Dwarfed by a 10-meter wave, Japanese pro surfer Masatoshi Ohno glides down the sheer wall of water and enters its rolling tube.
"The moment I ride a wave, everything else fades away. Sound is extinguished, and it reminds me of my insignificance."
It was December 2011 at a surfing spot called the Pipeline, located on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii.
Ocean swells generated by strong low-pressure systems near the Aleutian Islands traverse the Pacific, then batter up against Oahu and disintegrate explosively. A single wave displaces several tons of seawater. Inside a wave's tube, the wind pressure is so intense that it becomes hard to breathe. A moment's miscalculation can smash a surfer onto the coral reef that lies only about a meter beneath the surface in the shallows. A weekend boarder such as myself can only look on from the shore. It would be safe to say that these waves are off-limits to all but the best surfers.
Ohno has been riding massive waves such as these since he was 15.
The Pipeline is the site of the final showdown in the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) World Tour every year. This competition spans several countries, and only around 30 of the world's top professional surfers can participate. Currently, Ohno is regarded as the one Japanese who is closest to reaching that pinnacle.
A sport dominated by Caucasians
Ohno was born in Shizuoka in the city of Shimoda, near the southern tip of the Izu Peninsula. When his father, Hideyuki, 59, and mother, Tsuruyo, 61, were young, both of them were among Japan's best surfers.
Around the age of 8, he began surfing together with his twin older brother, Norimasa. Tatadohama, their local beach, was close to their home. For about 10 years, they were taken out every day by their father to ride the waves.
The brothers were friends, and also rivals.
"Nori was a step ahead of me, and there were times when I couldn't stand him, but I'm very fond of him," says Masatoshi. "I began to set my sights on the world in my junior high school days, and I was largely inspired by his influence."
Both of them passed the test to become professional surfers at the age of 15, and they went on to make a name for themselves around the country as "The Ohno Brothers." Norimasa was first to compete in the ASP World Qualifying Series that served as a gateway to the full World Tour, but an injury forced him to retire. After Masatoshi became Japan champion, he began competing in the qualifying tour from 2006. However, he was not as successful on the world stage as he hoped he would be.
There was a considerable gap between the reality he was coming up against and the expectations of those around him.
"I was afraid that people would say, 'Those brothers are through.' When I was surfing, I was constantly on edge."
Around that time, Micro, 31, of the music duo Def Tech, came to visit Ohno's family home in Shimoda. Micro's family run a surf shop in Tokyo's Kamata neighborhood, and had been good friends with the Ohnos since Masatoshi was little.
When they had a chance to talk alone, Ohno confessed to Micro that he was going through a particularly tough time. He was traveling over 20 hours to the other side of the world, only to lose. Ohno burst into tears as he told his friend that he didn't know how to win.
"I think it was the first time he had revealed his weaknesses, ones that he couldn't even talk to his parents about," recalls Micro.
The wall Ohno had to conquer was inside himself.
"Almost everyone from the tournament organizers to the judges were Caucasian, and I had an inferiority complex toward them," Ohno admits. Surfing, which originated in Hawaii and California, is still predominantly a Caucasian sport.
To become familiar with cultures other than his own, Ohno lived in Hawaii and Australia for a total of around 10 years. After his brother quit the sport, he competed in tournaments overseas by himself, spending time with locals instead of surrounding himself with other Japanese. Gradually, he came to accept that Caucasians were just ordinary people too.
Ohno's outlook was changed by something his Malaysian Chinese wife, Rachael, 39, once said to him.
"The realities surrounding you are created by your own personality. If you've got a problem with those realities, you should change your personality."
He consulted with a specialist in psychology, and set about consciously analyzing his own way of thinking and behavior. A desire to be liked by others, valuing harmony with those around him. ... Such typically Japanese traits that had become unconsciously ingrained in his personality over the years became apparent. Why did he become anxious during a tournament? Why did he feel inferior? After several years of analysis, he gained the ability to assess his feelings objectively.
His surfing style, which up until then had been defensive and conscious of the watching eyes of others, turned aggressive. In 2011, he achieved his best-ever world ranking of 74th, putting him among the sport's top professionals. Entry to surfing's most prestigious competition, the ASP World Tour, was in his reach.
"Now that I've reached this age, surfing has become serious fun."
Just like Mao Asada
Measuring 164 centimeters in height, Ohno has a relatively small build for a surfer, but he has turned this to his advantage by using his lower body strength to make powerful turns. However, he needs more than power alone to impose himself on the sport. "I'm aiming for the kind of suppleness and elegance that (figure skater) Mao Asada possesses."
Last summer, Japan Pro Surfing Association (JPSA) President Mineto Ushikoshi, 40, went surfing with Ohno for the first time in two years. He has known Ohno since he was a junior high student.
The waves were over 3 meters tall. Under a clear blue sky, they rode through tube after tube together. "This is premium time," says Ohno with a smile. Ushikoshi noticed how much he had grown. "I got the sense that he's living a rewarding life overseas."
According to Ushikoshi, there are currently less than 10 Japanese surfers competing in international tours, half the number of around a decade ago. One factor that has caused this is Japan's prolonged economic slump, which has reduced the number of sponsors. Despite these difficult circumstances, Ohno has managed to sign contracts with a U.S. surfing brand and other companies.
In late December 2011, I met Ohno when he returned to Tatadohama for the first time in a year. Fans asked to shake hands with him, and he responded congenially. He has an aura about him, but the air of intimidation I sensed when I spotted him here by chance around 10 years earlier has disappeared.
Ohno has spent the last 10 years competing around the world. I asked him if he regards this beach as his spiritual home. He replied: "No matter if I'm in Hawaii, or wherever, anywhere can feel like home if I'm in the right frame of mind." As he puts it, his home is his travel bag.
* * *
Born in 1981 in Shizuoka. Began surfing from the age of 8 with his older twin brother, Norimasa, and passed the test to become a professional surfer when he was 15. Became the Japan Pro Surfing Association's grand champion for two years running in 2004 and 2005. Began competing in the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) World Qualifying Series tour in 2006, and was ranked 53rd on the tour (97th in the world) in 2008 and 2009. In 2011, he achieved his best-ever world ranking of 74th. After living in Hawaii and Australia for a total of 10 years, he is now based in California and competes in tournaments around the world.
Family: Ohno met his wife, Rachael, at a beach in Australia. "She has a different set of values and way of looking at things, compared to my insular outlook. She gives me the knowledge I need to compete on the world stage." Rachael lives in Tokyo on her own. For a time she accompanied her husband on his travels, but stopped because she felt it was a waste of time and money. She is happier with their current arrangement. "I enjoy being with Ma (her nickname for Ohno), but I have a full life of my own too."
Favorite word: "Tao," from the teachings of Taoism. "If you move only according to your ego without feeling the soul of the sea, you can't ride a good wave no matter how hard you try. I think life's the same."
Skype: While traveling the world, Ohno keeps in contact with his family in Shimoda using the Internet phone software. According to his mother, Tsuruyo, "He calls us every three or four days. He's a kind-hearted son."
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