You may be more familiar with James Katsuyuki Taenaka (or Jimmy T. as he is commonly known) as an actor. You may have glimpsed his dashing mug on TV playing Lieutenant Kenji Kinoshita in A War Diary or at the movies portraying Taka in American Yakuza alongside Viggo Mortensen. But you might not be aware that the Japanese-American is actually a qualified wrestler – and a passionate competitor too.
Rewind to 1964, when Taenaka was born in California to parents who had moved to the US from Osaka, Japan. He discovered a love for wrestling when he attended high school and soon started competing regularly. Acting stints soon came his way, with turns in movies such as Showdown in Little Tokyo and the aforementioned American Yakuza, TV shows Jag and First Mums as well as theatre performances like Salad Bowl Dance and Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire. He moved here nine years ago and married a Singaporean five years later.
These days, Taenaka keeps busy in his role as the newly appointed vice-president and coach of the fledgling Wrestling Federation of Singapore (WFS). His task? To whip a team of Singaporean wrestlers into shape for the inaugural Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in 2010. It may not be an enviable job, but it is a dream come true for the Greco-Roman specialist. And he intends to make it count.
Men’s Health: Wrestling is a young sport in Singapore. What’s it like working to gain acceptance?
Jimmy T: I’ve always felt we have a great chance to bring home some medals. Singaporeans are active in cardio sports and always keen to try something new, especially the kids. The biggest challenge is overcoming the Singaporean mindset that wrestling is the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) – it’s not even close! I tried to get a programme started with the Singapore Sports Council in 2006 and soon discovered there was someone else promoting wrestling at the American School at the same time. I rushed there for practice and found out there was a 15-week programme in progress. The person behind this was Mike Denoma who is now the WFS president and mastermind of our current initiative. These days, we’re getting our coaches accredited and teaching parents more about the sport.
How are the YOG preparations coming along?
We recently held a number of trials to seek out more potential competitors. In October, we will organise the first Singapore National Wrestling Tournament, with another to follow in January as a rehearsal tourney for the YOG staff. We also sent one candidate to the 2009 Asian Cadet Championships in India in July. She was the very first female wrestler to represent Singapore internationally. In her first match, she beat China and ended up taking fifth place in Asia. We are very proud of her. Singapore will be guaranteed two spots at the YOG. The selection process will be done by “wrestle-offs”, so it’s really up to each individual to train hard.
You started wrestling pretty young.
I actually started out in basketball and judo in school, and was approached by the wrestling coach – he knew of my achievements in judo. (Taenaka was the USA Junior National Judo Champion at the time.) Judo and wrestling are very similar – in the US you will find judokas wrestling and wrestlers in judo. So I hung up my judo-gi and belt, and started living and breathing wrestling at 15. I would get up at 6am to run, head to school to shower and be in class by 8am. Wrestling practice was from 3pm to 5pm, followed by work as a salesperson at Macy’s from 6.30pm to 10pm and then I’d go home to finish my studies.
I was hooked. I was in my best shape cardio- and strength-wise, which made it easy. But now that I’m back to training regularly again, phew! Wrestling is one of the oldest sports known to man and also the toughest as it makes you utilise every single muscle in your body. It is a great way to stay in shape and keep you young – I am 44, but feel and look much younger than my age. I always feel your opponent will work 10 times harder than you, so I should work 20 times just as hard for personal gain.
What achievement are you most proud of?
The biggest highlight of my wrestling career was in 1981 when I was placed third in the 60kg (132-pound) division in the California State Greco-Roman Championships. This earned me a spot in the USA Junior National Championships in Iowa, which is the mecca of US wrestling. Being a member of Team California was pretty surreal; I was among the state’s best wrestlers.
You carved a niche in two very different fields – wrestling and acting.
Wrestling and acting are actually pretty similar – they both depend a lot on drive and dedication. You always have to hone your craft constantly. Both are also competitive in their own right, whether it’s auditioning or competing on the mat. In fact, I can guarantee that acting and wrestling build character that money can never buy. Our WFS motto is “Character is fate”.
Speaking of fate, what are your future plans?
I’d love to grow wrestling as a “forever sport” in Singapore. Hopefully, we can have a Singaporean representative at the Olympic Games. Acting-wise, I’m also slated to film a TV series. I’m really looking forward to this as the cast is strong. Most of all, I’d like to have kids!
What does "Men’s Health" mean to you?
It’s about looking and feeling great about yourself. It’s when you’re able to walk into any room and feel confident. It all starts from the inside – this will help you in improving your physical self.