Muhammad Hussain Inoki (born Kanji Inoki (Japanese: 猪木寛至, Hepburn: Inoki Kanji); February 20, 1943 – October 1, 2022) was a Japanese professional wrestler, martial artist, politician, and promoter of professional wrestling and mixed martial arts. He was best known by the ring name Antonio Inoki (アントニオ猪木, Antonio Inoki), a homage to fellow professional wrestler Antonino Rocca. Inoki was a twelve-time professional wrestling world champion, notably being the first IWGP Heavyweight Champion and the first Asian WWF Heavyweight Champion – a reign not officially recognized by WWE.

Antonio Inoki
Inoki in 2012
Member of the House of Councillors
In office
July 23, 1989 – July 22, 1995
In office
July 29, 2013 – July 28, 2019
Goodwill Ambassador of Palau
In office
2013[1][2]Unknown
Personal details
Born
Kanji Inoki (猪木寛至, Inoki Kanji)

(1943-02-20)February 20, 1943[3]
Yokohama, Empire of Japan[4]
DiedOctober 1, 2022(2022-10-01) (aged 79)[5]
Tokyo, Japan[5]
Political partyDemocratic Party for the People (2019)
Other political
affiliations
Sports and Peace Party (1989–1995)
Japan Restoration Party (2013–2014)
Party for Future Generations (2014–2015)
Assembly to Energize Japan (2015–2016)
Independents Club (2016–2019)
Spouse(s)Diana Tuck
(separated after 1965)
(m. 1971; div. 1987)

A third wife
(m. 1989; div. 2012)

Tazuko Tada
(m. 2017; died 2019)
Children3, including Hiroko Inoki
Relatives10 siblings, including Juichi Sagara[6]
Simon Inoki (son-in-law)[7]
Hirota Inoki (grandson)[8]
Naoto Inoki (grandson)[8]
Ring name(s)Antonio Inoki
The Kamikaze
Kanji Inoki
Kazimoto
Killer Inoki
Kinji Onoki
Little Tokyo
Moeru Toukon
Tokyo Tom
Billed height6 ft 3 in (1.91 m)[4]
Billed weight224 lb (102 kg)[4]
Billed fromTokyo, Japan
Trained byRikidōzan
Karl Gotch
DebutSeptember 30, 1960[9]
RetiredApril 4, 1998[4][9]

After spending his adolescence in Brazil, Inoki began his professional wrestling career in the 1960s for the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance (JWA) under the tutelage of Rikidōzan. Inoki quickly became one of the most popular stars in the history of Japanese professional wrestling. He parlayed his wrestling career into becoming one of Japan's most recognizable athletes, a reputation bolstered by his 1976 fight against world champion boxer Muhammad Ali – a fight that served as a predecessor to modern day mixed martial arts. In 1995, with Ric Flair, Inoki headlined two shows in North Korea that drew 165,000 and 190,000 spectators, the highest attendances in professional wrestling history.[10] Inoki wrestled his retirement match on April 4, 1998, against Don Frye and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2010.[4]

Inoki began his promoting career in 1972, when he founded New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW). He remained the owner of NJPW until 2005 when he sold his controlling share in the promotion to the Yuke's video game company. In 2007, he founded the Inoki Genome Federation (IGF). In 2017, Inoki founded ISM and the following year left IGF. He was also a co-creator of the karate style Kansui-ryū (寛水流) along with Matsubayashi-ryū master Yukio Mizutani.[11]

In 1989, while still an active wrestler, Inoki entered politics as he was elected to the Japanese House of Councillors. During his first term with the House of Councillors, Inoki successfully negotiated with Saddam Hussein for the release of Japanese hostages before the outbreak of the Gulf War. His first tenure in the House of Councillors ended in 1995, but he was reelected in 2013. In 2019, Inoki retired from politics.

