Some of the earliest portrayals of Asians on TV that I remember were done by professional wrestlers. These Asians were heels, as bad guys in professional wrestling are called, and played the role of evil scheming Japanese. I loved to hate one wrestler on Big Time Wrestling named Kinji Shibuya (also known as Kenji Shibuya), who was famous for his “nerve” holds and his deadly “karate chop.” Kinji Shibuya passed away on May 3rd at the age of 88. In the wrestling video above, he portrays the devious and treacherous Asian, blinding his enemy by throwing salt into the eyes, a schtick made popular by another Japanese-American wrestling heel, Mr. Fuji.
Why should we note the passing of someone who played what would seem to be overwhelmingly negative stereotypes of Asians? Kinji Shibuya’s life reflects what many Asian-Americans of his time endured, from discrimination to stereotypes. While his wrestling persona claimed to be from Japan, Shibuya was really born in Utah. He was a standout football player at the University of Hawaii and even played some semi-pro football. The Washington Redskins were interested in him, but he didn’t get a chance at the NFL (unlike Eugene Amano and Ed Wang) because of his ethnicity. Instead, he found that being typecast as a Japanese heel was the best way to make a living. While he was quite good at it, he didn’t always like it:
L.A. was about the only place other than Honolulu where a Japanese wrestler could be himself, be a babyface. It started with Rikidozan, then Toyonobori and these guys got an amazing reaction. I was sometimes jealous that they didn’t have to play the World War II sneaky Japanese heel. But I don’t think anyone ever did it as well as me.
This article about him says that he was a masterful technician in the ring, and that despite his evil character, he was well liked by his peers. He didn’t crash and burn either, unlike so many in professional wrestling. Outside of the ring he was known as a gentleman and as his kids reminisce, just a regular dad.
After retiring from the ring, he did some acting, appearing in Kung Fu and Mr. T and Tina. He also became known for raising champion koi. It is said that he strolled his Hayward neighborhood with a pair of garden shears, trimming people’s shrubs just so he could spark a friendly conversation. Despite discrimination and stereotypes that forced him from a football career caused him to play a negative role, he never became embittered and was by all accounts, fun loving yet thoughtful and gentle person. Says Michele Shibuya, Kinji’s daughter: “he had one of the richest lives anybody could ever want. Externally, he portrayed himself as this very mean, tough guy. But internally, he was a very kind, gentle spirit with a great sense of humor. He could engage people in a way that was nonthreatening and loving, too.”