[THIS WEEK IN HISTORY]Famed wrestler hides his Korean identityDec. 15, 1963
Japan remembers professional wrestler Mitsuhiro Momota as one of the biggest heroes of his time. Also known as Rikidozan, Mr. Momota’s trademark karate chop smashed away the stress Japanese felt after World War II.
Soon he was dubbed “the man admired the most after the emperor.” Few people knew Mr. Momota’s birth name of Kim Sin-rak, however, which reveals his Korean heritage.
Whether as Mr. Momota or Mr. Kim, he was a man of ambition, well aware that his Korean identity would lead to discrimination in the Japanese society of the day. So he kept his Korean heritage secret until he died on this date in a Tokyo hospital.
Born in 1924, in the middle of Japanese colonial rule over Korea, Mr. Kim started ssireum (Korean traditional wrestling) in his small country village in South Hamgyeong province, which is now in North Korea. Cutting a massive figure, Mr. Momota saw his career burgeon at home. But his ambition was too strong to be content with success in a rural outpost.
When a Japanese sumo promoter offered him a debut in Japan, he was more than ready to jump at the opportunity. His parents were vehemently opposed to the idea, even forcing him to marry in an attempt to make him stay. He eventually ran away from home, boarding a ship to Japan.
In 1940, he entered a sumo gymnasium and found a new identity as Mitsuhiro Momota, a naturalized Japanese citizen. He toiled for a decade, and found some success, yet he couldn’t break the glass ceiling that prevented non-Japanese from being a yokozuna, the top rank of sumo players. He suddenly dropped sumo in 1950 and began professional wrestling in 1952, which was scarcely known then in Japan.
Training himself as a pro wrestler in the United States, Rikidozan also promoted the sport. He brought Americans to wrestle in Japan, and it was a brilliant strategy. Watching Rikidozan topple Americans with his karate chop brought great catharsis to the Japanese people, whose pride was trampled in World War II. Defeating American champions like Lou Thesz, Rikidozan soon took the world championship belt, carving his status as a hero deep in the heart of the Japanese.
Rikidozan also knew how to put on a show. He was the first wrestler to offer live TV broadcasts of his matches. In the ring, he’d tantalize the audience by pretending to be losing. Just when it looked like he was done for, Rikidozan would use his karate chop to subdue his opponent in dramatic fashion.
Everything seemed to be going well for Rikidozan, until the rainy night of Dec. 8, 1963. Drinking with friends in a posh nightclub in downtown Tokyo, he got into a quarrel with a member of the Japanese mafia, or yakuza. As the argument escalated, the mobster took out a knife and slashed Rikidozan in the side. The world champion collapsed on the floor, bleeding.
He was rushed to a hospital, where he died a week later. Rumors were rampant. Some said the American CIA killed him. Others said it was the yakuza. The official cause of death was given as an overdose of medicine. Rikidozan left a young Japanese wife behind, whom he had married in June of that year.
Decades after his death, the Japanese still commemorate their hero with ceremonies and memoirs. Most Japanese were shocked to learn of their hero’s Korean identity, yet still hold him dear. He also has quite a reputation in North as well as South Korea, being known here as Yeokdosan.
On Wednesday, Koreans will pay tribute to their hero with the film “Rikidozan,” which commemorates the 41st anniversary of the wrestler’s death. It will be released in Japan shortly.
by Chun Su-jin