In Search of the Real Tiger Mask

The Real Tiger Mask

By Tony Loiseleur Apr 30, 2011
Shuichiro Katsumura's charitable efforts make him the real Tiger Mask. | Taro Irei/

TOKYO -- The massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast of Honshu, Japan, has united people the world over in bringing relief to the Tohoku region’s survivors. Japan’s mixed martial arts community has also answered the call, as grassroots promotions and Dream conduct charities, while fighters like Hayato "Mach" Sakurai, Ryo Chonan and Enson Inoue have made headlines by volunteering their energies and funds toward raising money and shipping supplies north.

However, one helping hand has been hesitant to receive this same kind of attention. Partly by personal preference, Shuichiro Katsumura has flown under the media radar despite regularly traveling to Tohoku to deliver emergency supplies.

More surprisingly, he is doing so while in the midst of fight camp for his first defense of the Shooto 132-pound world championship at Shooto Tradition 2011 on Friday, when he is slated to meet former 132-pound Pacific Rim champion Koetsu Okazaki in the co-main event.

At first glance, Katsumura looks like the type to shy from attention. He has a subtle, ever-present smile which widens into a full grin at a moment’s notice. Incredibly polite and quick to laugh, he has the quiet, soft-spoken patience one would expect from a mild-mannered elementary school teacher.

In truth, he actually happens to be one, but he is also the lead instructor of Reversal’s Yokohama Ground Slam gym and Shooto’s current 132-pound kingpin. While he admits to being no angel during his younger days, teaching and charity work are to the adult Katsumura like striking and grappling are to the nature of MMA.

T. Irei

The Tohoku earthquake devastated
“When the earthquake happened, I was in the gym. We don’t have a television, so we couldn’t tell what was really going on, but I knew it was serious because the trains stopped and people couldn’t return home,” says Katsumura. “After I realized what happened, I wondered if there was anything I could do. When the Great Hanshin earthquake happened in 1995, I was still young and selfish, and I didn’t do anything. I regretted that. Now that I can do something though, I am.”

Consulting a close friend whose family manages the non-profit volunteer nursing group Cannus, Katsumura immediately volunteered to make supply runs to Tohoku. In addition, he vowed to donate his next fight purse to charity.

Those familiar with Katsumura will attest that this type of magnanimity is nothing new. Before becoming a school teacher, he worked at a child welfare center and often donated his fight purses to charity. It was these characteristics that earned him the nickname “The Real Tiger Mask” during his brief stint in K-1.

No Longer Anonymous

The Tiger Mask mythos is an attractive one for Japanese who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, watching cartoons and reading comics about the masked professional wrestler’s heroic in-ring exploits and his unmasked alter ego’s pure-hearted mission to care for orphans. Thus, many looked up to Tiger Mask as a role model, and while fighters like Ikuhisa Minowa and Katsumura have had the rare and enviable ability to momentarily become him in the ring, it is only recently that everyday Japanese have begun emulating Tiger Mask by way of charity.

It started with an anonymous donation of “randoseru” knapsacks -- sturdy leather backpacks costing upward of $300, which serve both as companion bags designed to accompany children through their first six years of elementary school and a strong visual and ideological symbol of Japanese compulsory education -- to child welfare offices on Christmas Day. Copycats have anonymously donated food, money, stationary and yet more backpacks across the nation’s 47 prefectures in the weeks following. Linking these donations was the name in which they were made: Naoto Date, Tiger Mask’s civilian name. This wave of anonymous donating was appropriately dubbed the “Tiger Mask Phenomenon” by the local media earlier this year.

For the most part, this kind of anonymous philanthropy seems to suit someone like Katsumura quite well since he has attempted to deny the Tiger Mask association in the past. However, it was his public blogging of his efforts in Tohoku that surprisingly resonated amongst friends and fans. He inspired many of them to similar action.

“It was something I hadn’t counted on happening,” he says, with excitement. “I didn’t know whether it was good to be competing at a time like this, so I decided to donate my next purse. When friends and others heard about this, more and more volunteered to help, so it’s [a movement that is] getting bigger and bigger.”

T. Irei

Katsumura isn't into charity for
the praise.
Listening closely to this excitement, one can tell Katsumura is more enamored with how his recent recognition benefits the relief effort. He will be the first to tell you that the “Real Tiger Mask” gimmick was something that was foisted upon him because the character’s background as a champion for orphans coincidentally aligned with his own work helping and teaching children. Katsumura grew up with no special affinity for the comic character or professional wrestling. Consequently, he wanted to distance himself from the comparison, so much so that he had a Reversal brand T-shirt printed with the words “I’m not [the] real Tiger Mask” emblazoned on the front.

“When people in the media started calling me ‘Real Tiger Mask’ [in 2006], I didn’t like it, even though I was a fighter already involved with charity. But now, I’m kind of changing my mind about that since I think it’s something that I might be able to use to help more people,” he admits, with an embarrassed laugh.

Given that the Tiger Mask character went to great lengths to keep his real identity as Naoto Date a secret, it is perhaps no surprise that Katsumura may want to do the same if, in fact, he is secretly a masked superhero.

“Actually, I do kind of feel the same way [that Tiger Mask does]. I don’t think I should brag about doing charity or donating a fight purse. That’s not why I do those things,” he says.

After renouncing the gimmick following his run in K-1 MMA, Katsumura has finally come to accept it, not because he enjoys it -- if anything, it dredges up dark ghosts of the past for him that he is reticent to talk about -- but because it has new utility given the circumstances of Japan’s recent crises.

“In the beginning, when media outlets like Sherdog started asking me to talk about what I was doing in Tohoku, I didn’t really want to do it,” admits Katsumura. “But then I thought about it and realized that more could be done if more people knew about it. To be honest, I still don’t really like the [Tiger Mask] association, but I realize now that it can help.

“If I tell people what I’m doing, then those around me tend to want to do the same. If I wasn’t a fighter that people already knew, then maybe I’d continue to do this anonymously, but because people know who I am from fighting, I suppose the Tiger Mask thing is something that can help,” he concedes. “Some people may still criticize the idea of coming out of anonymity, saying that I might be doing it only because I want attention, but I believe that it’s more important to move others to help than to worry about what some people may think.”

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