Mr. Inoki’s five-day trip to North Korea last week was his 32nd since 1995, when he participated in a wrestling match in Pyongyang. In an interview this week in his Parliament offices, Mr. Inoki — sitting near a life-size cutout of himself with a raised fist, an image soon to be used in advertising for Toyota — said his ultimate goal was “to establish peace through sports diplomacy.”
He said that North Korea’s top officials wanted to engage in dialogue, but believed that in the face of overwhelming American force, their only option was to develop nuclear weapons. (Unlike Mr. Rodman, Mr. Inoki has not met Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader.)
“The United Nations, Trump and Japan are all saying we need to apply more pressure,” Mr. Inoki said. “But first we need to listen to them and understand what the reasons are behind their activity.”
Mr. Inoki’s trip came as alarm over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is at a peak in Japan as well as in the United States. The North fired a missile directly over Japan last month, days before carrying out its most powerful nuclear test yet.
The Japanese government has said little about Mr. Inoki’s latest visit to the North. Before the lawmaker left Tokyo last week, Yoshihide Suga, the chief cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, reiterated that the government discouraged Japanese citizens from traveling to North Korea. In public comments, Mr. Abe has repeatedly suggested that now is not the time for official talks with Pyongyang.
Critics of Mr. Inoki in Japan — much like Mr. Rodman’s in the United States — say he allows himself to be used as a North Korean propaganda tool, while soliciting publicity for himself.
“The North Korean side tries to use him for advertising their positions and their wording,” said Toshimitsu Shigemura, a North Korea analyst and professor emeritus at Waseda University in Tokyo.
Born Kanji Inoki — he adopted Antonio as his wrestling name — Mr. Inoki grew up partly in Brazil. His family moved there in 1957, as part of a Japanese initiative encouraging citizens to look for economic opportunity elsewhere.
There, he was discovered by Rikidozan, a professional wrestler who was visiting from Japan. It was Mr. Inoki’s first connection to North Korea: Rikidozan had been born Kim Sin-rak in the northern part of Japanese-occupied Korea, before he was recruited into a sumo career in Japan. He eventually switched to professional wrestling.
Under Rikidozan’s mentorship, Mr. Inoki became one of Japan’s most popular wrestlers. His fight with Ali in Tokyo in 1976 was heavily promoted, though it proved underwhelming; Mr. Inoki spent 15 rounds circling the heavyweight champion and kicking at his legs, and Ali landed just two punches. (It was declared a draw.)
Mr. Inoki turned to politics in 1989, when he was elected to Parliament’s upper house as an independent candidate, but he continued to wrestle until 1998. He is instantly recognizable in Japan by his jutting chin, red scarf and red necktie.
His pursuit of independent diplomacy started early. In 1990, he met with the Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Cuba; photos of the two shaking hands, drinking sake and embracing are dotted around Mr. Inoki’s parliamentary offices.
Later that year, he visited Iraq, and is credited with helping negotiate the release of 41 people, including four Japanese citizens, who had been taken hostage by Saddam Hussein’s government in the months before the first Persian Gulf War of 1991.
In 1994, Mr. Inoki was invited to Pyongyang by Kim Il-sung, the North’s founding leader. Mr. Kim was said to be a fan of professional wrestling. But the trip did not happen: On his way to Pyongyang, Mr. Inoki landed in Beijing for a layover to the news that Mr. Kim had died.
He was invited back the next year to participate in the wrestling match — part of what was called a Sports and Peace Festival — which Mr. Inoki said more than 380,000 spectators came to watch. Since then, he has returned every year for the anniversary of the founding of the country’s government, the occasion of his visit last week, as well as for other trips.
This time, Mr. Inoki said, he met with three high-ranking officials at a reception, where he drank ginseng wine and ate pine mushrooms that are scarce in Japan but plentiful in North Korea. His escorts took him to the zoo, he said, and to the top of a new, 70-story building that he had seen under construction when he visited last year.
Mr. Inoki said that for the first time, officials from the Foreign Ministry had sought his advice after his return from North Korea. Taro Fujii, a spokesman in the ministry’s Northeast Asian Division, said ministry officials did speak with Mr. Inoki but declined to say what they discussed.
Mr. Inoki said he had quietly talked with several lawmakers from the governing Liberal Democratic Party about visiting the North. “They have hinted they want to visit North Korea eventually, if given the chance,” he said. Mr. Inoki declined to name the lawmakers.
“I really think that Japan should take a role as mediator between the U.S. and North Korea,” Mr. Inoki said. “As the only country which was bombed during World War II with nuclear weapons, Japan should be advocating that we should avoid nuclear war from happening again.”
But Professor Shigemura, the North Korea expert, said he doubted that Mr. Inoki’s views would carry much weight with Japan’s leaders.
“He’s not such an important person,” Mr. Shigemura said. “He has no influence on Japanese leaders or the prime minister.”
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