Better Know a Rikishi: Rikidozan Mitsuhiro
He was born Kim San-Rak in what is now Hongwon, North Korea. He died a Japanese national hero. During his life, he became a high level sumo wrestler, Japan’s first professional wrestling star, and a Yakuza murder victim. He was Rikidozan.
This is a website devoted to sumo, and particularly a sumo game. You may be wondering how a write up on a puroresu legend has anything to do with modern sumo. That’s fair, but Rikidozan was a sumotori of some skill and notability. His fame in the squared circle may be why he is famous, yet his time on the dohyo speaks directly to how sumo changed in the 20th century. His transition to professional wrestling tells us something about sumo’s role in Japanese culture in the postwar period. This profile of Rikidozan is also the first in a series of three articles about sumotori who became professional wrestlers.
Sumo is a professional form of wrestling, and it has many ties to Japanese professional wrestling. That can tell us plenty about both sumo, especially as it has changed.
During his sumo career, Rikidozan was listed with the “birth” name “百田 光浩 (Momota Mitsuhiro)”, from Nagasaki, born on November 14, 1924, and fighting for Nishonoseki stable. He was not named Mitsuhiro Momota, he wasn’t born in Nagasaki, and he may not have been born in 1924. The one certainty is that he was part of Nishonoseki-beya.
At the time, and indeed throughout his incredible popularity in the 1950s, the public did not suspect Rikidozan wasn’t really Mitsuhiro Momota from Nagasaki. Whether sumo insiders knew he was Korean is unclear. Some books and websites say he was initially listed as Korea-born, although any online historical banzukes show his shusshin as Nagasaki. His listed “birth name” at the start of his career is also unclear. He was possibly initially listed as “金 信洛,” or Kimu Shiruraku. That’s basically a Japanese transliteration of Kim San-Rak.
What is clear about Rikidozan is that he was considered from Nagasaki, and he always asserted he was born in Japan. He was also known as Momota Mitsuhiro in official records. There were not recognized foreigners in sumo in the first half of the 20th century. Additionally, Japan ruled the Korean peninsula as a colonial power. Korean culture and language were suppressed. Large numbers of Japanese people also came to Korea as government officials. Japan and Korea were deeply intertwined from 1910 to 1945. A flood of Koreans did not join sumo in that period, however.
That did not mean there were no wrestlers from outside Japan. In the 1930s, there was Toyonishiki, a Japanese-American rikishi born in Pierce, Colorado in 1920. He joined in 1938, but always maintained his hometown was Chiyujo, Fukuoka. Possibly a few other Koreans, born under Japanese rule like Rikidozan, joined sumo stables while claiming to be Japanese. There was one listed Korean, Chiinoyama, but he had a Japanese name and presumably was ethnically Japanese.
Rikidozan’s real life story wasn’t revealed until years after his death. The generally accepted story is that the young Kim San-Rak was a farmer’s younger son who excelled in ssireum as a boy. Ssireum is the Korean folk wrestling where each combatant wears a belt around the waist and the right thigh, seeking to throw their opponent to the ground using the belt. He was spotted in a competition by Momota Minosuke, father-in-law of a policeman in Korea, who had connections to Nishonoseki-beya. After his father’s death, young Kim San-Rak moved to Japan, joined Nishonoseki, and became Rikidozan.
That story may be a little too pat, and any claim made about Rikidozan seems to have a counter-claim somewhere. Not only did he have the fake Nagasaki origin story, but he became a key figure in a highly mythologized industry and a hero to the government of North Korea after his death. Rikidozan exists in a haze of exaggerations, put ons, and legends. Yet the application of ssireum skills to sumo is fairly obvious, and becoming a high-level sumo wrestler probably seemed like a golden opportunity for a farmer’s son. Kim San-Rak the Korean farm kid turned into Rikidozan the Japanese sumo wrestler.
And he was a very good sumo wrestler. He needed just 8 basho to get to sekitori status and the second Juryo division. Along the way he never had a losing record, earning a Sandanme and Makushita yusho along the way. He then spent just three basho in Juryo. This did take 6 years, because there were only two basho a year through 1944, and then World War II created a series of disruptions. Basho were moved around, and the Kokugikan was bombed out at the end of the war. Basho began to be held outdoors once again, like they had before the 20th century. In fact, Rikidozan got a Jun-Yusho after being in a four-way playoff for Natsu 1947 against Yokozuna Haguroyama, Ozeki Maedayama, and Ozeki Azumafuji. It was held in June at the Meiji Shrine Garden, an uncommon occurrence in both time and place.
Speaking more to how different sumo was in Rikidozan’s time was that he earned a playoff chance with a 9-1 record. The 15 match per basho standard was only adopted in 1949. Also, Azumafuji was listed as a “haridashi” Ozeki, which means “overhanging” Ozeki. Then, and until 1995, when there were more than two men in any Sanyaku slot, the extra wrestlers were listed as “haridashi” for the rank. Most strikingly, 50 wrestlers were listed in Makushita.
