HORSE’S MOUTH: Lincoln, the Great American

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By GEORGE YOSHINAGA

Published in The Rafu Shimpo on Feb. 16, 2012

After I ran a photo of Hiroshi Itsuki standing next to me in Las Vegas, I didn’t expect to get any mail or email because I didn’t think too many Japanese Americans even knew about the singer who was known as the “Frank Sinatra of Japan.”

Well, I received five emails, most of them wanting to know how I came to meet such a famous personality.

Actually, his personal manager, whom I met while I was living in Japan, connected me with Itsuki. The recording company with whom Itsuki had a contract wondered if the popular singer might appear on a stage in Vegas, and he contacted me.

At first I kind of chuckled because I’d never heard of a foreign entertainer appearing on the stage at a Strip hotel even if the performer was popular in his/her home country.

Well, I figured what the heck? Let me give it a try.

Since I used to go to the Las Vegas Hilton frequently, I went to the hotel and asked if I could speak to the manager. Needless to say, the manager’s secretary asked me what I wanted to talk to him about.

When I told her about Itsuki wanting to perform in Vegas, she laughed and said, “Yes, so do hundreds of entertainers.”

However, she said she would tell him about my presence. Well, I sat in the waiting room for about an hour and the secretary said, “OK, he says he will see you.”

The manager was a pleasant person and asked me if I had any photos or recordings of Itsuki.

Unfortunately, I said, “No.” “Can you get them?” he asked. I told him I would give it a try by calling Itsuki’s manager.

At first, Itsuki’s manager was surprised I was able to talk with the Hilton manager. He said he would send the items by special delivery on the next flight to Vegas, which took two days.

When the hotel manager saw the photos, he said, “Hey, he’s a pretty good-looking dude.”

However, after we listened to the tapes of Itsuki’s top recordings, the manager said, “He’s singing in Japanese. Does he perform in English, too?”

I guess that ended the conversation because he said, “I don’t think our patrons will pay to see and hear an entertainer singing in a foreign language.”

But he added, “If you can can guarantee that his appearance will fill half of the entertainment hall, I might consider it.”

I asked how many that would be and he said, “About 1,500.”

I thought for a while and said, “Let me go back to Los Angeles and ask around the Japanese community and see what their reaction might be. I’ll come back to give you the result of my survey.”

Well, when I called Japan about the Hilton manager’s response, Itsuki’s manager surprised me when he said, “Tell the manager I’ll invite him and his wife to Tokyo so he can see Itsuki perform in person.

When I conveyed his message to the manager, he seemed interested and said, “When does he want us to travel to Japan?

Itsuki’s manager said, “Any time he’s ready.”

So, in ten days, the Hilton manager, his wife and I were on a JAL jet headed for Narita.

We stayed five days, during which time the Hilton manager saw two shows in which Itsuki performed.

He was impressed by Itsuki’s performance and said he would talk with the other people at the Hilton to see what they thought.

About three weeks later, I got a phone call from the manager who said, “I think we can squeeze Itsuki in, but he will have to perform during midweek because all the other days are filled for the year.”

He asked me, “Can you get the Japanese from Los Angeles to buy tickets on a weekday?”

I said, “I’ll give it a try. When do you need a response?”

“I’ll give you three weeks,” he told me.

So I returned to Ellay and talked to businesses in J-Town, mostly travel agents.

They kind of shook their heads and said, “We’ll give it a try and let you know.”

Well, the response wasn’t that great, but I felt that with enough publicity, I might be able  to attract enough fans to fill half of the auditorium.

The Hilton seemed to want to take a chance of putting the first foreign-language entertainer on their main stage, and as the old saying goes, the rest is history.

Itsuki’s appearance didn’t come close to filling up the showroom, but the management seemed satisfied.

And as the photo of Itsuki and me in front of the Hilton showed, I got a hundred-dollar chip from the famous Japanese singer.

So, I hope those who read this piece will say, “Naru hodo, Yoshinaga-kun.”

Speaking of photos of noted Japanese figures, when I dug up the Itsuki photo that I printed in my last column, I came across another one in my file that I thought I might run and chat about because, believe it or not, this man was just as popular as Itsuki.

It’s a photo of Rikidozan, who hired me to work for his company in Tokyo back in the early ’60s. His company was called Riki Enterprises.

Although Riki was known as a professional wrestler, his company was far more than a pro wrestling firm.

