Akebono’s belly is a majestic thing, a rolling, heaving, wobbling mass of blubber. When he stomps around the sumo wrestling ring, his great middle jiggles from his jowls to his monstrous butt, barely covered by his loincloth.
And the women go wild.
The 26-year-old Hawaiian is something of a sex symbol in Japan, even though he weighs 462 pounds. The Japanese tabloid press chronicles his love life with the kind of breathless frenzy that People magazine reserves for Brad Pitt. Countless teenage girls idolize him.
But now comes the news the young girls feared most: Akebono is off the market.
At the end of the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament last week, Akebono told reporters that he is in love with, and wants to spend the rest of his life with, TV personality Yu Aihara. For his fans, this is like losing John F. Kennedy Jr. to that blond.
“Until now we had to see each other secretly,” Akebono told the reporters. “I love everything about her. She is the person who is beside me when I am suffering. . . . We will be together for our whole lives.”
Some tabloid sports pages were devoted to Akebono’s flame, an actress so small she once played Peter Pan. She is 5 feet, 2 1/2 inches, almost 18 inches shorter than her honey. The tabloid papers reported that she has a 32-inch bust, 22-inch waist and 33-inch hips. (Apparently they thought Akebono’s fans should know this.)
Think of it. The 6-foot-8 sumo stud, a man once described by Time magazine as the “Prince of Whales,” and the waif-like, 88-pound former singer.
Like Akebono, who is actually Chad Rowan from Honolulu, Aihara goes by a professional name. Her real name is Yasuko Obara; she is 29 and hails from Hiroshima. At her own news conference, Aihara told reporters, “He means everything to me.”
Akebono’s announcement comes after a disappointing 10-5 record in the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament, and many expect that the former grand champion will soon retire. In April, he was granted Japanese citizenship, a step, he said in an interview, that was necessary for “me to realize my dream: to teach sumo.”
“I’m just a regular guy,” said Akebono, showing the funny, self-deprecating style that has made him the kind of star Japan loves.
“What women? I don’t see any women around me,” he said, pretending to look around his Texas of a body for cling-on starlets. Had he looked a little closer, he might have noticed the gang of young girls kneeling around the sumo ring while he worked out, gazing up at their hero.
“He’s such a character; he tells jokes, he says funny things,” said a flushed 14-year-old girl from North Hanaizumi Junior High School, who was waiting to get Akebono’s trademark “autograph”: a huge handprint in red ink slapped on a large piece of paper. “There is no feeling whatsoever that he’s a foreigner--he is like us.”
Akebono has won many hearts here because he speaks Japanese. After arriving in Japan as an 18-year-old who didn’t know a word of the local language, he is fluent today. Akebono was recruited into sumo wrestling when he was a college basketball player in Hawaii. He rose quickly through the ranks and in 1993 became the first foreigner to reach yokozuno, the highest level in Japan’s highly traditional national sport.
President Clinton shook his hand when he was here on a state visit last month, telling Akebono he is a sumo fan. “I didn’t know they had sumo on cable in the White House,” Akebono quipped later.
Sumo stars are incredibly famous in Japan, which seems to have a lot to do with their appeal to young women. Their immense size and traditional dress makes them instantly recognizable in any crowd.
“They have an aura about them,” said Thomas E. Quinn, sumo commentator on NHK television. “I know it is hard for people to believe, but a lot of these [sumo greats] have knockout girlfriends.”
Quinn said that after sumo wrestlers retire, they immediately drop 40, 50, even 100 pounds.
“They can end up looking like [San Francisco] 49ers linebackers. Under the flab, there are big tough guys. It’s hard work to stay that fat.”