Harold Watanabe (1927–February 19, 1992) was an American professional wrestler, better known by his ring name Tojo Yamamoto. He was born in Hawaii.
Yamamoto had success as a heel as an individual wrestler and part of a tag team, particularly in the southern United States, invoking the natural hatred for World War II enemies (in his case, Prime Minister Tojo and IJN admiral Yamamoto; also successful were The Von Brauners, who wore Iron Crosses and goose-stepped around the ring). He worked in hundreds of different tag-team combinations, and even wrestled Hulk Hogan. According to Hogan, “he hit me in the throat with his cheap shot, I fell through the ropes…(on the floor) he grabbed a cigar out of a guy’s mouth and dropped it in my boot”. These exemplify the kind of over-the-top heel tactics Yamamoto would use, in addition to the general distrust of the Japanese that many Americans held even after the war.
He was affiliated with Nashville-area wrestling promoter Nick Gulas for most of his career. In Nashville, he was promoted as “the most hated wrestler of all time” and “the epitome of evil”. Nick Gulas was notorious for supposedly underpaying his wrestlers, but Yamamoto and his trainee Jackie Fargo were notable exceptions. They were two of Gulas’s best draws from the early 60’s to the early 70’s, but in addition to the money they generated, they were also reliable and loyal. Yamamoto showed his allegiance despite offers from other promoters, including an offer from his close friend and student Jerry Jarrett when he started promoting shows of his own.
Gulas recognized Yamamoto’s loyalty and paid him back with more than just a regular place on the card and more pay than almost any wrestler Gulas had; he was entrusted with an incredible number of titles. His ability to draw heat (by purposefully playing off of Japanese stereotypes) and his reputation as a ring-general who could be counted on to have a good match- regardless of the quality of his partner or opponent. As a result, he held an incredible number of championships in his career: 7 Six-Man Titles and an astounding tally of 51 various Tag Team Titles, usually with different partners, which makes the feat even more remarkable. While he enjoyed fantastic success as a Tag-Team champion, he saw less success as a singles wrestler. He only held 3 singles titles, but 2 of those runs was with the NWA Mid-America Heavyweight Title, the most prestigious title in his home territory. His lack of singles titles suggests that Yamamoto’s value was in helping develop other wrestlers (rookies, unpolished talent, mid-carders) and guide their progress to the next level. It could also be mark of Gulas’s booking style, where he preferred to have a strong “babyface” champion and felt a “heel” world champion would not sell as many tickets.
Over time, Tojo Yamamoto became aware that his body was failing him, and his in-ring career would come to an end. He constantly wrestled a full schedule without taking days off, leading to injuries that never healed. The problem was compounded by complications from his weight which eventually caused diabetes. All of these factors had taken their toll on his body, but after enjoying so much success he would struggle to accept his physical limitations even up to the day he died. However, it was impossible for him to accept a life away from the sport he loved. Unlike many of his contemporaries, especially his fellow Asian wrestlers, Tojo stuck to wrestling and never appeared in any films or television shows.
As a manager
Yamamoto was able to stay in the wrestling business and later became a manager of other wrestlers. His rise to fame late in his career took place in the late-1980s, when Yamamoto, while in World Class Championship Wrestling, was managing Phil Hickerson, who was known as P.Y. Chu-Hi. They were involved in a lengthy storyline with Eric Embry, involving control of the World Class promotion. Later, Yamamoto and Hickerson worked a storyline with Chris and Toni Adams, which began with an attack on Toni by Hickerson and Yamamoto during a wrestling match at the Sportatorium.
Yamamoto and Hickerson left World Class in 1990, but Yamamoto returned to the Sportatorium in early 1991 (under the USWA banner) to manage Embry, who had turned heel. During this time he managed many other wrestlers, including Dennis Knight, who later went on to play the roles of Phineas Godwin and Mideon.
Contributions as a trainer
During and after his years as a manager, knowing that his in-ring career was long since over, Yamamoto continued to contribute to the wrestling business as a prolific trainer. The impact he had on the world of professional wrestling through his training is far-reaching and spans across generations and promotions. He trained dozens of wrestlers who in turn went on to train scores, perhaps hundreds, of additional performers. An example of one of his trainees who went on to teach future generations is Bobby Eaton. Eaton trained countless hopefuls at the WCW Power Plant, but he was also known for his informal coaching of countless younger talent in WCW, until he was released in 2000. He would often go out of his way to make himself available whether it be backstage, in the ring, or most commonly on the road, driving long distances from town to town. Like Yamamoto, he was never considered a “main-eventer”, but both had a reputation and willingness to help their opponents look good in the ring and get better from just being in the ring with them.
He passed his decades of wrestling knowledge down to many students, including several future world champions such as Jeff Jarrett, Mike Rapada, and Sid Vicious. He even had a hand in training Jeff Jarrett’s father, Jerry Jarrett. Tojo’s other students include legends like The Moondogs (Spike and Spot), Jackie Fargo, Bobby Eaton, and “Wildfire” Tommy Rich. Yamamoto’s impact on future generations of wrestlers is immeasurable, as he trained so many people (such as Bobby Eaton), who went on to train many, many more wrestlers. Yamamoto would manage some of the wrestlers he trained, but more incredibly he later faced several of his students in the ring; winning (and losing) many of his Tag Team and Six-Man Tag Team Titles in matches with his former students.
He retired in 1991 due to health problems which included diabetes. He died in Hermitage, Tennessee of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1992.