Early life

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Inoki was born in an affluent family in Yokohama in 1943. He was the sixth son and the second-youngest of the seven boys and four girls. His father, Sajiro Inoki, a businessman and politician, died when Kanji was five years old. Inoki was taught karate by an older brother while in 6th grade. By the time he was in 7th grade at Terao Junior High School, he was 5 feet 11 inches tall and joined the basketball team. He later quit and joined a track and field club as a shot putter. He eventually won the championship at the Yokohama Junior High School track and field competition.

The family fell on hard times in the post-war years, and in 1957, the 14-year-old Inoki emigrated to Brazil with his grandfather, mother, and brothers. His grandfather died during the journey to Brazil. Inoki won regional championships in Brazil in shot put, discus throw, and javelin throw, and finally the All Brazilian championships in the shot put and discus.[12]

Professional wrestling career

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Early career (1960–1971)

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Inoki met Rikidōzan at the age of 17 in Brazil and went back to Japan for the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance (JWA) as his disciple. He trained in the JWA dojo under the renowned Karl Gotch, complementing further his training under amateur wrestler Isao Yoshiwara and kosen judoka Kiyotaka Otsubo.[13] One of his dojo classmates was Giant Baba. After Rikidozan's murder, Inoki worked in Baba's shadow until he left for an excursion to the United States in 1964.

After a long excursion of wrestling in the United States, Inoki found a new home in Tokyo Pro Wrestling in 1966. While there, Inoki became their biggest star. The company folded in 1967, due to turmoil behind the scenes.

Returning to JWA in late 1967, Inoki was made Baba's partner and the two dominated the tag team ranks as the "B-I Cannon", winning the NWA International Tag Team Championship belts four times.

On May 16, 1969, during the 11th World Big League, Inoki stopped Giant Baba's fourth consecutive victory and won his first tournament.

In July 1969, when NET (currently TV Asahi) started broadcasting Japanese professional wrestling, Inoki was the ace of NET's wrestling broadcasts, as Baba's matches were monopolized by Nippon TV under the agreement between the JWA and Nippon TV. On December 2, 1969, he challenged Dory Funk Jr. for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, and on March 26, 1971, won the NWA United National Championship.

New Japan Pro-Wrestling (1972–2005)

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Antonio Inoki wrestling with Ernie Ladd in June 1975

Fired from JWA in late 1971 for planning a takeover of the promotion, Inoki founded New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) in 1972. His first match as a New Japan wrestler was against Karl Gotch. In 1975 he faced Lou Thesz, with Inoki taking a vicious Greco-Roman backdrop within the first seconds of the match.

In 1976, Inoki fought with Pakistani Akram Pahalwan in a special rules match. The match apparently turned into a shoot, with an uncooperative Akram biting Inoki in the arm and Inoki retaliating with an eye poke. At the end, Inoki won the bout with a double wrist lock, injuring Pahalwan's arm after the latter refused to submit. According to referee Mr. Takahashi, this finish was not scripted and was fought for real after the match's original flow became undone.[14]

On December 8, 1977, Inoki was involved in a match against former strongman turned professional wrestler Antonio Barichievich better known as The Great Antonio. Barichievich inexplicably began no-selling Inoki's attacks and then stiffing Inoki; Inoki responded by shooting on Barichievich, retaliating with a series palm strikes, grounding him with a single leg takedown and following with up repeated kicks, and then stomping his head repeatedly as he lay on the mat before the match was stopped.[15]

In June 1979, Inoki wrestled Akram's countryman Zubair Jhara Pahalwan, this time in a regular match, and lost the fight in the fifth round.[16] In 2014, 22 years after Zubair Jhara's death, he announced he would take Jhara's nephew Haroon Abid under his guardianship.[17]

 
Inoki (top) pounding Killer Khan's (bottom) head during a match in 1982

On November 30, 1979, Inoki defeated WWF Heavyweight Champion Bob Backlund in Tokushima, Japan, to win the championship.[18] Backlund then won a rematch on December 6. However, WWF president Hisashi Shinma declared the re-match a no contest due to interference from Tiger Jeet Singh, and Inoki remained champion. Inoki refused the title on the same day, and it was declared vacant. Backlund later defeated Bobby Duncum in a Texas Death match to regain the title on December 12. Inoki's reign is not recognized by WWE in its WWF/WWE title history and Backlund's first reign is viewed as uninterrupted from 1978 to 1983.

