TOKYO – A former Japanese pro-wrestler turned politician promoted dialogue with North Korea on Wednesday, a country he has visited more than 30 times to organize sports events and promote ties.
Antonio Inoki started his political career in 1989 while still active in the ring and has travelled to the communist state frequently since then to promote cultural and sports-related exchanges.
“North Korea is always open to proposals of dialogues and visits of foreign delegations,” Inoki said, talking to reporters in Tokyo after a recent visit to the country amid heightened tensions following a sixth nuclear test by Pyongyang and new international sanctions.
Inoki made his first contacts in North Korea through his mentor, the legendary Korean-origin fighter Rikidozan (1924-1963), who he met during an exhibition in Sao Paulo where he stayed after emigrating from Japan with his family after World War II.
During his trips to Pyongyang, he has organized freestyle wrestling competitions with international fighters for huge audiences – in 1995, 190,000 people attended an event in the Rungrado 1st of May Stadium – and has held meetings with top officials of the Kim Jong-un regime.
Inoki has been trying to organize a visit for Japanese lawmakers to the neighboring country, but has faced obstacles due to the reluctance of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
At 74, Inoki is still a popular figure in Japan; he compared the attitudes of Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump to two boxers in the ring.
“We see how the leaders lift their fists higher in front of each other. It doesn’t matter who began the confrontation, the question now is who can bring it down first,” he said adding that Japan should play the role of a mediator, being the only country which has suffered a nuclear attack.
The former fighter, whose real name is Kanji Inoki, adopted the ring name Antonio inspired by the famous Italian-Argentine boxer Antonino Rocca, keeping it when he began his political career with his own Sports and Peace Party.
In 1976, he faced legendary boxer Muhammad Ali in Tokyo in an exhibition match, which ended in a draw and is considered a landmark in the development of mixed martial arts.
His biggest political achievement came in the ‘90s when he travelled to Iraq on an unofficial individual mission to organize a wrestling competition and negotiated with Saddam Hussein to free 41 Japanese hostages just before the start of the Gulf War.
Although his career as a lawmaker was interrupted in 1995 when he was embroiled in a scandal about illegal funding for his party and alleged links with the Japanese mafia – Yakuza.
In 2013, Inoki re-entered politics and was again elected as a representative from the nationalist Japan Restoration Party, increasing his North Korea visits since.
It is yet to be seen if his sports diplomacy with North Korea, only paralleled by NBA star Dennis Rodman, yields results.