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Weighty Issue

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To hear the tabloids tell it, Japan is deeply shocked by the news that American-born sumo champion Akebono will marry a 25-year-old Japanese-American woman who is expecting his child.

“Pregnant! Beautiful 25-Year-Old Half,” screamed the headline in the Nikkan Sports newspaper Tuesday, announcing the 516-pound Akebono’s engagement to Christine Reiko Kalina, daughter of an American serviceman and his Japanese wife.

The Hawaiian-born behemoth, formerly known as Chad Rowan, and his fiancee, dressed in a traditional kimono and obi sash, appeared before reporters in Tokyo on Tuesday to announce they will marry in September. They said their baby is due in late May or early June.

Akebono, 28, is one of Japan’s most famous athletes. In 1993, he became the first non-Japanese to be named yokozuna, the highest rank for a sumo wrestler. He became a Japanese citizen in 1996, and on Saturday, he was one of the star attractions in a sumo purification ritual that helped open the Games.

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Akebono reportedly met Kalina in 1988, but the couple have been dating for only a year. She works as a secretary at a university on the U.S. Air Force base in Yokota, west of Tokyo.

“We are just glad that we have the chance to get married, and both of us will do our best so I can stay in sumo, fight as long as I can, and hopefully move on to a better life in sumo,” Akebono said.

“I feel most relaxed when I’m with her,” he said.

But Japan’s raucous tabloids have not been kind to the happy couple.

“Yokozuna Akebono Has Made an American Woman Pregnant!” sniped the Weekly Post. The magazine used a term that roughly translates as “shotgun wedding” to describe the union, and described Akebono as “the Clinton of Sumo.”

“Even for a yokozuna who is required to be dignified, what’s done is done,” the newspaper said.

Famous Japanese sumo wrestlers have recently married attractive young starlets, flight attendants and television newscasters who have a quarter of their husbands’ girth. The wedding ceremonies are usually formal, huge and lavish, and the sumo wives typically disappear from the public eye afterward. No wrestler has ever wed a non-Japanese, according to media reports that focused on how an American bride would fit into the highly traditional world of sumo.

Nikkan Sports concluded that the marriage will make it more difficult for Akebono to open his own sumo stable after he retires from wrestling.

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“Christine would have to do the job of stablemaster’s wife, which is daunting even for Japanese women,” the tabloid said. “She has to be extremely attentive to the sumo sponsors and older stablemasters, and be a mother to the young wrestlers.” In a taste of what may be in store for sumo’s first American wife, the newspaper apparently assumed Kalina will be required to perform secretarial services for her husband, and declared that it would be difficult for her to write his letters and perform other administrative tasks since she speaks Japanese but reportedly does not read or write the language well.

“It is no exaggeration to say that Akebono’s future, as a yokozuna and after retirement, depends on how hard Christine-san works,” the paper said.

The tone of the media coverage did not sit well with Noriko Hama, a 40-year-old nurse. “So-called ‘shotgun weddings’ are no longer rare in Japan, and I think it’s extremely rude for them to use that term,” Hama said. “Her pregnancy should not be an issue.”

When Kalina was asked about her pregnancy at the press conference Wednesday, TV cameras zoomed in on her belly, which was not entirely disguised by her obi.

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She was asked if it was true that Akebono was getting married because it was too late to have an abortion.

“That’s not the case,” the stablemaster replied, adding he wished the couple well.

Hama was also indignant that the planned nuptials had apparently been kept secret until immediately after the Olympic opening ceremony, as if to avoid tainting opening festivities, which were attended by the emperor and empress, with the “scandal” of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

“It made me think the sumo world is really dirty,” she said.

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Japan’s tabloid press has been under fire of late for tailing celebrities to romantic assignations. Photographs of stars in dark glasses entering hotels with people not their spouses seem to be especially in demand. The noted film director Juzo Itami committed suicide in December on the eve of the planned publication of a magazine article reporting an alleged adulterous liaison with a young woman, leaving a note in which he declared his innocence.

Another scandal struck last month, when two key banking inspectors in the Ministry of Finance were arrested for allegedly accepting bribes in the form of tens of thousands of dollars worth of lavish entertainment from banks they were supposed to regulate. But the titters overheard in office corridors and afternoon talk shows revolved around the revelation that one of the regulators had insisted the bankers he supervised treat him to a trip to a “no-pan shabu-shabu” beef restaurant in the entertainment district of Tokyo where the waitresses do not wear panties.

Researcher Etsuko Kawase in The Times’ Tokyo bureau contributed to this story.


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