were provided.

Akazawa’s life outside of wrestling took a turn in 2018 when he married a woman he had met in Samoa named Sinavalley, now 28. That meant added responsibilities, and he realized, “I need to earn a living.”

His many experiences with injuries prompted an interest in physical care, and he opened a Japanese-style massage parlor using self-taught techniques. It became so popular that it was constantly filled with reservations.

In Samoa, a nation of approximately 200,000, rugby is the “national sport,”  while wrestling holds minor status. Unlike in Japan and Russia, Akazawa found it difficult to find practice partners of his level. He invited rugby and judo competitors — some weighing over 100 kilograms — to his gym for training.

Promoting his new country

One miscalculation that he made was in the glacial-like progress of the procedure for changing nationality.

He directly asked for help from the deputy prime minister, who was a client at his massage parlor. “I want to show Samoan wrestling to the world,” he said in pleading his case.

He was unable to be nationalized in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, but gaining Samoa citizenship in December last year made him eligible for Paris.

As his time in Samoa grew longer, he developed an urge to help out the local people. There is a stark gap between the rich and poor in Samoa, and some children cannot speak English, even though it is Samoa’s official language, because they are busy helping in the fields or taking care of younger siblings.

So he teaches wrestling at his training gym for free. He also has a new goal. “Eventually, I want to build a high school and nurture people who can flourish on the world stage through sports.”

With his Olympic berth secure, Akazawa has renewed his determination. “If I lose right away, people will think I changed my nationality just to be [in the Olympics],” he said. “Whether they think it’s right or wrong, I want people to see me as Gaku Akazawa the wrestler who went there for a medal.”