I have been living in Japan for the past year, and I’ve been lucky enough that this has coincided with a something of a boom period for professional wrestling in Japan. My first live New Japan Pro Wrestling event was back in the summer of 2016, when I went to see one of the G1 shows in the outskirts of Tokyo (when a show is advertised for Tokyo, that does not mean that it is in central Tokyo!) This year, starting with Wrestle Kingdom 12, I have had the opportunity to go to a lot of NJPW events, particularly at Korakuen Hall.
NJPW is enjoying a resurgence in popularity now after a dark period in the mid-2000s when Antonio Inoki’s obsession with MMA and shoot fighting nearly sunk the company. Although it is unlikely that wrestling will ever reach the heights of the 1990s again (the same can be said for professional wrestling in the US), the fact that NJPW is currently in the middle of an expansion into the North American market shows that there is plenty of vitality in Japanese professional wrestling right now. Domestic attendance is also up this year, and prior to the Wrestling Dontaku events in Fukuoka the chairman of NJPW, Naoki Sugabayashi, spoke about the possibility of New Japan running the Fukuoka Dome at some point in the future. (https://www.njpw1972.com/26605)
However, NJPW is not the only promotion in Japan that is flourishing at the moment. The overall health of Japanese professional wrestling is improving, both in terms of the traditional major companies and the smaller promotions. All Japan Pro Wrestling made headlines recently after their April shows at Korakuen Hall had higher average attendance than NJPW, albeit it was AJPW’s Champion Carnival (their most prestigious tournament of the year) going against NJPW’s Road to Wrestling Dontaku shows (https://headlines.yahoo.co.jp/hl?a=20180507-00000066-dal-fight). Nevertheless, this is an impressive development given that only a few years ago AJPW was close to going out of business entirely. Pro Wrestling NOAH has also been increasing the crowds that they draw after a fairly disastrous partnership with NJPW in 2015-16 saw a lot of their fanbase turned off the product.
This year has seen numerous promotions developing their own streaming services, following the lead of the WWE network. Currently NJPW, AJPW, DDT, Dragon Gate, and Stardom all have their own streaming services, and this has certainly helped to broaden their appeal to foreign audiences. Gone are the days when European and American fans sought out results from Japan in magazines, and tape trading was the only way to see any of the fabled Japanese matches. The creation of streaming services has also helped these companies domestically, since most of the companies lost their prime television slots in the mid-2000s.
Japanese wrestlers have also successfully made the switch to WWE in recent years – NJPW’s Shinsuke Nakamura, NOAH’s Hideo Itami, Dragon Gate’s Akira Tozawa, Stardom’s Kairi Sane, and joshi wrestler Asuka have all debuted in WWE within the last few years, with Nakamura and Asuka in particular having high profile roles in the company. Speaking to Japanese fans of wrestling, they told me that in the case of Nakamura and Asuka, they have become even more popular when they left Japan and began to have success in their careers in WWE. Outside of the WWE, NJPW wrestlers have appeared at Ring of Honor shows, NOAH wrestlers have starred for Impact Wrestling, and recently famed joshi wrestler Meiko Satomura appeared at a number of British indie promotions.
In order to expand my horizons beyond the world of NJPW, I decided to go to a Stardom show during Golden Week (the first week in May has three public holidays during the week, so many people take the entire week as a holiday). Stardom is made up of three major factions – Queen’s Quest, Oedo Tai, and Stars (although another faction recently split off from Stars). During Golden Week each faction produced a show, and I ended up choosing to go to the Queen’s Quest show, largely due to the fact that the main event was Io Shirai taking on Kagetsu for the Wonder of Stardom Championship. I am a relative novice when it comes to Stardom, but even before this show I knew that Io Shirai is considered to be one of the best women’s wrestlers in the world, and I was keen to see her in action.
The other thing that appealed to me about the Golden Week show was the chance to go to a show at Shinkiba 1st Ring, which is the spiritual home of Stardom. Shinkiba is a small and intimate venue, which holds around 300 people – situated in an industrial park in south-east Tokyo it doesn’t immediately seem like an obvious place for a wrestling venue. However, when I arrived at Shinkiba for the Golden Week show, I found the place bustling with wrestling fans, and I didn’t see an empty seat in the house.
