Mon, Jul 21, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Wrestler an unlikely icon for N Korea

The story of a Japanese wrestler who is a North Korean hero, though he is dead, is even stranger than it seems


Does anyone remember Rikidozan, a national hero in Japan in the wake of its defeat in World War II? Probably not many as he has been dead for 40 years, but almost everyone does in North Korea.

Rikidozan is the father of Japanese professional wrestling and in the early days of television here wowed the nation by humiliating American "villains" with his trademark karate chops.

While his name hardly rings bells for young Japanese today, the Korean-born grappler is alive and kicking in North Korea's propaganda -- as the ultimate anti-imperialist patriot.

But now Rikidozan's widow has come out to set the record straight, insisting he loved the land of his birth, but not the Stalinist regime ruling it.

"He loved the ideal of free society. He was neither a sympathizer for the North nor a communist," Keiko Tanaka, 62, told foreign journalists last week in an appearance marking the publication of her book about her brief life with the wrestler and entrepreneur.

"He respected the free atmosphere of the United States," she said. "He tried to bring everything that was good about America to Japan through his business projects."

A 1989 North Korean book, I am a Korean, attributes Rikidozan's world-beating feats to the "warm care" of the country's founding father Kim Il-Sung and his Workers Party.

It claims that Pyongyang helped Rikidozan "advance straight along the path of patriotism and loyalty with the soul of Korea in spite of the threats and intimidations of the US imperialists and Japanese reactionaries."

Throughout his career Rikidozan guarded the secret of his Korean origin which could have subjected him to discrimination in Japan.

He was born as Kim Sin-rak in northern Korea in 1924 -- when the entire Korean peninsula was under colonial Japanese rule and before its division after World War II. He came to Japan in 1939 as an apprentice in sumo, Japan's ancient traditional form of wrestling.

He switched to professional wrestling in 1952 -- the year the US occupation of Japan ended -- and launched a national association for the sport after a year's initiation in the US.

A naturalized Japanese by this time, he defended his world title 19 times until he was stabbed by a yakuza gangster in a night club brawl in December 1963. Although the wound itself was minor, he died a week later of peritonitis at the age of 39.

Rikidozan's ownership of hotels, night clubs, golf courses and apartment houses had brought him into contact with Japanese mobsters.

Yet his association with the die-hard communist state gave rise to rumors that he had been assassinated by the Central Intelligence Agency.

The wrestler's widow, a former Japan Airlines stewardess who had only been married to him for six months when he died, laughed off that theory last week and said his death might have resulted from "malpractice, possibly an overdose of anesthetic."

But a North Korean children's comic book on Rikidozan, "World Professional Wrestling King" published in 1995, portrays the wrestler dying immediately after he is given some liquid by a mysterious man in a big cap.

The book closes with the moral that Rikidozan's life leads people to realize that they will have "eternal life only after they are clasped to the bosom" of the North's two great leaders, Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il.

A 15-cassette video series and a full-length novel on Rikidozan's life were also published in 2001 in North Korea and "everybody knows him in the country," said Jun Miyagawa, a Tokyo trader specializing in Korean publications.

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