Yes Japan, there is a Tiger Mask, whose kindness we should all try to emulate.

In 2010, 37-year-old Hyogo resident Yuka Sato came across a piece of pastel art in her child’s classroom and found herself attracted to the soft colors and smooth contrasts. She decided to take up pastel herself and quickly improved to the point that she became a skilled instructor. In addition to teaching professionally, she also lent her time to welfare facilities to teach the elderly and disabled how to make pastel works.

Two years later, Sato received a mysterious phone call out of the blue from a man calling himself “Tiger Mask.” He told her, “I have been giving school bags to children in orphanages for more than 20 years. I would like you to teach these kids how to make pictures too.”

Tiger Mask told Sato about three places in the Hyogo cities of Tatsuno and Himeji that helped children who had been rescued from abusive homes. After visiting these facilities and teaching the orphans who lived there, Sato found that by making the gentle sweeping colors they could become more relaxed.

From that chance encounter, Sato felt a newfound joy in helping kids, and has since greatly expanded her efforts to help them, even working with kids in other countries such as Cambodia and Bangladesh.

Sato is just one of the many people who have been touched by and now embodies the contagious Japanese spirit of Tiger Mask.

It all started with the wrestling manga/anime Tiger Mask in the late ’60s in which the protagonist Naoto Date – who once wrestled as the heel character Tiger Mask – changes his wicked ways after learning he was having a bad influence on children. However, in doing so he put himself in danger and was targeted by other villainous wrestlers and assassins.

Tiger Mask’s opening theme

As part of his conversion to hero (or “face” in wrestling parlance), Tiger Mask donated his money to the orphanage that he himself came from.

Although, the original manga and anime never really took off overseas, western people might recognize the story as that of the Tekken character King, who is pretty much a direct homage to Tiger Mask. Tiger Mask has also made appearances in real life. After a license for his likeness was acquired, a handful of pro-wrestlers from Japan have donned the mask since the ’80s.

Tiger Mask’s signature generosity has also crossed over to reality. Over the years, several people have made anonymous donations to orphanages and schools under the name “Tiger Mask” or “Naoto Date,” especially during Christmas. It’s a Japanese holiday tradition that continues to go strong.

This Tiger Mask Movement is accredited to salaryman Masatake Kawamura of Gunma Prefecture. Kawamura grew up as an abused child who became an orphan and was forced to make a life for himself at an early age.  In 2010, he decided to give back to other orphans in the form of school bag donations anonymously as Naoto Date. The act was widely publicized and spawned numerous copycats over the years.

Kawamura came forward in 2016 as the original Tiger Mask, and spoke out to persuade local governments and the public to do more to support children.

▼ Kawamura speaks at an appearance at a 2016 Real Japan Pro-Wrestling event alongside Tiger Mask

Perhaps it’s the core message of the manga Tiger Mask, that it’s never too late to change our ways, that has resonated with people so strongly. The only thing stopping us from doing good to others is ultimately ourselves.

On 24 December, 2019, a different man calling himself Naoto Date donated 255 Christmas cakes and scores of umaibo snacks to six orphanages around Hyogo Prefecture, just as he had done for the past thirty-plus years. This time he appeared in a Himeji orphanage and gave out caricatures of himself with supportive messages like “You can count on me.” and signed “Naoto Date, Tiger Mask!”

However, this Tiger Mask is currently battling cancer and has been in and out of the hospital for treatment for a while now. “Most of all I want the kids to be happy,” he told media, “I want to see the people of Nishiharima [the local area] inherit the kindness and affection to reach out to the kids living in these facilities.”

His words suggest that he may not be able to help much longer, but he seems to know that even if he leaves us, Tiger Mask is never really dead. Naoto Date lives on whenever anyone shows the courage and heart to slip on the mask and fight to give others a better life.

Source: Hyogo Shimbun NEXT 1, 2, Hachima Kiko
Top image: YouTube/bladdog
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