Rikidozan: A Korean wrestler, a Japanese national hero

Amidst all the angst between Japan and Korea for the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial army on Koreans in the last century, there are stories that are easily forgotten and sidetracked, to make way for the aforementioned conflicts to be highlighted. It does not mean those stories are less significant. We talk about national heroes, war heroes who sacrificed their lives to protect their homeland, who fought for independence, defied authorities, who built countries, who destroyed countries but we forget those who, while the other heroes were fighting enemies, kept people’s spirits high and hopeful. Those heroes who, if their countries were defeated, would not let the people feel disheartened, and if they felt disheartened, would reinvigorate their souls to learn from the history, be better and build for the future.

One such hero was Rikidozan – a wrestler of Korean descent who gained fame in Japan in 1950s and became their national hero.

Rikidozan hitting a Mongolian chop on an opponent.

When I first read about Rikidozan, I had never expected to find that someone held in such high regard in Japan could have come from Korea. Rikidozan (Korean name: Kim Sin-rak) was an orphan who initially, trained to become a sumo wrestler and entered the sport by the age of 16. Fighting in about two dozen tournaments, he finished with a record of 135-82, before turning his attention to the world of pro-wrestling in 1950.

After World War II, when Japanese people needed a hero to stand up to Americans, Rikidozan rose. He gained huge stardom in pro-wrestling in Japan and became a big ‘draw’ competing against and defeating American wrestlers with moves like Mongolian chops and piledrivers. Now, being a pro-wrestling nerd, I knew about the history of the sport in the US, reading about Buddy Rogers, Bruno Sammartino, Karl Gotch, Gorgeous George, Lou Thesz and a jillion more. But never had I imagined that in 1958, Rikidozan actually faced Lou Thesz (the creator of some of the most popular wrestling moves like STF, powerbomb, belly-to-back suplex and Lou Thesz Press) and defeated him. Thesz was the most dominant wrestler who went on to be the face of pro-wrestling in America in the 1960s. Rikidozan also defeated the top stars of the era including Freddie Blassie, establishing himself as the ‘cream of the crop’ (in the great Randy Savage’s words) and one of the all-time greats. His bouts with Thesz and the Destroyer are considered all-time classics.

Rikidozan vs Lou Thesz

Rikidozan also started the first wrestling promotion in Japan in 1953, named ‘Japan Pro-Wrestling Alliance’ (JWA). He is often considered one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. In 2002, he was named the third greatest wrestler of all time, behind Ric Flair and Riki’s rival, Lou Thesz, in a magazine article ‘The Top 100 Wrestlers of All Time by wrestling journalist John M. Molinaro.

As impressive as his in-ring accomplishments were, perhaps his most valuable contribution to the pro-wrestling industry would be his training legendary wrestlers like Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba, who followed in his footsteps and carried Japanese pro-wrestling to new heights.

The Destroyer applying a sleeper hold on Rikidozan during one of their matches in 1963.

Karl Gotch may have been the ‘Kamisama’ (Japanese word for ‘God of Wrestling’) due to his influence in shaping the Japanese pro-wrestling style – mixing amateur, Greco-Roman and Indian martial art, Pehlwani, it was Riki who is known as the ‘Father of Puroresu’. It is safe to say that Riki ruled the 1950s and early 1960s wrestling scene in Japan.

Although he died at the early age of 39, one wonders how he would have expanded his legacy if he had lived longer. On December 15, 1963, Riki got into an altercation with Katsuji Murata, a member of Sumiyoshi Kai – the second largest Yakuza syndicate – while partying at New Latin Quarter club in Tokyo’s Akasaka district. He was stabbed in the abdomen with a urine-soaked blade. There are conflicting reports about whether he went to see a doctor or not. According to Tokyo Reporter, Rikidozan returned to his home, Riki Mansion, and received treatment. Murata arrived later at apartment and apologized, which Riki accepted. However, he died a week later of peritonitis on December 15.

Murata was found guilty of manslaughter and served seven years in prison. Upon release, he became a gang boss. On each anniversary of Riki’s death, Murata offered apologies to his family and visited his grave. Murata died on April 10, 2013.

Although, after Riki’s death, pro-wrestling business suffered in Japan, it was ultimately survived by his students and successors like Antonio Inoki who founded New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) in 1971. Such is the story of a Korean orphan who brought Japanese audiences to their feet as they chanted for him by the only name they knew him as – “Rikidozan! Rikidozan! Rikidozan!”


Note: This article was previously published (by the same author) on The AsiaN in December 2015. It’s only published on this Film N’ Chips for archival purposes.

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