By Joseph R. Svinth
Copyright © EJMAS 2007. All rights reserved.
Tsutao Higami was born in Okayama Prefecture on November 23, 1896. In his prime, he stood 5’3” and weighed around 140 pounds. But, like most of us, he gained weight as he aged. Consequently, by the 1930s, he generally wrestled at around 160-175 pounds.
Higami won his first judo championship while attending Tokyo Manual Training School (e.g., high school). After graduation, he went to the United States. He entered the United States through Seattle, but then went to Chicago, where he stayed for several years.
In 1917, he was living in Los Angeles, where his judo teachers included professional wrestler Tokugoro Ito. During the early 1920s, while still living in Los Angeles, Higami also trained under Taro Miyake. With such masters as his teachers, it is not surprising that he was hard to pin. Hence, his eventual nickname, “The Rubberman.” While living in Los Angeles, Higami was graded to 2-dan in judo.
During 1925, Higami was in Hilo, Hawaii. While there, he trained at the Shinyo Kai jujutsu dojo. The head of Shinyo Kai in those days was a man named Kichimatsu Tanaka, and the style taught was Yoshin-ryu jujutsu rather than Kodokan judo. But of course the differences are not very significant. Anyway, while on Big Island, Higami wrestled the California-based professional wrestler Ad Santel on July 4, 1925. Santel stood about 5’9” and weighed about 180 lbs., and he was among the best light-heavyweight wrestlers of the day. Santel won the first fall using a leg scissors to the neck. Higami got the second fall by arm bar. So, the match ended in a draw.
On August 30, 1925, Higami wrestled Gunner Bill Hill. This match was a combination of jacketed and unjacketed wrestling, and it was stipulated that Hill would win if he stayed half an hour. The Hilo Tribune-Herald reported that the catch-as-catch-can portion of the match was slow, with Higami not wanting to go to the mat. “The action was better in the Jiu Jitsu and Hill won many friends by... breaking several difficult holds. For a while it looked as if he [Hill] would keep away from Higami for the half hour period but after twenty-six minutes he was forced to acknowledge defeat by an arm lock and a body scissors.”
On December 12, 1925, one of Higami’s Shinyo Kai dojo mates, Seishiro “Henry” Okazaki, took part in a judo-vs.-boxing match in Hilo. The boxer was an English lightweight named Kid John Morris. Morris won by technical knockout, and the mostly Japanese crowd was not happy about the outcome. So, another match was immediately arranged between Morris and Higami. This time, it was Higami in the second, by arm-bar, and the crowd went home happy.
By the spring of 1927, Higami was wrestling on the US mainland. His wrestling matches in Hawaii may or may not have been show business, but on the mainland? Show biz.
On April 6, 1927, Higami was in Portland, Oregon, wrestling Louis Pergandas. Pergandas won the first fall by a leg split, while Higami won the second and third falls using wrist locks.
During September and October 1927, Higami was in Los Angeles. During a match at the Olympic Auditorium, Mark Kelly wrote that Higami “disposed of Alex Aberg in 12 minutes with what he called a Japanese hand hold, whatever that means.”
During April and May 1928, Higami wrestled in Oregon. Opponents included Al Karasick. After that, he went to Australia, where men he wrestled included John Kilonis, Mike Yokel, Ted Thye and Ad Santel.
On December 6, 1928, Higami wrestled John Anderson in Salt Lake City. Other men he wrestled in Salt Lake City during late 1928 and early 1929 included August Sepp, Pete Visser, Ira Dern, Leo Papiano, Frank Miller, Steve Strelich, Pat O’Shocker, Paul Jones, Al Newman, and Jack Burns. To make the matches more interesting for the crowd, the promoter, Verne McCullough, came up with the idea of having Higami lose to airplane spins. This practice appears to have started with Higami’s match with Ira Dern on January 10, 1929, and soon became standard fare.
On May 27, 1929, Higami was in Phoenix, Arizona, wrestling 200-lb. George Kotsonaros. Higami weighed 165 lbs. The Arizona Republican noted that Higami was a protege of Taro Miyake and Tokugoro Ito, and that he had recently beaten a Japanese rival for the world jujutsu championship in El Paso. Matty Matsuda had recently died, so the rival was probably Yasuji Fujita. Anyway, during this match with Kotsonaros, Higami won the first fall by chokehold. There was no fall in the second period, and Higami quit after a slam during the third. Kotsonaros reportedly received his judo training at a Japanese club in Los Angeles.
During 1930, Higami was based in Cincinnati. His opponents in Ohio included Billy Hallas, George Gable, Jack Reynolds, Bobbie Roscoe, and Basanta Singh.
In January 1932, Higami was wrestling in Galveston, Texas. The promoter was John McIntosh. Opponents included Gus Kallio and Stanley West. According to the Galveston Daily News, “Special negro sections [were] provided in the balcony and gallery sections.” During his match with West, the Galveston Daily News said that Higami “displayed perhaps more gameness than any wrestler who has appeared in a local ring.”
In May 1932, Higami went to Seattle, and in June 1932, he wrestled Yasuji Fujita, who was by then known as Iota Shima. This gave the local fans the unusual sight of Japanese wrestling with one another.
In September 1932, Higami had to lose (as usual) a match to the reigning middleweight champion, Jack Reynolds. Then, because exploiting racial prejudice was part of the promoters’ job (the promoters called it “building heat”), Seattle matchmaker Abe Kubey pitted the Japanese Higami against the Chinese Leung Tin-kit. This stirred so much controversy that Kubey made their match on September 22, 1932 the main event. Leung took two of three falls.
In February 1933, Higami was wrestling in Arkansas.