In 1995, Inoki and the North Korean government came together to hold a two-day wrestling festival for peace in Pyongyang, North Korea. The event drew 165,000 and 190,000 fans respectively to Rungnado May Day Stadium. The main event saw the only match between Inoki and Ric Flair, with Inoki coming out on top.[10] Days before this event, Inoki and the Korean press went to the grave and birthplace of Rikidōzan and paid tribute to him.

Inoki's retirement from professional wrestling matches came with the staging of the "Final Countdown" series between 1994 and 1998. This was a special series in which Inoki re-lived some of his mixed martial arts matches under professional wrestling rules, as well as rematches of some of his most well known wrestling matches. As part of the Final Countdown tour, Inoki made a rare World Championship Wrestling appearance; defeating WCW World Television Champion Steven Regal in a non-title match at Clash of the Champions XXVIII. On April 4, 1998, Inoki defeated Don Frye in the final official match of his professional wrestling career.[19] Inoki would later participate in four exhibition matches after his retirement. On March 11, 2000, at a Rikidōzan memorial event, Inoki was defeated by Japanese actor and singer Hideaki Takizawa; later that year during a New Year's Eve event, he wrestled Brazilian mixed martial artist Renzo Gracie to a time limit draw. On December 31, 2001, he teamed with The Great Sasuke to defeat Giant Silva and Red & White Mask;[20] two years later, on December 31, 2003, Inoki wrestled the final match of his career, facing Tatsumi Fujinami as part of Fujinami's retirement ceremony.[21]

In 2005, Yuke's, a Japanese video company, purchased Inoki's controlling 51.5% stock in New Japan.[22][23]

Post NJPW years (2005–2019)

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In 2007, Inoki founded a new promotion called Inoki Genome Federation. (IGF)

On February 1, 2010, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) announced on its Japanese website that Inoki would be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2010. Inoki was presented with a Hall of Fame certificate by WWE's Ed Wells and stated that he would be attending the WrestleMania XXVI weekend festivities, during which he was inducted into the hall by Stan Hansen.[citation needed]

In 2017, Inoki created a new company, ISM. ISM held its first event on June 24 of that year. On March 23, 2018, Inoki left IGF.

In October 2019, Inoki appeared at a Pro Wrestling Zero1 event at the Yasukuni Shrine, which is controversial for its relation to World War II.[24]

Political career

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House of Councillors

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1989–1995: First stint

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Following in his father's footsteps, Inoki entered politics in 1989, when he was elected into the House of Councillors as a representative of his own Sports and Peace Party in the 1989 Japanese House of Councillors election. Inoki's win secured him among the highest offices ever won by a professional wrestling personality in politics.

Imitating Muhammad Ali in 1990, Inoki traveled to Iraq in "an unofficial one-man diplomatic mission" and successfully negotiated with Saddam Hussein for the release of Japanese hostages before the outbreak of the Gulf War.[25] It was then that he personally organized a wrestling event in Iraq for the purpose of freeing the 41 captive Japanese nationals which was ultimately a partial success with 36 Japanese nationals ultimately freed.[26] He subsequently retained his seat in the 1992 Japanese House of Councillors election. He failed to win re-election in the 1995 Japanese House of Councillors election following a number of scandals reported in 1994, and left politics for the next eighteen years.[27]

2013–2019: Second stint

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Inoki delivering a speech in North Korea, 2014. Inoki's regular visits to the country strained his relations with the Japanese Diet.

