One Man, Two Stories: The Differing Legacies of Rikidozan
Kim Sin-rak(November 14th, 1924- October 28th, 1963), better known as Rikidozan, is one of the most decorated professional wrestlers of all time. Born in the Northern part of Korea, he immigrated to Japan to become a sumo wrestler. Though he had some success in the world of sumo wrestling, his dispute with his stable master would lead to Rikidozan retiring from the sport to become a black marketeer and construction worker. His life would change after being recruited by American professional wrestler and promoter Bobby Bruns to come along on a wrestling tour of Japan. After this first tour was done, he left for the United States where his fame and popularity steadily grew. He was soon established as Japan's biggest professional wrestling star, defeating the imposing American wrestlers through sheer strength, tenacity, and sumo-based chops. At the time of Rikidozan's rise to superstardom, Japan was left reeling after surrendering to the United States in 1945. The Japanese people needed a hero, and Rikidozan became that hero. Millions of Japanese citizens crowded television screens in order to watch Rikidozan fight off American wrestlers, giving hope to a downtrodden nation. Rikidozan's storied career would leave behind a major impact on Japan, becoming the first postwar hero who embraced Japanese ideals. His foundation of the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance in 1953 was the starting point for the establishment of puroresu, or Japanese pro wrestling. His JWA paved the way for companies like New Japan Pro Wrestling to become both a domestic and worldwide phenomenon.
Japan was not the only country to have idolized Rikidozan as a national hero, however. Years after Rikidozan's death, North Korea claimed Rikidozan as their own national hero. Though Rikidozan lived life as a Japanese star, he was born as Kim Sin-rak, an ethnic North Korean. North Korea published multiple pieces of state propaganda re-writing the narrative of Rikidozan's career to fit the views of North Korea, to inspire their citizens to follow state teachings. Rikidozan was repackaged into a North Korean patriot who hated Japan and loved his home country, and had fought and dedicated his matches to the Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung. He did not simply defeat wrestlers, he had fought off almost mythical beings in American and Japanese wrestlers and became the symbol of strength and resillience in North Korea.
This essay seeks to examine both of the differing stories told about Rikidozan's career, and contextualize them with their respective time period. Rikidozan's career in the Japanese telling is post-World War 2, while the North Korean telling lines up more accurately with the later half of the Cold War. Rikidozan's career is examined with an understanding of the ins and outs of professional wrestling and historical context behind the concurrent events during Rikidozan's career and the North Korean re-telling of that career.
Copyright (c) 2023 Francisco Sanchez
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