An article in a Japanese magazine caught my eye a few months back. It was about a sumo wrestler, but that’s not what was unusual about it. Sumo remains very popular in Japan, and top wrestlers have the status of major celebrities. News coverage of goings-on inside and outside of the ring is routine.
What was striking was the bold, large-font subheading in the middle of the article’s second page: “The kid in your belly is not a person” (o-naka no ko wa hito janai). This quote was attributed to the sumo wrestler in question. I have rarely encountered this kind of sentiment in Japan, and had it not been for this short, shocking quote, I might have skipped the sports-gossip. Instead, I turned back to the beginning and read the whole thing through.
The article concerned a minor, low-ranked (“komusubi”) sumo wrestler and was based on interviews with a woman claiming to have been his longtime mistress. The names of these people would not be familiar to American readers (I had never heard of them, either). What is important, I think, is how the sumo wrestler’s alleged treatment of the woman may herald a disturbing change in how people in Japan speak about the preborn.
In short, the sumo wrestler was accused of getting his mistress pregnant and then after hearing the news demanding that she have an abortion. The two had been enjoying trysts while the wrestler and his fiancée planned their wedding and continued to do so after the marriage. The mistress knew all about the fiancée-then-wife, but she also knew that her lover was financially well-off and, believing that he cared for her, had expected that if she were to become pregnant, he would care for her and her child. That was not the case. Rather, he forced her to abort, telling her flat-out that the child she was carrying was not a human being.
The wrestler did give the woman some money (the equivalent of approximately $45,000) as “consolation” for the abortion. But the woman says that was not what she wanted from him. No amount of money could change the fact that she was haunted by the loss of her baby. “It has pained me ever since [the abortion] to hear a baby’s cry or to see a baby carriage being pushed down the street,” she was quoted in the article. “Every time I see a commercial on TV with a baby in it, the tears stream down my face. I was diagnosed at a hospital with the symptoms of depression.”
The woman was so distraught she contacted the wrestler again. “I want you to get me pregnant just one more time,” she pleaded with him. “Then we never have to see one another again.” She desperately wanted a baby. Not a “non-human” or a “clump of cells,” but another child to take the place of the one the wrestler had forced her to destroy, or at least to help fill the hole that the death of the first child had left in her heart.
The wrestler, who was so self-centered he did not even know how to spell his mistress’s name, took the woman up on the offer and tried to impregnate her again. The arrangement suited him perfectly—once she was pregnant, she would disappear from his life. Until then, he was free to enjoy her for sport, just as, the mistress later found out, he had been doing with many other women before and after his wedding. The wrestler and his mistress continued to meet in “love hotels.” Eventually the woman became pregnant again, but this time miscarried. She and the wrestler continued their assignations, trying to conceive for a third time. Then one day, out of the blue, the wrestler sent the woman a text message breaking off their relationship. He said he wanted to make up with his wife, who apparently had found out about at least some of his many dalliances. The wrestler had argued that his own child was not a human being. Not surprisingly, he treated women as though they were not human beings either.
In some of the essays I have written about Japan’s pro-life movement, such as for the journal Society in 2017 and the university research bulletin Reitaku Daigaku Kiyo in 2019, I have noted that discourse here almost never devolves into denial of the humanity of the preborn. Abortion advocates tend to treat the procedure as an unfortunate necessity, a capitulation to the harsh realities of an imperfect world. I have yet to see anyone openly celebrating abortion, as is often seen in the United States these days.
This is why the sumo wrestler’s callous comment to the mistress whom he impregnated stopped me in my tracks. How sad if this kind of hateful mindset were to find traction. One of the great strengths of the Japanese is that they nearly universally acknowledge that the child in the womb is just that, a child. It would be disheartening if the specious sophistry of anti-humanism—the argument that human infants are not human beings worthy of protection—were to seep into the Japanese language.
It could be that this is already happening, though. For example, actor-turned-leftwing-politician Yamamoto Taro, in the platform for the Reiwa Shinsengumi political party he formed a couple of years ago, argues that women should have the right to control their own bodies—a common trope among pro-abortionists who want to deflect attention from children and focus on abstract rights. Yamamoto also favors insurance coverage for abortions.
The Japanese Communist Party (JCP), too, advocates removing the “stigma” (the word in the JCP document is transliterated directly from English into Japanese, with a Japanese-language gloss attached) surrounding abortion. And it supports removing the legal provision that husbands must be given the chance to object to their wives’ plans to have an abortion.
The Rikken Minshuto (Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan) also picks up on the requirement that husbands be asked to consent to their wives’ abortions, noting (and not at all in a laudatory way) that Japan is one of just eleven countries in the world with such a provision on the books.
These developments suggest a very unfortunate trend in Japan. The philandering sumo wrestler used and discarded his mistress for his pleasure. Now, political parties appear to be taking a complementary tack, framing abortion as a way to protect women but in reality twisting women’s suffering and the death of their children into political questions to be resolved by, of course, electing and donating to politicians. What the politicians don’t say is that the “protection” on offer is the same as the harm being done—“solutions” to unplanned pregnancies that entail the dehumanization of preborn people.
Any womanizing rake can take that route. All it requires is lying to oneself and hardening one’s heart. Sadly, what was once an outlier in Japan—the denial of the humanity of babies—appears to be becoming more mainstream.