On June 5, 2013, Inoki announced that he would again run for a seat in the National Diet under the Japan Restoration Party ticket.[27][28] Inoki won the election to return to Japan's Upper House as an MP.[29][30][31]

In November 2013, he was suspended from the Diet for 30 days because of an unauthorized trip to North Korea.[32] He had visited on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the armistice in the Korean War, and had met with senior North Korean figure Kim Yong-nam during his visit.[33] This was Inoki's 27th visit to North Korea; he explained in an interview that the North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens had caused the Japanese government to "close the door" on diplomacy with the North, but that the issue would not be resolved without ongoing communication, and that he saw his relationship with North Korean-born Rikidōzan as a crucial link to the people of the North.[34]

He was reportedly considering running for governor of Tokyo in 2014 following another visit to North Korea.[35]

Inoki joined the splinter of the Japanese Restoration Party, Party for Japanese Kokoro, in 2014. In January 2015, he helped to establish a new party named the Assembly to Energize Japan, which he left in 2016, to sit in the 'Independents Club'.

In September 2017, Inoki re-established his position that Japan should make more of an effort to have co-operative dialogue with North Korea, in the wake of North Korea launching ballistic missiles over Hokkaido. This was succeeded by another of Inoki's controversial trips to the nation.[36]

In June 2019, Inoki announced his retirement from politics.[37]

Mixed martial arts involvement

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Inoki was amongst the group of professional wrestlers who were tutored in the art of hooking and shooting by the professional wrestler Karl Gotch. Inoki named his method of fighting "strong style." This method of wrestling (which was taught to Inoki by Gotch) borrowed heavily from professional wrestling's original catch wrestling roots, and is one of the most important influences of modern shoot wrestling.

Inoki faced many opponents from all dominant disciplines of combat from various parts of the world, such as boxers, judoka, karateka, kung fu practitioners, sumo wrestlers, and professional wrestlers. These bouts included a match with then-prominent karate competitor Everett Eddy.[38] Eddy had previously competed in a mixed skills bout against boxer Horst Geisler and lost by knockout.[39] The bout with Eddy ended with the karateka knocked out by a professional wrestling powerbomb followed by a Hulk Hogan-esque leg drop. Another such match pitted Inoki against 6'7" Kyokushin karate stylist Willie Williams, who had allegedly fought a bear for a 1976 Japanese film entitled "The Strongest Karate 2".[40] This bout ended when a doctor stopped the fight after both competitors repeatedly fell out of the ring.[41] Although many of the matches were predetermined and scripted, they are seen as a precursor to modern mixed martial arts (MMA). When asked about Inoki's fighting skills, business colleague Carlson Gracie stated Inoki was "one of the best fighters he'd seen."[42]

His most famous bout was against heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali on June 26, 1976, in Tokyo.[43] Inoki initially promised Ali a predetermined match to get him to fight in Japan, but when the deal materialized, Ali's camp feared that Inoki would turn the fight into a shoot, which many believe was Inoki's intention. Ali visited a professional wrestling match involving Inoki and witnessed Inoki's grappling ability. The rules of the match were announced several months in advance. Two days before the match, however, several new rules were added which severely limited the moves that each man could perform. One rule change, specifying that Inoki could only throw a kick if one of his knees was on the ground, had a major effect on the outcome of the fight.[43] Ali landed a total of six punches to Inoki, and Inoki kept to his back in a defensive position for almost the entire duration of the match of 15 rounds, hitting Ali with a low kick repeatedly.[44] The bout ended in a draw, 3–3. Ali left without a press conference and suffered damage to his legs as a result of Inoki's repeated kicks.[45]

Following his retirement from professional wrestling, Inoki promoted a number of MMA events such as NJPW Ultimate Crush (which showcased pro wrestling matches and MMA matches on the same card), as well as annual Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye shows which took place on New Year's Eve in 2000, 2001, 2002, and 2003. Some of the major attractions of these events involve the best of NJPW against world-renowned fighters in legitimate MMA matches. Inoki faced mixed martial artist Renzo Gracie in an exhibition match at the 2000 Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye. Future UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Lyoto Machida began his career in MMA under the management of Inoki. Machida was described by Inoki as a symbolic "successor" figure for himself, as Naoya Ogawa and Kazuyuki Fujita had been in the past.[46] In 2003, Inoki co-founded the Brazilian MMA promotion Jungle Fight with Wallid Ismail.[47] Inoki was also the ambassador for the International Fight League's Tokyo entry before that promotion's demise. Additionally, Inoki's Inoki Genome Federation promoted both professional wrestling matches and mixed martial arts fights.

