I Am A Korean by Li Ho In

September 16, 2019

You’ll sometimes see a WWE authorised book dismissed as “propaganda.” But this North Korean biography of Rikidozan really is propaganda.

The story of Rikidozan is well known: he was the first star when pro wrestling caught on in a big way in Japan, he was among the first major TV stars in the country from any walk of life, he was a genuine cultural icon, and if you see a ranking of famous or historically significant wrestlers and he’s not in the top 10, you can safely dismiss it as a joke.

What’s less well-known is that he was born in Korea and was adopted by a Japanese family in 1940: when he became a sumo star, he changed his name to Mitsuhiro Momota and posed as a Japanese native to avoid xenophobic attitudes in the country.

While the country was still united when he left, Rikidozan’s birth place was in what’s now North Korea, hence the inspiration for this 1989 biography that, while rare in the West, is widely available in bookshops in the country, particularly those aimed at tourists.

As you might expect from North Korea, it goes far beyond the historically correction of explaining Rikidozan’s true origins and recasts his motives as a struggle for the Korean people against the hostile Japanese and Americans. The book is incredibly detailed on his career and matches, though of course it portrays them as genuine contests.

While most of the historical detail appears accurate, it’s hard to imagine the details of behind-the-scenes conversations are anything but fiction. The match reports are, to say the least, slanted, and naturally there’s no acknowledgement of Rikidozan double-crossing Masahiko Kimura in the match that really made his name.

The book is a translation (including some mangled names such as Rue Thez and carries the flowery, elaborate style you’d expect from an authoritarian country. The reported quotes from conversations are particularly unnatural, almost entertainingly so.

While this may not be a historically reliable source, it’s certainly an entertaining enough read that’s intriguing not only for its story but for its ultra-patriotic style.

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