Rikidozan was one of the most well-known people in Japan in the 1950s. Starting out as a sumo wrestler, Rikidozan made his mark taking on American wrestlers, and defeating them. This time is only a few years removed from the end of the American occupation, a psychologically disorienting time as Japanese swung from superior overlords in Asia to beaten and despairing at the end of the Pacific War. Taking on the Americans in the ring and knocking them into submission (even if they were to script), built up the morale of the Japanese, and made Rikidozan a national hero of unparalleled stature.
The picture below is a testament to Rikidozan’s pulling power. In the 1950s in Japan, black and white televisions were available, but were still too expensive for the common person. Movie theaters were booming, but they could not show live broadcasts. So when there was a major event broadcast live, the major Japanese networks like NHK and NTV would set up televisions at train stations, temples, shrines and parks and invite people to watch free of charge. And no one pulled in the crowds like Rikidozan.
One December evening in 1963, Rikidozan was at a night club called The New Latin Quarter in downtown Tokyo when he apparently bumped into another person as he was leaving the rest room. Rikidozan apparently demanded that the other person, a gangster named Katsushi Murata, to apologize. Murata did not, Rikidozan wrestled Murata to the ground, and Murata sent a knife blade into the wrestler’s abdomen. Rikidozan died a week later.
Ten months later, on October 23, on the second-to-last day of the Tokyo Olympics, Japan was again reminded of Rikidozan when they read the news that Murata had been sentenced to 8 years in prison.
The Tokyo Olympics lifted the spirits of Japanese throughout the country in those magical two weeks in October, 1964. Rikidozan, the Father of Japanese Pro Wrestling, had already been doing that for years.