Japanese wrestling fans have a reputation of being quieter than Western fans, and this is true in some respects – certainly there are less creative chants, and crowds will be very quiet when they are watching skilful wrestling, punctuating the silence with applause for the craft on display in the ring. That is not to say, however, that Japanese crowds are quiet. Particularly when you go to smaller venues, they can be very rowdy, and the main event of the Shinkiba show was no exception. Prior to the match between Io and Kagetsu there were a lot of chants for both wrestlers – the usual way crowds show support is by chanting just the name of the wrestler – and as the match reached its peak the noise did too.
Another aspect of Japanese wrestling culture is a fierce loyalty to companies and factions within companies. Many Western fans, particularly those who are part of the IWC, will watch multiple promotions, nowadays often globally. There are many Japanese fans on the other hand who are fans of one promotion and won’t watch other shows, even those within Japan. Recently the former Pro Wrestling NOAH junior heavyweight Taiji Ishimori jumped ship to New Japan, and many fans of NOAH considered this to be a shocking betrayal, particularly because New Japan’s business alliance with NOAH in 2015-16 proved to be disastrous for NOAH.
The second feature of Japanese fan culture is the loyalty to certain factions within wrestling companies. I have been to shows where people who were dressed in Suzuki-gun merchandise left after the Minoru Suzuki match, but before the main event had even taken place. This trait was particularly on display at the Stardom Golden Week Shows – since each show was produced by a different faction, supporters of those factions could choose which show to go to in order to support their favourite group. Since I went to the Queen’s Quest show (for the record, my favourite faction is Oedo Tai, but I couldn’t make it to their show) the majority of fans in attendance were Queen’s Quest fans, and the line to meet Io Shirai after the show was by far the longest. As I left there were still fans waiting to meet Io, a good hour after the show had finished and everyone else had gone backstage.
The demographics of wrestling fans in Japan is quite different to the US and Europe – often at New Japan shows there will be almost a 50/50 split between men and women. On weekday shows many people will come straight from work, so large sections of the audience are wearing suits and having a beer with colleagues. Wrestling doesn’t have the same social stigma that it does elsewhere, although it is certainly less mainstream than in previous decades. The Stardom audience on the other hand, appeared to be around 90% male. I saw a few women in the audience, and some families with children, but the majority were men. The way that the post-match merchandise sales and meet-and-greets are set up engenders a sort of collectors atmosphere – there was the opportunity to get polaroid pictures with two wrestlers of your choice (I chose Kagetsu and Session Moth Martina, for the bants), which means that you would have to attend multiple shows to get a picture with all of your favourites. The wrestlers themselves sold 8×10 photos, which they autographed while chatting to the fans, who often bring the wrestlers’ their favourite snacks or drinks, and presumably the repeat fans form something of a personal relationship with the wrestlers. I saw a number of fans with binders for photographs that they had collected at previous shows, all of which reminded me of the culture around idol groups, such as AKB48 (I have heard other people comparing Stardom to idol groups in the past, this is not my original idea.) Fan interaction with the wrestlers is clearly a big part of the appeal of promotions like Stardom, who provide a more personal level of access than, for example, New Japan.
My experience at a Stardom show were excellent – the fans are passionate, the wrestlers are friendly, and the main event was one of the best matches I’ve seen this year. This really seems like a good moment for professional wrestling in Japan, and I’m excited to see a lot of companies going from strength to strength. The next big step comes on Saturday July 7th, when New Japan are running at show at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. At around 12,000 seats this is the biggest venue they have run in the US thus far. How well that show goes will be a barometer of their success in their attempt to expand internationally. Setting that question aside, there is a wealth of pro wrestling available to fans in Japan, and if anyone visits I would highly recommend checking out some shows at smaller venues like Shinkiba, Shinjuku Face, and Korakuen Hall. As for myself, I just bought a ticket to a Sendai Girls Pro Wrestling show in Yokohama in July. 2018 is turning into quite the year for Japanese pro wrestling, and we’re not even half way through it yet.
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