Wimblington wrestling fan talks about meeting his masked idol Kendo Nagasaki after winning competition

Ed Palmer with legendary 1970s masked wrestler Kendo Nagasaki.

Ed Palmer with legendary 1970s masked wrestler Kendo Nagasaki. - Credit: Archant

A Wimblington man’s rendezvous with the legendary 1970s masked wrestler Kendo Nagasaki

One Saturday afternoon in 1977 an audience of over 12 million TV viewers watched as the mysterious masked wrestler Kendo Nagasaki was ceremonially and dramatically unmasked on ITV’s World of Sport.

I was one of those viewers and the images that played out on the TV screen that day have stayed with me ever since. I was 12 years old at the time and the face that was revealed did not diminish the enigma one bit.

I had briefly seen Kendo Nagasaki unmasked before, when Big Daddy (real name Shirley Crabtree) managed to remove the mask during one particularly memorable bout in 1975.

Once unmasked, Nagasaki swiftly set about defeating Big Daddy whilst also trying to shield his face from the gaze of an incredulous audience before re-masking.

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The unmasked man was western in appearance and had blood red eyes.

He had a shaven head apart from a circular top knot of black hair with a ponytail at the back. He also had an unusual symbol tattooed on the top of his head which resembled two triangles overlaid to form a six pointed star with an eye in the centre.

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After a short period of unmasked wrestling, the mask went back on, and has stayed on for all public appearances ever since.

Of course masked wrestlers are nothing new, but what is different about Nagasaki is that to this day he continues to maintain a solid wall of secrecy about his identity and his life outside the wrestling ring.

A BBC documentary broadcast in 1992 only served to reinforce the mystery.

The programme focused on the painting of a (masked) portrait of Nagasaki by the renowned artist Peter Blake.

The highlight of the programme was a subtitled interview with Nagasaki (he refused to have his voice recorded).

The interview revealed a highly articulate and intelligent man who enjoyed poetry and other cultural pastimes.

The man behind the mask was not a blank canvas with no personality or wit and the Kendo Nagasaki ‘character’ was far more than just a temporary stage persona.

Ironically, the catalyst for my rendezvous with the masked Nagasaki began with a link to him on Facebook.

He has a very comprehensive website www.kendonagasaki.org and his representatives regularly post news items and updates via the site.

One web post outlined a ‘challenge’ whereby 50 people could win an invitation to attend an event being organised to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Nagasaki’s first wrestling match.

The challenge was to write a short piece about your earliest recollections of seeing or meeting Kendo Nagasaki.

The event would be held at Nagasaki’s country residence ‘The Retreat’ and would involve an evening gathering in a newly planted Japanese Cherry Tree orchard with readings of the best 13 entries, by their writers.

I composed and submitted my piece just before the deadline for entries expired.

A couple of emails from the office of Kendo Nagasaki followed confirming my invitation to attend the event and providing the address of The Retreat (which the invitees were asked to keep to themselves).

Another email very deftly explained that my submission had not been selected as one of the 13 to be read on the night.

The 13 entries to be read at the event were chosen because they most represent the spirit of the 50th anniversary.

Finally, the day of the event arrives.

I enter the gates of The Retreat at five minutes to seven on the 13th of November.

The invitation, the mask, the palatial mansion with extensive grounds - echoes of Willy Wonka and Batman movies fill my mind. But this is no movie. It is feels surreal, yet it is actually happening.

After being greeted, we are led through a corridor. On the left hand side are three mannequins in a glass case displaying a Judo outfit and two sets of Kendo armour used in the combat sport of Kendo and by Nagasaki when entering the wrestling ring. A picture of Nagasaki’s Japanese martial arts mentor and mystic Kenshiro Abbe takes pride of place inside the cabinet.

The corridor leads to a large hall that is decorated in a Japanese style and is set out with several rows of tables and chairs with place settings for fifty plus guests.

In the corner a large TV screen shows a repeating reel of highlights from Nagasaki’s wrestling career.

There are also scenes showing him driving his yellow Lamborghini Diablo through winding country roads as well as others of him meditating and leading Buddhist inspired ceremonies (always masked of course).

At each place setting there is a printed leaflet explaining the plans for the evening.

Kendo Nagasaki will join us after the meal at 9pm, the time that his first wrestling match began fifty years ago.

On the table in front of all of us are small pieces of oblong shaped wood stamped at one end with Japanese characters, a ‘Hanko’ style signature stamp.

We are asked to write a wish, affirmation or aspiration for ourselves or others on the pieces of wood (or just our initials if we want to maintain privacy).

We will need our inscribed ‘Affirmation Sticks’ for the next stage of the celebrations.

Shortly before 9pm we are led through the back of the hall and out onto gravelled pathways towards the side of the house.

As we reach the top of some stone steps we are greeted by the impressive sight of the Japanese cherry tree orchard, newly planted on a 45 degree sloping lawn.

Each of the fifty trees is approximately 6 ft tall and is individually lit by a candle lantern.

There is a log fire burning adjacent to one of the pathways through the orchard and a small table on which is placed a metal bowl, a Japanese singing bowl in fact.

The arrival of Kendo Nagasaki is announced as he joins us followed by his personal assistant, Mr Lawrence.

The assembled guests provide a respectful round of applause. Nagasaki moves assertively and purposefully with the apparent energy of a man much younger than his years.

Perhaps it is due to a combination of the mask and the general context, but I sense a calm confidence and power radiating from him in person that is only hinted at in photos and on the TV.

Without any words, he immediately takes control of, and dominates the proceedings.

The mask provides Nagasaki with a strangely ageless quality, suspended in time since the late 1970s when his face was last seen in public. The features that can be seen through the holes in the mask remain expressionless and ‘in character’.

He has suppressed his true identity and developed the Nagasaki persona so successfully that it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

He remains completely silent during the ceremony and throughout the rest of the evening.

What follows Nagasaki’s arrival feels like a cross between an ancient Japanese ceremony and performance art in which we are all participants.

We each approach him in turn and are instructed to bow, as he bows, before we hand over our affirmation sticks.

Nagasaki looks carefully at each offering and turns it writing side up before tapping the singing bowl which chimes like a gong. He then places the stick into the fire.

He turns back, we bow again and move off so that the next person can take part. He does this very carefully and precisely fifty times.

We are then treated to a tour on the immaculate grounds of the property with an explanation of each feature and separate garden by Atlantis.

Nagasaki leads the way carrying a large lantern. We pass neatly clipped topiary, a Koi pond, a large stone contemplation seat, a Shinto gateway, expansive lawns, a secret garden and a Zen garden with raked gravel laid out in the form of a Japanese coastal village.

This is all overlooked by several tall, mature trees that appear to stand guard and maintain the privacy of the garden’s owner.

Now we are on to the readings section of the evening, each reader takes their place in turn at the front of the hall with the imposing figure of Nagasaki at their side.

The readings are amusing, nostalgic, inspiring and touching.

One reader is clearly very nervous as he reads his entry which is partly about being frightened of Nagasaki during a chance meeting at a wrestling match many years ago.

He makes us all laugh when he comments that his current nervous state is because he is still very frightened of the man standing to his right.

Each reader receives well deserved applause, much thought and effort has gone into the writing of their submissions.

After the readings Nagasaki withdraws to an office that adjoins the hall and we are invited to enter individually for autographs and photos.

As my turn comes, I enter the office and hand over an item for signing. He signs his name in Japanese. I then have my photo taken with him and he warmly shakes my hand before I leave.

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