These superficial differences may actually mask just how different sumo was when Rikidozan competed. Rikidozan’s most common winning kimarite was tsuridashi, the frontal lift out. This is where a sumotori lifts his opponent over the edge of the dohyo. His next most common winning technique was uwatenage, the over arm throw, and then hatakikomi, the slap-down. In modern sumo, almost everyone has either yorikiri, the frontal force out, or oshidashi, the frontal push out, as their most common winning techniques. (A notable exception is Midorifuji, who actually uses his signature katasukashi, the under shoulder swing down, most often.)
Most of the Yokozuna and Ozeki in Rikidozan’s time favored yorikiri, and the kimarite only tells part of the story of a match. There were just a lot more throws and grappling battles at the edge in the 1940s and 1950s. Watching clips of bouts from the time, sumotori almost look like they are in slow motion. A modern sumo match starts with a hard collision of some sort, with each rikishi coming full blast. The exception is a henka, and a modern sidestep has to be fast and fairly physical to work. Sumo has never been a sport where matches took very long, but modern sumo is especially fast.
Matches also did not need to start with both men having both hands on the clay. The rule always existed, but video evidence shows it was not enforced to a high degree. This not only meant that there was an extra layer of strategy at the beginning of a match, but that everyone began matches rather cagily. If you knew the other guy could plow into you before you were set, you would have to be ready for the possibility as you got set. That impacted how matches unfolded.
The sumo of the 1940s seemed predicated on each man being willing to grab a hold of some kind on the mawashi. No one was being blown back at tachiai in the 1940s in high-level sumo. A match almost seemed guaranteed to have three acts. First, each man would try and get their preferred grip on the mawashi. Next, they would attempt to move each other around the dohyo for some small opening. Finally, they would either begin throwing each other or be at the edge and work to force each other out.
That’s not to say a modern sumo match can’t follow those steps. It is just much more likely to be over after one physical confrontation. On any given day in current Makuuchi, wrestlers will be hauled out, pushed over, and knocked down with a single move. There is drama and tension in this, but it is of the explosive and shocking variety. Stories in sumo today tend to play out over basho, while in the 1940s the matches had dramatic storylines that are often missing in the modern sport.
Rikidozan was very good at the 1940s version of sumo, but how high he could have climbed is somewhat uncertain. In 1949, he made Sekiwake, but then went 3-12. He returned to Sanyaku immediately, and looked like he may stick. In January 1950, Rikidozan put together a 10-5 as a Komusubi, followed by an 8-7 as a Sekiwake in May. He was not yet 26 years old. That’s not someone who was about to get an Ozeki run, but someone who may have been an Ozeki in time.
Instead, he left sumo. Why Rikidozan retired from sumo is something else shrouded in mystery. The official explanation was that he had paragonimiasis, which is a very serious form of food poisoning from shellfish. That doesn’t seem like a retirement-worthy problem, and various stories were given for the real reason he left sumo. Maybe he disagreed with his payouts from his stablemaster. Maybe he continued to face racial animosity. Maybe he was a difficult man who had a tendency to interpersonal conflicts and fighting, even after his sumo career. What is clear is that he impulsively cut his chonmage and was forced to leave sumo on September 10, 1950.
Rikidozan left sumo so suddenly that he didn’t even have a job lined up. He worked construction for a short time, acquiring the job through a sumo patron, Shinsaku Nitta. That sounds like a bigger fall from grace than it may actually have been. Nitta possibly had connections to underworld figures, plus Japan was still under American occupation. Apparently Shinsaku Nitta dealt in blackmarket goods to American soldiers, which Rikidozan participated in as well.
So when an American professional wrestling tour was planned for Japan in 1951, Rikidozan was perfectly positioned to participate. The wrestlers came from the Hawaii and San Francisco pro wrestling organizations, and most interestingly included Harold Sakata. Sakata was a Japanese-American who won weightlifting silver at the 1948 Olympics for the USA. The tour wanted Japanese performers as well, and they sought out judoka as well as taking on Rikidozan. Pro wrestling in the 1950s was entirely staged, as now, but with a much stronger veneer of legitimacy. The crowd was supposed to think this was a real fight. Actual athletes significantly helped prop up that particular fiction.
After one month of training, Rikidozan made his professional wrestling debut against Bobby Bruns on October 28, 1951 in a 10 minute draw. Bruns was an American champion, and 10 minute draws by local athletes against international stars are not necessarily a sign the local guy becomes a future champion. Indeed, Rikidozan didn’t start competing regularly in Japan. He needed seasoning in those Hawaiian and Northern California promotions to become a real pro wrestler.
