Tojo, Starbucks, and Global Communication

If you have ever been to Starbucks with me, you know that my “Starbucks name” is “Tojo.”

First you might ask, what in the world is a “Starbucks name?” Well, whenever the person at the Starbucks register who takes my order asks for my name, I respond, “Tojo.” Thus, Tojo is my “Starbucks name,” although I have been known to also use “Tojo” at restaurants and other places where they put your name on a list.

Second, you may ask, why do you do this? Is it because you have some Orwellian paranoia about Big Brother having your name on a list? No. I just do it for fun. After all, it is easier to listen for a hostess to call out “Tojo” (usually with a touch of laughter in her voice) than to listen for “Clark” which actually sounds similar to several other names.

Third, if you are still reading at this point, you might ask, why did you choose “Tojo” for your “Starbucks name?” No, I am not someone who is especially intrigued by Japanese history. I chose Tojo because, as I have already said, it’s a fun name, and two, it’s in honor of my favorite wrestler (or “rassler”) of all time, Tojo Yamamoto.

Growing up I was always fascinated by the wrestling subculture that existed in Memphis. I had a friend with connections who could get us in free to the old auditorium downtown where we could sit on the front row and watch the bouts. We were so close to the action. I remember one night hearing the wrestlers whispering to each other about the next move they had choreographed, “Watch the 45 degree angle!”

I saw Jackie Fargo and his crazy brother, Roughhouse — they were always fun. I always hated when the so-called “scientific wrestlers” came to town — they were always boring. I loved sitting down front with the toothless elderly women who could scream and dip snuff at the same time. I loved chairs being thrown, managers interfering, pepper and other foreign objects being pulled from the bad guy’s trunks, and I loved Tojo Yamamoto.

Tojo was famous for delivering a vicious “chop” to his opponent in the ring (or to a opposing manager who strayed into the ring). More than a time or two Tojo took his wooden shoes and applied them to the head of his opponent. Tojo was a bad guy for a while and later became a good guy. Tojo was a no nonsense wrestler who always had his bout-face on.

But a funny thing happened with Tojo. He disappeared for a while and after a couple of weeks fans were told that he was hospitalized with, as I recall, a broken back. Concern was great as to whether Tojo would ever return to the ring. Seems like they even did an interview with him from his hospital bed. About that time I flew out to Los Angeles to spend some time with my grandparents. One morning I turned on the Los Angeles wrestling and to my amazement, there was Tojo — alive and well with no signs of a broken back. The fans in Memphis were totally unaware they were being duped. Tojo was not injured at all, he apparently just had a contract to work on the west coast for a few months.

They would never get away with a stunt like this in today’s world of instant global communication. But back 35 or 40 years ago, they could do it without fear of discovery. Who would ever find out? In today’s world Tojo’s injury hoax and west coast trip would be disclosed immediately by a blogger or on You Tube. The world has changed so much.

Tojo was a nice guy. Back in the day, I guess around 1974 I worked after school and on weekends at an Exxon Service Station on Summer Avenue in Memphis. One day I walked up to the driver’s window of a big red Cadillac (this was in the days of the now nearly extinct full-service gas station attendant). My mouth fell open as I realized that Tojo was sitting there behind the wheel. I filled his tank, washed his windshield, checked his oil and his tire pressure, too. Tojo was a really nice man who as I recall gave me a dollar tip for all the attention I gave to him and his car.

And now to the sad ending. Later I found out that Tojo was just the stage name of a Hawaiian native named Harry Watanabe. After years of suffering from numerous health problems, Watanabe died in 1992 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the age of 65.

I pay tribute to him every time I sip a decaf mocha.

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