Two recent news items prompted an interesting digression in Asahi Shimbun’s unattributed “Tensei Jingo” column April 23. Making initially veiled references to Lower House lawmaker Kenshiro Matsunami’s alleged links with underworld figures and the election last month of professional wrestler the Great Sasuke to the Iwate Prefectural Assembly, the article pondered the “faces” that people wear for the public.

After explaining the etymology of “persona,” a Greek word that originally meant the masks worn by actors onstage to depict character, the column stated that sometimes a person’s mask got stuck, and the wearer is subsequently “corrupted by his personality.” In the case of Matsunami, the mask that he wore in the Diet “didn’t quite fit” and fell off when the scandal was exposed.

Whatever mask Matsunami was wearing (his famous chonmage hairstyle, which he sported to assume the bearing of a samurai, certainly added to his public persona), it seems to have been a cheap one. According to the column, it has been rumored for years that Matsunami, a college professor and one-time amateur wrestling champion, has had relations with underworld figures. Masks, even ones that fit tight, are easier to spot than a lot of people think.

The controversy over the Great Sasuke’s genuine mask, which he wears in public and plans to keep wearing even during prefectural assembly sessions, is a completely different matter. Whereas the average politician presents a mask to the public in the hope that the public will accept it as the politician’s real face, Sasuke presents a real mask knowing that the public will accept it as a mask. Some people have said he should remove it in the assembly so that the public can see his “real face,” but as far as Sasuke is concerned, the mask is his real face.

And for all intents and purposes, it is. Sasuke has no political experience and no detailed political agenda. He has only his reputation as a professional wrestler. Since party politics overwhelmingly dominate Japanese government, parties look for candidates who can be easily elected, since once in office all they have to do is perpetuate the party line. Party chiefs are always looking for celebrities, especially famous athletes, since they already know how to play for a team.

But it works both ways. A lot of celebrities actively seek political office in order to boost their desirability as celebrities. Several weeks ago, on the TBS talk show “Sunday Japon,” Sasuke was a guest. He was mostly berated by the regulars because he said he planned to continue his wrestling career while carrying out his elected duties. Only gadfly commentator Terry Ito figured it out and said it seemed to him that Sasuke became a politician to promote Michinoku Pro Wrestling, a team Sasuke happens to run.

To anyone with a social conscience, the possibility that Sasuke entered politics to increase attendance at his matches may be depressing, but it shouldn’t be shocking. Professional wrestling is the perfect preparation for a political career. Success in both fields is predicated on the ability to make people ignore what they instinctively believe to be true. In other words, it’s built on the gullibility of the people you have to impress.

Regardless of whether you see professional wrestling as sport or coarse theater, the talent involved has nothing to do with martial arts or, for that matter, strength. Skills are based on things like being able to perform pile-drivers without actually breaking your opponent’s spine. As with magicians, professional wrestlers obviously have tricks they aren’t allowed to reveal.

But in many cases the tricks are obvious, and that’s why wrestlers make natural politicians. It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to understand that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is dissembling every time he steps in front of a microphone, but the public will look past the dissembling if they think they’re connecting to the persona. Pro wrestlers come in a variety of character-types, roughly divided into good guys and bad guys, and it’s the good guys who enter politics.

Sasuke, after all, isn’t the first wrestler to gain public office in Japan. Quite a few have been elected, and not just at the local level. Antonio Inoki, the most famous ever wrestler in Japan, spent a number of years in the Upper House at the head of his own Sports Peace Party. Though their natural constituency would seem to be limited to pro wrestling fans, wrestlers also carry an earthier novelty appeal that might strike a chord with voters who have become disillusioned with conventional politicians.

And since they aren’t necessarily associated with conventional politics, they aren’t expected to adhere to a conventional agenda (Inoki held a Peace Festival in Baghdad in 1990 while in office).

Oddly enough, such an approach may actually be used to benefit the image of the government.

Atsushi Onita, for example, is determined to use his pro wrestling skills to better the reputation of the Upper House, of which he has been a member for one year. The Upper House is traditionally seen as having little more than a rubber stamp function within the legislative process, and a few weeks ago, another wrestler-cum-politician, Hiroshi Hase, insulted Onita in the ring, saying that Upper House members couldn’t be taken seriously as politicians. Hase has been a lawmaker for seven years, the last three in the Lower House.

Onita wouldn’t stand for it and challenged his political senpai (but wrestling kohai) to a match in order to defend the honor of the Upper House. “The Upper House is called the conscience of the government,” Onita told reporters. “But I want to show everyone that it has an aggressive side, too.” The match was scheduled for Osaka, not Nagata-cho, which is a pity. They could use a few pile-drivers in the Diet.