Sumotori are not necessarily obvious candidates for joining the pro wrestling ranks. Rikidozan was the first of many, and he also blazed a trail as someone who left sumo prematurely and found a home in professional wrestling. Yet Rikidozan’s ten-minute debut with Bruns apparently winded him because he didn’t need the cardiovascular shape for such an activity in sumo. Sumo wrestlers also have a specific range of skills, which need to be broadened to perform as stars in the wrestling ring.
Of course, sumo wrestlers are also somewhat natural pro wrestlers. The rituals of sumo provide a pomp and circumstance to the sport. Sekitori themselves are larger-than-life figures who typically adopt new ring names. Sumo’s hierarchical nature also elevates individual figures. Professional wrestlers have a theatrical presentation, become larger-than-life through storylines, and are elevated in staged matches, so the transition isn’t direct. Yet the ability to transition is clear.
And it was Rikidozan who not only did it first, but made it possible for many others. Upon his return to Japan in 1953, he founded the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance, better known as the JWA. In Japanese, it was known as “日本プロレス協会,” Nihon Puroresu Kyōkai. That is a clear reference to the Japan Sumo Association, “日本相撲協会,” Nihon Sumō Kyōkai. He also always wrestled under his shikona, becoming a legend as “Rikidozan.”
In the 1950s, Rikidozan became an icon in Japan that was basically unrivaled. A combination of post-occupation economic boom and new technologies meant professional wrestling could take center stage in the culture in a unique way. People gathered in public places to watch his matches on television displays. The ratings showed that, of Japanese television owners of the time, the vast majority of viewers would tune into his biggest matches. That popularity meant Rikidozan could invest in real estate and own a small entertainment business empire.
How he became popular is worth consideration. Rikidozan couldn’t be a sumo wrestler in a pro wrestling ring, but he could bring much of what he learned in sumo to his new career. For anyone versed in 21st century pro wrestling, Rikidozan’s matches will look astonishingly slow and ground-bound. This is true of all pro wrestling of the time. The contests were based on holds, throws, and other “legitimate” wrestling maneuvers. Rikidozan added in chops, shoves, and tosses from sumo, helping to create puroresu. Puroresu is the Japanese version of professional wrestling, a take on the phrase by Japanese speakers. It is based on legitimate martial arts backgrounds and builds storylines around the desire to win titles and the fighting spirit of competitors.
Rikidozan did not only help create a new style of wrestling. He essentially became the Yokozuna of pro wrestling in Japan. His first major title came for the “Japanese Heavyweight Championship” against Judoka Masahiko Kimura in 1953. Kimura was already famous for beating Brazilian jiu-jitsu star Helio Gracie in Sao Paolo in a forerunner of a mixed-martial arts match. Supposedly, Rikidozan legitimately attacked Kimura towards the end to win the match. A planned rematch didn’t happen. After that, he was off to the races.
Rikidozan brought in other judoka, karateka, and even other former sumo wrestlers, most notably frequent tag partner Toyonobori. Then he began facing visiting Americans. The real legend of Rikidozan was established by his defeating a series of foreigners and defending Japanese honor. American champions like Lou Thesz, Classy Freddie Blassie, and The Destroyer. The Japan Pro Wrestling Association also created a “World Big League,” a tournament featuring international wrestlers to vie for the top spot, not unlike a sumo basho. Needless to say, Rikidozan won the first five editions.
Rikidozan’s life was cut short at the height of his fame and influence. On December 8, 1963, Rikidozan got into a fight with a small-time yakuza member named Katsushi Murata. Rikidozan essentially assaulted Murata after feeling disrespected, and as Rikidozan was on top of him punching and striking him, Murata pulled out a knife. Both men ran, and Rikidozan had his stab-wound stitched up at a hospital. However, he didn’t listen to doctor’s orders, and began eating large amounts of sushi and drinking decent amounts of sake immediately. His wound didn’t heal. Rikidozan died of peritonitis on December 15, 1963.
After his death, Rikidozan’s proteges continued much of what he built with the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance. Men like Toyonobori, Kintaro Ohki, Michiaki Yoshimura, Giant Baba, and Antonio Inoki kept the promotion going with Rikidozan’s approaches to pro wrestling, but without the man himself. In 1972, the company fell apart when Baba and Inoki split off. Giant Baba founded All Japan Pro Wrestling; Antonio Inoki founded New Japan Pro Wrestling. These are still the two major professional wrestling promotions in Japan. They also both continue to base their form of puroresu around legitimate fighting backgrounds, regular tournaments, and stories based on the fighting spirit of wrestlers.
Crucially, Japanese professional wrestling developed in a country where there was already a form of wrestling where athletes were well-paid professionals and cultural icons. Rikidozan created that form of wrestling from his sumo background. Yet he did it from the particular sumo world he came from in the 1940s and 1950s, one with a more naturally developed storyline to each match. He also was in a unique position to see sumo differently than other sekitori because he was Korean and adopted a Japanese identity to become a sekitori. Rikidozan became bigger than a Yokozuna, he just didn’t do it in sumo.