From March to July 1933, Higami was back in the Pacific Northwest. His usual opponent was the Northwest middleweight champion Cyclone Mackey; usually the two men worked draws. Less prominent opponents included Des Anderson and John Nemanic. As usual, when it was time for Higami to leave one venue for another, then he lost. This time, the defeat took place in Portland on July 10, 1933, when Otis Clingman of Oklahoma City beat him by two falls to one.
From Oregon, Higami went to Honolulu, where he worked for Ed Ratsch. At the time, there was a promotional war between Ratsch, who promoted at the Honolulu Stadium, and Manuel Calhau, who promoted at the Civic Auditorium.
On December 10, 1934, Higami beat Jerry Marcus in Honolulu, thereby winning what was advertised as the world’s junior middleweight championship.
While in Honolulu, Higami met Shunichi Shikuma. Shikuma was a judo (or more precisely, Danzan Ryu jujutsu) student of Seishiro Okazaki, with whom Higami had trained in 1925. Higami subsequently became Shikuma’s manager, and around September 1935, Higami took Shikuma, now known as “Killa,” to California.
On Monday, October 7, Higami wrestled at Hollywood’s Legion Stadium, where he beat Joe Becher at catch-as-catch-can. On the same card, Shikuma beat Rocky Brooks for the second time in two weeks.
Still in Hollywood, Shikuma wrestled Jack Kelly on October 17, while Higami wrestled Jack Domar. As soon as they were done, the two men started driving to Salt Lake City, where Higami had a match with Ray Lyon the following night. In Salt Lake City, Higami, billed as weighing 178 pounds, defeated Lyon in standard wrestling (e.g., without jackets).
Shikuma and Higami were in San Francisco on December 12, 1935. Higami wrestled Basanta Singh while Shikuma wrestled Red Lyons. Higami won while Shikuma got a draw. A week later, Higami also beat Lord Lansdowne.
During March and April 1936, Higami was wrestling in Reno and Stockton. Opponents included Stacy Hall, Sammy Cohen, and Lord Lansdowne.
On May 12, 1936, Higami beat Ben Holt during a preliminary match held at Southern California’s Ventura Athletic Club.
During the fall and winter of 1936-1937, Higami was barnstorming through Ohio. Cities in which Higami wrestled included Marion, Toledo, Sandusky, Tiffin, and Elyria.
Higami spent late 1937 doing tag-team wrestling in Oregon. His partners included Don Sugai, a former AAU wrestling champion from Salem, Oregon.
From March to May 1939, Higami was in New Orleans. Opponents included Red Roberts, Jack Steele, Joe Gunther, and Charlie Keene. However, by the end of the year, he was back in Ohio.
On June 17, 1940, Higami went to Honolulu. Because the gates that Higami drew in 1936 were among the best in Hawaiian history, on July 3, 1940, he was allowed to wrestle Billy Venable for the Territorial junior heavyweight championship. In this meeting, Venable won the first round using a Boston Crab. Higami won the second with the sleeper hold he called the “snoozer.” Then, as there were lots of Japanese wrestling fans in the Islands, he pinned Venable in the third to take the Territorial championship.
On September 4, 1940, Mike “Whiskers” London threw Higami from the ring. “Usually the Rubberman would recoil and be back in the ring faster than he went down,” the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported the following day. “However, last evening something went wrong. He landed on his chest, mouth and chin all at once. The eight feet drop caused a deep gash on his face, lips and possible rib injuries. The Japanese grappler was taken to the emergency hospital [Queen’s] and later transferred to the Japanese hospital [since 1942, Kuakini]... Promoter Al Karasick said this morning that Higami will be out of action for at least a couple of weeks.”
During 1941, Higami’s opponents in Honolulu included George Wagner. Wagner later changed his name to Gorgeous George, and professional wrestling was never quite the same.
During World War II, professional wrestling in Hawaii was restricted to Sunday afternoon shows. Among the sailors of the Pacific Fleet, there was little demand for Japanese champions. Therefore, Higami, along with Kaimon Kudo and other Japanese professional wrestlers, mostly appeared as a referee. The rest of the week, Higami worked as a bouncer. Reportedly, his standard technique of resolving conflict involved cupping his cauliflower ear (thereby indicating his willingness to fight), and saying, “What you say? I don’t hear so good.”
Following World War II, Higami returned to professional wrestling as a trainer. Men he trained during the late 1940s and early 1950s included Hisao Tanaka (“Duke Keomuka”), Harold Sakata (“Tosh Togo”), Robert “Kinji” Shibuya, and Masahiko Kimura. Kimura was a legendary judo champion in Japan, and so the Hawaiian professional wrestling community found it quite amusing when the 53-year-old Rubberman promptly choked Kimura unconscious. In 1951, Higami also provided training to Kim Sin-nak, a wrestler who became famous as Rikidozan.
Meanwhile, Higami taught judo to Honolulu schoolboys. Venues included the Nuuanu Hongwanji Boys Club. Examples of his postwar judo students include Al Dacascos, Victor “Sonny” Gascon, Bobby Lowe, Roy Suenaka, and Tony Troche, all of whom subsequently became well-known teachers of assorted Asian martial arts.
Higami died in Honolulu in May 1972.
This article draws heavily upon newspaper research done by Patrice Baptiste, Mark Hewitt, J Michael Kenyon, Don Luce, and the author. See also Thomas H. Makiyama, “Rubberman Meets a Giant,” Black Belt, September 1967, pages 37-39, and Libnan Ayoub with Tom Gannon, 100 Years of Australian Professional Wrestling (Marrickville, New South Wales, Australia: Topmill Pty. Ltd., 1998). Some newspaper citations are also available online. See, for example, http://www.newspaperarchive.com.
There is no doubt that many matches (and even circuits) are not listed here. Anyone with additional information, photographs, or corrections is invited to contact the author at email@example.com.