Daily Archives: 5 May 2006

And in the Right Corner, Rikidozan, Representing …

Rikidozan was within striking distance of the top three ranks in all of sumo—sekiwake (junior champion), ozeki (champion), and yokozuna (grand champion)—ranks which were awarded by the Japan Sumo Association, the supreme governing body of the sport. But then Japan surrendered and the sport of the Emperor went into a tailspin….

As he started to feel the financial strain from his sport not turning a profit, Riki quit sumo and took a job in construction. His new employer was a tattooed yakuza gambler from the Sumiyoshi gang and sumo fan named Shinsaku Nita, who had special connection inside the [MacArthur’s] GHQ. Under Nita, Riki supervised construction projects at U.S. military camps, studied English in his spare time, and spent his evenings carousing on the Ginza, where one night he participated in a losing cabaret brawl that dramatically changed his life. His victorious opponent was a visiting Japanese-American Olympic weight lifting medalist and All-Hawaiian Body Building champion named Harold Sakata, who would later gain fame playing the steel-top-hat-flinging villain Oddjob in the James Bond movie Goldfinger.

In the wake of the altercation, the two men became friends and Sakata introduced Riki to a group of American professional wrestlers who were in Japan to promote growth of their “sport” in Japan. One thing led to another, and soon Rikidozan was training and wrestling in the States, where he proved to be more successful than anyone anticipated. Too unsophisticated to do anything more than fight all out, he combined karate chop attack with sumo thrusting techniques to compile a 295-5 record in a year’s worth of competition. Boxing Magazine ranked him in its annual list of the top ten pro wrestlers in the world.

Before departing for the United States in February 1952, Rikidozan had acquired Japanese citizenship and legally changed his name to Mitsuhiro Momota [from Kim Sin Rak]. The government family register now listed the Momotas of Nagasaki as his lawful parents and Omura his officially recognized birthplace. The move was necessary, in part, because his real country of birth was now known as the Communist People’s Republic of North Korea [sic] and was an avowed enemy of the United States. The only way he could get a visa to the United States was to have a Japanese passport. The only way he could get either one was to bury any trace of his true identity. But, as he discovered while wrestling in Honolulu, his first stop, there were other reasons to keep up the charade.

Billed as the “Japanese Tiger,” he found his every move cheered by an audience of almost exclusively Japanese-Americans, waving Rising Run flags and lustily yelling banzai.… For the man known as “Garlic Breath,” that must have indeed been hard to swallow. As were the taunts about Pearl harbor when he wrestled on the mainland, where the matches were racially charged in reverse. There, he found himself appearing alongside assorted Asians passing themselves off as Japanese with names like “Tojo” or “Mr. Moto,” wearing goatees and mustaches and exotic “Oriental” garb of red silk robes with high getas…. Demeaning as it may have been, the fans loved it and the economic lessons were obvious.

Thus, at the end of his U.S. hegira, Rikidozan returned to Japan and solicited support from Nita and others, including the ubiquitous [ultranationalist and head of the Japan Pro Wrestling Association Yoshio] Kodama, and launched his storybook career. It only worked, as Rikidozan well knew, because everyone viewed him as “Japanese.”…

The great Rikidozan deception reached its apogee in January 1963, when Rikidozan was sent to South Korea on a goodwill tour at the request of Kodama and the LDP to help break the ice that still existed between the ROK and Japan and thereby pave the way for the normalization treaty that so many interested parties wanted.

Despite intense anti-Japanese feelings in the ROK, where bitter memories of the long, brutal Japanese occupation and wartime atrocities remained, Rikidozan was a huge hero there. In fact, many Koreans had naturally assumed he was one of them because the Chinese ideographs for Rikidozan [力道山], although pronounced differently, represented the name of a mountain in Korea—a fact most people in Japan remained blissfully unaware of. (The name was subtle way by which Rikidozan could hang onto his identity.)

SOURCE: Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan, by Robert Whiting (Vintage, 2000), pp. 103-106

BTW, the names in this book are handled very sloppily. The index lists “Niita, Shinsaku, 104, 105” for what first appears as “Shinsasku Nita” on 104, and then “Nita” on 105 (and should have been “Shinsaku Nitta” and then “Nitta”). The index lists a trading company name as “Nishho Iwai, 182” for what first appears as “Nishho Iwai” on 182, then correctly as “Nissho Iwai” later in the same paragraph! In contrast, Jesse Kuhaulua‘s name is consistently misspelled both on p. 212 and in the index as Jesse Kualahula. I’m sure there are many more such errors in my copy, the 5th reprint of a new paperback edition published in 2000. I suppose Random House feels it’s good enough for the work of a journalist like Whiting.

UPDATE: Yikes. It gets worse. The index shows “Pyonyang, 107, 295” for what appears once on 107 as “Pyonyang” (where Rikidozan had an elder brother living at one time) and then appears once as “Pyonyang” at the top of 295, followed immediately by a coreferential “Pyongyang” in four successive sentences. The latter placename was apparently too obscure to rate its own spot in the index.

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