Personal life

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Inoki married American woman Diana Tuck (also known as Linda Tuck) in 1965.[48] The couple would have a daughter together, but separated two years later.[48] Inoki's daughter later died at age 8.[49] Inoki was married to actress Mitsuko Baisho from 1971 to 1987, and together they had a daughter, Hiroko.[50] Inoki married for a third time in 1989,[48] with his third wife giving birth to Inoki's first son.[48] The couple divorced in 2012.[48] In 2014, Inoki took Haroon Abid, nephew of his Pakistani rival Zubair Jhara Pahalwan, under his guardianship.[17][51] Inoki's fourth[52] wife, Tazuko Tada, died on August 27, 2019.[53] Inoki has two grandsons, Hirota and Naoto Inoki. Hirota is a swimmer at Santa Monica College,[54] having previously set school records in swimming at El Segundo High School.[55] In January 2024, it was reported that Naoto was training in professional wrestling under Katsuyori Shibata,[56] having previously trained under the staff of the L.A. Inoki Dojo.[57] Naoto additionally trains in mixed martial arts (MMA) at Blackhouse MMA.[58]

Inoki converted to Shia Islam in 1990 during a pilgrimage to Karbala, the Shiite holy city in Iraq. He was in Iraq negotiating for the release of several Japanese hostages.[59] While in Iraq, Inoki was bestowed the Islamic moniker Muhammad Hussain Inoki, later reportedly describing himself as both a Muslim convert and a Buddhist.[60][61][62] In 2014, Inoki said he was "usually a Buddhist".[25]

Inoki operated a wrestling themed restaurant in Shinjuku, Tokyo, named Antonio's Inoki Sakaba Shinjuku.[63] Inoki is the namesake of two islands, the Inoki Friendship Island in Cuba and the Inoki Island in Palau.[64][2] In 2021, it was reported that spinal issues had confined Inoki to a wheelchair.

Death and legacy

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On October 1, 2022 (September 30 in Eastern Time), at age 79, Inoki died from systemic transthyretin amyloidosis.[5][65][66]

American professional wrestling promotion WWE paid tribute to Inoki on the September 30 episode of SmackDown.[67] On October 1, at Royal Quest II in London, England, New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) held a ten-bell salute for Inoki.[68] Numerous other Japanese promotions would additionally hold ten-bell salutes for Inoki in the weeks and months following his death. NPB team Yokohama DeNA BayStars would play Inoki's theme song, "Inoki Bombaye" (itself a remix of "Ali Bombaye (Zaire Chant) I" from Muhammad Ali's 1977 biographical film), at their games as a tribute to Inoki following his death.[69][70]

On October 4, NJPW announced that they had made Inoki the promotion's Honorary Chairman for Life prior to his passing.[71] On October 10, during Declaration of Power, the first NJPW event held in Japan since Inoki's death, the promotion held a second ten-bell salute for Inoki.[72]

On December 28, Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye x Ganryujima, a memorial show honoring Inoki, was organized by the Inoki Genki Factory in collaboration with Samurai Warriors Ganryujima and NJPW.[73] Three days later, on December 31, mixed martial arts promotion Rizin held their Rizin 40 event as a memorial for Inoki.[74] On January 4, 2023, NJPW held their Wrestle Kingdom 17 event in tribute to Inoki.[75] On June 9, NJPW, All Japan Pro Wrestling, and Pro Wrestling Noah held All Together: Again to celebrate Inoki's legacy.[76]

On January 16, 2023, Inoki was posthumously awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by the Government of Japan.[77] On that same day, it was announced that Inoki had been awarded the Junior Fourth Rank in Japan's ikai court ranks system.[77] On June 9, the Japan Anniversary Association declared October 1 to be Antonio Inoki Fighting Spirit Day.[78] On September 9, a statue of Inoki was unveiled at the Sojiji Temple in Yokohama.[79]