He owned his own sports stadium in the Shibuya district in Tokyo. He also owned a nightclub near the Ginza.

Of course, he owned a lot of other properties, and with the value of properties in Japan, especially in the Ginza area, it didn’t take me long to realize I was dealing with a powerful and wealthy individual.

What I was not aware of was that Riki was not Japanese. He had a “Japanese” name,  which was Mitsuhiro Momota.

I learned this because when I applied for my working visa with the Japanese Consulate in Los Angeles, I was required to have a contract with Riki’s company, which he signed as Mitsuhiro Momota.

I learned of his Korean heritage after I got to Tokyo and started dealing with other Japanese firms.

Most of them told me, “Do you know you’re working for a Korean?”

Heck, in those days I didn’t even know any Koreans in L.A.

In those days I lived in an area of L.A. people used to refer to as “Uptown” and a lot of Japanese Americans lived there. It’s now known as “Koreantown” and it’s a lot larger than our Little Tokyo.

At any rate, I had to adjust, not only as a Japanese American working in Tokyo but one working for a Korean owner.

Of course, since Riki was such a popular and powerful figure, I kind of blended in after a few months.

What was my job?

Organizing a boxing organization within Riki’s company and developing it. I called it “Riki Boxing Club.”

I guess my main chore was to import foreign fighters to appear in televised matches against Japanese foes.

So, I had to “sell” our operation to a Tokyo TV station. I tied up with Channel 6, which was Japan’s equivalent to America’s CBS.

My biggest accomplishment, I think, was promoting the first world heavyweight championship fight outside of the U.S. between then champion George Foreman and challenger Joe Roman from Cuba.

The fight lasted one round, which certainly didn’t sit well with the TV station that financed the bout.

I thought, “Oh, oh, Gardena, here I come.”

But Riki liked the promotion, so I was a permanent “gaijin” resident of Tokyo.

Heck, I told my wife, “Looks like we’re going to spend the rest of our lives in Japan.”

As it turned out, to my wife’s joy, we had to leave Japan and return to Gardena about 6 months later because Riki was involved in a fight at a nightclub where his opponent pulled a knife and stabbed him.

Without him, his company fell apart. I told his wife I was returning to the U.S.

She said I had a lifetime contract with Riki that she would honor if I so desired.

I didn’t have to give it a second thought and told her I was leaving Japan and would depart as soon as I could pack.

She broke up as she said, “You are my last link with Riki.”

Needless to say, I was sad when the company members came to wish me “sayonara.”

Well, next Monday is Presidents Day and one of the presidents to be honored is Abraham Lincoln.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich emailed me a Lincoln’s Birthday message, which read:

“Today we remember Abraham Lincoln on his 204th birthday. Lincoln was a man of strength of character …

“Lincoln suffered a political setback in 1858, losing a Senate race to Stephen Douglas after a series of historic debates. Instead of moving away from his principles, he blazed a winning trail of leadership and principle to win the presidency two years later.

“Although we think we may have it rough with today’s issues, it is nothing compared to the adversities Lincoln faced. Only ten days before Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office in 1861, the Confederate States of America seceded from the Union, taking all federal agencies, forts and arsenals with their territory.

“His uncanny leadership abilities guided this nation through its dark hours and continue to guide us. His leadership and resolve provided the winning foundation for abolishing slavery and keeping the Union intact.

“The only child of Abe and Mary Lincoln to survive into adulthood, Robert Lincoln, lived until 1926 but along the way he lived a remarkable life.

“Robert served in the Union Army during the Civil War and was present at the Appomattox Court House during the historic moment of Gen. Lee’s surrender.

“The following week he was at the White House when he was awakened by the news of his father’s assassination.

“Robert Lincoln served as secretary of war under President Garfield and was at the Washington train station when Garfield was shot. He was also present when President McKinley was gunned down in Buffalo.

“He would serve in other political appointments and ambassadorships and later became president of Pullman Train Car Company, a booming enterprise back then, and a position he would hold for the rest of his life.

“In his early 20s, Robert was standing on a train platform in Jersey City when he accidentally fell between the train and the platform, a perilously tight place to be.

“Suddenly, a hand grabbed him by the neck of his coat, pulling him to safety, saving his life. The hand that saved him was that of Edwin Booth, the brother of John Wilkes Booth.”

Quite a story.

Sorry, no laugher today. Happy Presidents Day.

George Yoshinaga writes from Gardena and may be reached via email at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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