Yoko Gushiken, a boxing legend who hails from Okinawa, hopes young people from prefecture will be brave enough to take on any challenge and succeed in any field.

“I had been fighting 120 percent for Okinawa,” Gushiken said in a recent interview, recalling the days when he defended the World Boxing Association junior flyweight title from 1976 to 1981. The title has been renamed as light flyweight champion.

Gushiken, a native of Ishigaki Island, came to Naha on Okinawa Island when he was 15. He began boxing in a club of Konan High School and won the national high school championship when he was in his senior year.

His coach, Shinkichi Kinjo, told Gushiken not to have any self-doubt about where he’s from. “Step forward and tackle (the opponent),” Kinjo told Gushiken.

Okinawa, a former independent kingdom that became part of Japan in the 19th century, was occupied by the United States after World War II and returned to Japan in 1972, when Gushiken was in his junior year.

“I was qualified to fight in a national (high school) competition in Yamagata Prefecture. When I was going to prepare a passport, my coach told me, ‘We don’t need it any more.’ It made me realize Okinawa had become part of Japan,” he said, noting athletes from Okinawa, however, were treated like foreigners during the sports meet in mainland Japan.

Gushiken recounted matches against U.S. military personnel at their base in Okinawa, which hosts the bulk of American military facilities in Japan.

“Mr. Kinjo took me there. The big gymnasium was packed with U.S. servicemen. They didn’t care about weight so I had to fight against burly Americans,” he said. “They were so powerful that I just moved around to duck their punches. Can you imagine a high school student had this kind of experience? That made me brave.”

In March 1974, Gushiken moved to Tokyo at age 18 to become a professional boxer but suffered harassment and discrimination in the big city.

“I had no friends and felt lonely (in Tokyo). People were not nice to me after they learned I was from Okinawa, and some even made fun of me. That hurt me,” he said. “Some (from Okinawa) even had difficulty renting an apartment. I often wandered around the Kabukicho and Koenji districts, hoping to run into someone from Okinawa.”

At that time, Gushiken said, there was a clear psychological boundary between Okinawa and mainland Japan.

“So I worked hard and became champion to erase that line,” said Gushiken, who still holds the Japanese record of defending an international title of the sport 13 times in a row.

“Every time I won, many Okinawan people living in Tokyo who were older than me said, ‘Thank you,’ or ‘I can be proud to say I’m from Okinawa.’ I felt like I was championing Okinawa. I had thought that if I lose, it meant Okinawa too would lose,” he said.

On Oct. 10, 1976, Gushiken won the WBA title and a great jubilation greeted him at Naha airport 10 days later. Gushiken’s feat came as the Okinawa economy had been grappling with serious setbacks due to social turmoil following the reversion to Japan as well as the prefecture’s failure to draw visitors to an expo event.

“I realized how great it was to become a world champion. About 200 people welcomed me at the airport and the parades from the airport through Kokusai Dori avenue to my high school were just excellent,” he said.

Gushiken’s last match as a pro took place in Okinawa on March 8, 1981. It was the first match Gushiken had fought for an international title in his home prefecture. He failed to defend the title in the match and decided to retire.

Fourteen years later, Gushiken co-founded a boxing gym in Tokyo and trained Daigo Higa, an Okinawa native who captured the WBC flyweight title in May. Gushiken joined Higa in the celebration in their home prefecture for his apprentice’s win, reminding Gushiken of his own triumph 41 years ago.

“Courage is the most important thing” for young people, said Gushiken, who turned 62 on June 26.

“If you have a dream and keep making efforts, you can be successful in any field,” he said. “When you are young, it’s important to work hard for your goal. I want young people to show what Okinawa can do on the world stage.”

沖縄タイムスに掲載された記事をジャパンタイムズ(The Japan Times)により翻訳されたものを掲載しています。