America's All Elite Wrestling held an event on October 1, 2023, the one-year anniversary of Inoki's death, titled WrestleDream that was organized in honor of Inoki.[80] WrestleDream has since been established as an annual event held by AEW in tribute to Inoki.[81]

Two of Inoki's former students, Durango Kid and Laberinto, currently run a lucha libre promotion that bears his name, Inoki Sports Management.[82] The two also serve as the head trainers of a wrestling school named the L.A. Inoki Dojo.[82]

In media

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A character based on Inoki called "Kanji Igari" appears in the Japanese manga series Baki the Grappler by Keisuke Itagaki.[83]

Inoki appears in the manga Tiger Mask, in a secondary role: he is the only one who was able to win over Naoto "Tiger Mask" Date, with the two subsequently becoming best friends.

Under the names "Kanta Inokuma" and "Armand Inokuma", Inoki appears in the manga Rasputin the Patriot by Takashi Nagasaki and Junji Itō, a manga heavily based on the book Trap of the State written by ex-diplomat and political writer Masaru Satō. This manga reveals Inoki's experience when he visited Russia and his meeting with vice president of the Soviet Union Gennady Yanayev at May 1991, three months before Soviet coup attempt.

Inoki appeared in the film The Bad News Bears Go to Japan as himself. A subplot in his scenes involved Inoki seeking a rematch with Ali. Gene LeBell, who also appears in these scenes as a manager of Inoki's scheduled opponent, Mean Bones Beaudine, was the referee of Inoki's match with Ali. Inoki's appearance in the film culminates with a match against the main character, Marvin Lazar (played by Tony Curtis), when Beaudine suddenly becomes unavailable to participate. Professional wrestler Héctor Guerrero served as Curtis's stunt double for the wrestling portions of this scene.

Inoki had the starring role in the film Acacia directed by Jinsei Tsuji.[84]

In Oh!Great's manga Air Gear, Inoki is regularly referred to by the author, and by the manga's characters as an influence on their fighting style. The manga also makes several references to Inoki's large chin. Along with Inoki, fellow wrestler Steve Austin of the World Wrestling Federation has been referred to in Air Gear's pages.

Inoki made an appearance as the guest in 2005 Doraemon episode "The Pitch-Black Pop Stars", where he wrestled Gian after he splashed ink on his face.

Inoki is the inspiration for the wrestling legend Iron Kiba, from the manga Koukou Tekkenden Tough.

Several episodes of the Japanese comedy show Downtown no Gaki no Tsukai ya Arahende!! (most notably 2007's "Do Not Laugh at the Hospital" and 2009's "Do Not Laugh as a Hotel Man") have included parodies of Inoki. In the former, three "patients" are presented as being Inoki, with each imitating Inoki's in-ring persona; while in the latter, the guest known only as Shin Onii was asked to imitate Inoki as if he were a hotel bellhop.

In May 2021, Inoki appeared on the Vice on TV series Dark Side of the Ring in an episode covering the 1995 Collision in Korea event.[85]

In 2023, Inoki was the subject of a documentary film, Looking for Antonio Inoki.[86]

Wrestlers trained

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Exhibition boxing record

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1 fight 0 wins 0 losses
Draws 1
No. Result Record Opponent Type Round, time Date Location Notes
1 Draw 0-0-1   Muhammad Ali PTS 15 Jun 25, 1976   Nippon Budokan, Tokyo, Japan Under special boxing-wrestling rules.

Championships and accomplishments

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Decorations received by Inoki

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Award or decoration Country Date Ref.
  Order of the Southern Cross   Brazil December 20, 1974 [112]
  Order of Friendship   North Korea September 2010 [113][114]
  Friendship Medal   Cuba November 20, 2012 [115]
  Order of the Rising Sun   Japan January 16, 2023 [77]
N/A Junior Fourth Rank   Japan January 16, 2023 [77]

References

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