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Ventura's Plays Wrestling Ties
By Martin Kaste
November 3, 1999
Part of MPR Online's "Jesse in Japan" series.
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Governor Ventura started his first full day in Japan with a nod -- or bow -- to his wrestling background, and he's also getting the first real sense of how well-known he is Japan, and for what reasons.

VENTURA HAS NOT BEEN SHY about playing up the wrestling angle as he tries to make an impression on the Japanese. He invited his wrestling partner, Masa Saito, to join him on the first couple of days of this visit, and the two of them hammed it up for the media outside Ventura's hotel.

Saito used to live in Edina, and he and Ventura wrestled as a tag-team for a while in the United States in the early 1980s. Now Saito has also retired from the ring, and the two old wrestlers spent the morning paying tribute to the good old days in perfect Japanese fashion.

The Hachimangu Shrine in central Tokyo is considered the spiritual home to Sumo wrestling -- Japan's traditional national sport. Ventura will be the first to tell you that Sumo is nothing like American-style wrestling, but he apparently felt enough kinship with this place to request a formal purification ceremony, for him and about a dozen members of the official state entourage.
Ventura: We got up and down and they spoke words,that I was not familiar with, I'm not fluent in Japanese. And then I took part with a leaf-type thing that you set down and you bow twice, clap your hands twice, and then you bow again, for a two-two-one.
Wednesday was Culture Day, a national holiday, and an opportunity for Japanese to visit shrines like this one to make personal requests of the gods. The Tokyo citizens lined up outside the Hachimangu shrine hardly took notice of Ventura -- or pretended not to notice -- despite the throngs of American reporters falling all over each other to stay close to him. The only Japanese who showed any signs of recognizing him were reporters, and they proved to have a lot in common with their American counterparts.
Japanese Reporter: Japanese people, we are very curious if you are running for presidential election next year.
Ventura: Well I hope I don't disappoint the Japanese people but no, I am not.
Back home, questions about his presidential intentions usually push Ventura to exasperation, and often end up terminating a news conference early. But here Ventura seems to take it all in stride, and he attributes his good mood at least on part to being among the Japanese.
Ventura: They're very much, they just have an aura about them that I find very calming.
As if to underscore just how relaxed he feels in Japan, Ventura went back to his hotel and changed out of his suit and into a Timberwolves jacket, jeans and old sneakers. This look may be more along the lines of what the Japanese expect of him; at an evening reception for the governor organized by a group called "Friends of Minnesota," advertising executive Masaru Ariga says he expected Ventura to be more of a wild man.
Ariga:My first impression here, he is more professional than what I thought he was. I know that I've been influence by media coverage. They tend to make fun of him, you know.
Ariga says some Japanese are interested in Ventura for more than just his ability to entertain. He says there appears to be some parallel between the kind of politics Ventura represents and the recent political upheavals in Japan.
Ariga: Here in Japan, too, we are going through a big change, in terms of how people perceive politics. We have new parties coming almost every year and we are seeing a new generation emerging.
Ventura likes to draw the parallel between his election and the independent mayors of Japan's two largest cities, Tokyo and Osaka. Still, Ventura hasn't pursued that parallel too far, and perhaps for good reason. The mayor of Tokyo is known as a far right-winger in Japanese politics, and the mayor of Osaka is currently in the middle of a legal showdown with the court system, because he refuses to respond to a sexual-harassment lawsuit. Governor Ventura's schedulers say they've decided not to pursue a one-on-one meeting with either man.