June 9, 2007
World Wrestling Entertainment, Japanese Culture, and Pop Cosmopolitanism--Part I of VI

The following series presents work I completed for James L. Watson's course on globalization through Harvard University's Department of Anthropology in Fall 2006. Since the work was closely related to the concepts of pop cosmopolitanism and the interenational flow of media products, as well as my work on professional wrestling that has appeared on this site on numerous occasions, I thought it might be appropriate to include this work here on the C3 site. This is the first of a six-part series looking into the popularity of World Wrestling Entertainment's pro wrestling shows in Japan from 2002 until 2006.


Approximately 16,000 pro wrestling fans were jammed into the Yokohama Arena on 01 March 2002, paying $1.1 million to see the first show by American international sports entertainment property World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), formerly a regional promotion in the Northeast that launched a national media phenomenon in the 1980s when it paired with the growing strength of cable and pay-per-view television and remains based in Stamford, Connecticut, creating the first most successful wrestling touring group and television program on a national level.

Shane McMahon, who along with sister Stephanie is heir to the McMahon family wrestling empire controlled by their father, Vince McMahon, was scheduled to come out early in the show, in front of the capacity crowd. His family company had not been to Japan for a show since the mid-1990s, when they only drew 4,500 fans in the same building, and fans hated parts of the show so much they chanted "refund." Something had changed by 2002, though, and WWE was the place to be for thousands of people in Tokyo.

McMahon entered the ring, accompanied by translator Wally Yamaguchi--a figure Japanese pro wrestling fans might know as a referee for Japanese wrestling organization All-Japan. As McMahon began to speak to the crowd through Yamaguchi, the duo was met with a loud series of boos. According to journalist Dave Meltzer in the March 11, 2002, edition of The Wrestling Observer Newsletter, "The crowd, particularly the ringsiders, were furious. They wanted WWF, not WWF translated into Japanese" (5). (By the way, this was written before the WWE had changed its name after a dispute with the World Wildlife Fund.)

Shane McMahon, knowing this wasn't the reaction he had expected when introducing the WWE show to the fans, decided to change course midstream and kicked the translator out of the ring. Instead, he started speaking to the audience in "slow and easy English." Even though many in the audience only had a cursory understanding of what he said, he received a standing ovation.

This was a pivotal moment for the WWE. Amidst sagging popularity in the States, the company hoped to aggressively pursue an international audience, and this reaction from Japanese fans--and the gate the Yokohama show drew--was certainly the type of response they needed. Gaining a complete understanding of the WWE's relationship with Japanese fans in the four years from 2002 until 2006 illuminates revealing data that helps inform larger questions.

What has been the historical link between American professional wrestling and Japanese fans? Does the WWE draw a different audience than Japanese pro wrestling? How does this moment, when Shane McMahon kicked his translator out of the ring to a standing ovation, fit into a discussion of globalization?

The violence and mayhem of the pro wrestling world can inform us about the transcultural flow of popular culture by understanding how the WWE's very Americanized presentation balances with the interests of a Japanese audience, and this study intends to understand the negotiation of globalized popular culture consumption by examining the ways in which cultural products have to be designed differently with an international audience in mind.

The intent of this series is to use historical accounts of American pro wrestling in Japan, drawing particularly on journalistic work, as well as a few excerpts from the memoirs of American pro wrestlers. While these sources have given a strong on-the-ground account of the reaction to American wrestling in Japan, there has been no attempt in writing to examine the trajectory of the WWE's popularity in Japan. By taking into account what led up to this 2002 to 2006 period, as well as journalistic accounts of the WWE's show during these four years, I hope to bring to the surface and examine the vernacular theory inherent in this work.

Particularly, I draw heavily on the week-by-week accounts of Dave Meltzer, the only professional journalist who covers international pro wrestling on a weekly basis through his Wrestling Observer Newsletter, covering the events of pro wrestling and mixed martial arts in America, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Japan, and elsewhere. In Street Smarts and Critical Theory, Thomas McLaughlin writes about theory outside the academy and how the local expertise of non-academics should be taken into account. In short, it's arguing for a truly ethnographic anthropological approach to theory, in which theory is not in the exclusive domain of the academic and in which non-academic voices are considered to have valuable contributions to understanding the world.

This study draws heavily on understanding the business success of these shows, measuring success by attendance statistics and the amount of revenue WWE shows generate in Japan. My intent is to try and understand the cultural and social capital of the WWE by its correlation with an ability to generate financial capital.

In his study of the Tsukiji fish market, Theodore C. Bestor writes of a study of "trade and economic institutions as they are embedded in and shaped by the cultural and social currents of Japanese life, an ethnography of how economies--how markets--are themselves created by the production and circulation of cultural and social capital as well as of goods, services, and financial assets" (xvi--emphasis his).

While my study does not include ethnographic research, Bestor's call for understanding how the cultural and social are intertwined with the financial is a pivotal justification for my use of
business data and journalistic accounts to understand the phenomenon of American wrestling in Japanese culture in the early 21st Century.

Further, in his examination of the transnational links of American and Japanese culture through the Pepsi "Pepsiman" advertising campaign for The Journal of Popular Culture, Noel M. Murray writes that "a methodology needs to be developed to facilitate the analysis of migration and transformation of meanings across country markets" (1077 in Issue 39.6, 2006). While this study does not share his goals of an anthropological study of advertising and does not arrive at a methodology as to how one can study transnational migration across markets, I hope that the data provided here will further bolster the validity of such an approach.

Above all else, this study hopes to add to the growing literature that examines the phenomenon of pop cosmopolitanism. As described by Henry Jenkins, the concept looks at the ways in which people experience other cultures through pop culture products, both learning about those other cultures and creating their own meanings in the process.

For instance, Jenkins writes about the fervor for authentic Japanese anime in American culture in his book Convergence Culture, focusing particularly on the activity of "fansubbing," in which fans provide as much Japanese cultural information as possible to subtitle the works themselves and attempt to retain as much of the original meaning as possible. (See the chapter "When Piracy Becomes Promotion." Also, see Sean Leonard's "Progress Against the Law: Anime and Fandom, with the Key to the Globalization of Culture," from Issue 8.3 of the International Journal of Cultural Studies in 2005.) One possible explanation for the moment in which fans requested the removal of the Japanese translator for Shane McMahon is their desire to experience an authentic American product.

The balance WWE has shown throughout the four years in question between providing that authentic product, while also making concessions to the Japanese audience, illuminates the complicated transcultural flows of pop cosmopolitanism that will be explored throughout this series.