Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Rikidozan (力道山) in Immediate Postwar Japan

There are many Zainichi (Korean Japanese) people who became very famous and popular among Japanese masses; musicians, baseball players (Oh Sadaharu, the homerun king, is one of them), martial arts founders etc. I want to introduce this interesting figure Rikidozan (力道山) to those who don't know about him. (Sorry for my randomness)

Rikidozan was actually not a Zainichi but a Korean man who grew up in Korea, but came to Japan to become a sumo wrestler. Sumo training is always hard, but he experienced great hardship as Korean in the traditional Japanese sumo community as well. In fact, he was not very successful as a sumo wrestler. He decided to learn the western style wrestling, and moved to the US. A year later he came back to Japan, estabslished a whole new genre of puro-resu (professional wrestling) in Japan, and became a superstar in 1951. He kept defeating American wrestlers and becamse a national hero. I heard many times my parents recall the excitement as little kids to see Rikidozan literally throwing huge western wreslers out of the wresling ring. My mother's family was the only household that owned a TV in the neighborhood, so all the neighbors gathered at her house to see the wresling games.

Ok. I have not read any scholarly work on him: I only heard about him, watched a Korean movie "Rikidozan," and read a few journalist works on him. What really interests me is the scene in the movie, when Rikidozan tries to pursuade the sponsors to back him up in establishing the western style wrestling industry, and goes "Japan needs national pride. Japan needs a national hero. They lost spirits since the end of the war. I want to give Japanese people hope by showing Asians defeating big western guys!" (I might be distorting it a bit since it has been a while since I watched the movie.) I am not sure if he really said that or not, but what an interesting thing it is for a Korean man to say in a Korean movie. Even if this is totally fictional, it is true that Rikidozan became the most important national hero in the immediate post war Japan. He did give hope and pride to many Japanese kids, apparently.

Another interesting thing about him is his deep involvement in the underground society in Japan. "Tokyo Underworld" by Robert Whiting is a fun reading if you are interested in stories of foreign mafias in Tokyo in the 1950s and 60s. While the movie almost completely ignores this aspect of Rikidozan's life, Whiting thinks Rikidozan knew everyone important in the underground society and was involved in many things himself.


Erin Robinson said...

I guess even Japanese and Koreans can agree that it's good to show Westerners who's boss?

In all seriousness, it makes sense that despite their own differences and disagreements, they can both still agree on the difference between being Asian and being Western. For both Korea and Japan, the invasion of the West had a great impact in terms of identity, culture and self-perception. So for an Asian man, never mind Korean or Japanese, to defeat Westerners at their own game is a triumph they can all live with.

How much do you think this kind of sentiment still exists today? I know anti-American sentiment exists in Korea, but is it something that Asians in general can agree on?

Grace said...

I think it's pretty obvious that this kind of sentiment is still prevelant in Asia. The example that comes to mind is the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics with the fiasco over the short track speed skating (I think that's what it's called) with the Korean player and Apollo. Koreans were outraged over the ruling and wrote so many emails to the Olympic Committee that their server crashed (I can imagine the poor guys had a quite time trying to delete those thousands of emails ^^). They also had a temporary, but successful boycott on American goods/stores for about a week that caused American fast food chains to suffer big losses. This event was resurrected again at the 2002 World Cup when Ahn Jong Ahn scored a goal against the U.S. team, he mimicked the motions of a speed skater. So winning against Westerners is definitely viewed as a big accomplishment.

I think this is a view that is also held in common by other Asians as well, just because of past history and perceptions of Western superiority. But who knows, with the rise of China and that of Asia in general, in the future this attitude could possibly change to one of condenscension towards Westerners.

Sayaka said...

To me it is not that obvious that Koreans are more anti-Westerners than anti-Japanese, both during the 50s and lately. I heard loud cheers whenever Togo almost goaled againt Japan in FIFA world cup last summer in my apartment in Seoul, and I am sure the Koreans would have been as happy if it had been a Western team instead of Togo. The movie was filmed recently, and I don't think the public sentiment between Korea and Japan was not very friendly when it started showing. There is no obvious reason that the collective sentiment against Japan would be better than that towards Westerners. (and there is not much anti-Americanism or anti-Western sentiments in Japan in the 50s, I don't think. That's why it feels like Rikidozan's almost pan-Asianist ideology was out of the blue to me.)