Weighing In On a Sumo Match

Proper Wife?

He tips the scales at 516 pounds, eats rivals for breakfast, and wears a loincloth on the job. What could possibly intimidate a man like this?

The same thing that turns bachelor knees to putty the world over: marriage.

American-born sumo wrestler Akebono isn't the only one unsettled by his engagement to Christina Karina, a Japanese-American school teacher, but he certainly looks the most queasy.

The Akebono who stomped impassively during the "purification" ceremony at the Nagano Olympics was a different man later when he introduced his intended to the media.

His fiance - a Lilliputian 5'2" to his 6'8" - looked on warily as sumo's top warrior sweated through camera flashes. "I'm so nervous," the gargantuan wrestler said.

So is the sumo world, and that's the problem. The sport's elder statesmen are aghast. In a sport considered the essence of Japanese "spirit," being a half-Japanese wife isn't quite enough.

"I'm very worried," says Yasuto Kaetsu, a board member of the Akebono Support Group. "She is the first foreign wife in the sumo world. Karina-san is a pioneer in this respect.

"[But] she should know that she is going to be the wife of Akebono, not Chad Rowan," he says, using the wrestler's American name.

Akebono's craggy-faced manager, fellow Hawaiian Azumazeki, didn't even show up for the announcement. Weekly magazines magnified the snub in large type - it's akin to your parents skipping your engagement party and underscores how badly this engagement has rocked the boat.

For a curious foreigner, the fuss provides a glimpse into the workings of a closed world where overeating and afternoon naps are part of the job description. It's also an opportunity to poke around and ask the obvious question - if foreign wrestlers are OK, what's wrong with foreign wives?

Akebono's not talking, and Ms. Karina is in deep hibernation - so deep that the press is still squabbling about whether her name is spelled with an 'r' or an 'l.' But everyone else in Japan seems to have an opinion on this one.

The answer is as much a matter of sports as culture.

In sumo, two men inside a circle 15 feet in diameter push, pull, butt, and bounce each other until one touches the ground or steps outside the ring. The sport favors heft and bulk - there's no weight limit - and team managers adore the Mack-truck physique of imported Samoan and Hawaiian wrestlers. They bring them here young, teach them all the right moves, and school them rigorously in Japan's language and customs. They shed their old names and lives for Japanese equivalents, and become part of this ancient world.

This cultural shift is crucial. Some say sumo is to Japan what baseball is to the US.

Myth has it that Japanese dominance of these islands was settled by a sumo skirmish between two gods.

Nationalistic propaganda in the 1930s spread the idea of the sport as a pure distillation of the Japanese spirit. Today, sumo is still considered the essence of Japaneseness, and rikishi, as the wrestlers are known, are expected to reflect that in all their behavior.

Akebono hasn't quite toed the line, and that might be part of the problem. He was known as a ladies' man, and some former fans say he has not demonstrated the necessary honor befitting a rikishi.

"He's too loose in his personal life!" complains Fuji Kamiya, a sumo aficionado and professor emeritus at Keio University.

He's not the only one though. Karina's reported early pregnancy is a fairly common occurrence in the sumo world, says Mark Schilling, who does English sumo commentary for a local TV network. But once the mothers become wives, they're part of the fold and have a strictly defined role to play.

When retirees start their own teams, or stables, as Akebono is expected to do, wives play an integral part in the management. They plan the menus, balance the books, watch over the younger wrestlers, and take care of visitors. Where and how a foreign woman will fit in this system is the $64,000 question.

The press has already made up its mind.

"She's a hafu," says one sumo writer, using the Japanese term for someone who's half Japanese. "Because of that it should be difficult."

Mr. Schilling says that even a Japanese woman would find the sumo world tough, but he sees the challenge in more concrete terms. "Her job is to be a super den mother," he says. "But the cub scouts weigh 150 kilograms [330 pounds]."

Origin of Foreign Sumo Wrestlers

The first foreigner to break into sumo's hefty ranks is the man who trains Akebono today - a beefy Hawaiian now known as Azumazeki. Foreign wrestlers have become a fixture in Japan since Azumazeki entered a sumo ring more than 20 years ago. Today, around 10 percent of all wrestlers are foreigners (about 90 wrestlers in all). Here's where the largest contingents hail from:

US 29

Taiwan 12

Brazil 11

South Korea 6

Tonga 6

China 5

Source: The Japan Sumo Association

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