Scholarly Interest in American Pro Wrestling
Current American interest in pro wrestling takes an unlikely lineage, best traced out by scholars Gerald W. Morton and George M. O'Brien in their book, Wrestling to Rasslin': Ancient Sport to American Spectacle. They trace the roots of the American exhibition of wrestling to athletic competitions in Egyptian, Jewish, Greek, and Roman cultures and a long tradition of "real" wrestling in European culture.
That wrestling tradition in Western culture collided with Native American conceptions of wrestling as well and spread in popularity through the Civil War, when troops on both sides wrestled each other as a pastime. Many of these soldiers, after the war was over, began touring with carnivals to display their wrestling skills.
Not surprisingly, carnival barkers like P.T. Barnum soon decided to capitalize on the showmanship, giving these grapplers costumes and characters and fixing the matches. The increasing visuality and performative style of pro wrestling bonded with television from its infancy, and wrestling has thrived in both national and regional distribution ever since. For more information on the historical relationship of American wrestling and television, see Forest Steven Beverly's 1989 Master's thesis from Auburn, A History of Professional Wrestling as Television Programming.
Since French Semiotician Roland Barthes first examined professional wrestling in 1957 in "The World of Wrestling," (first written in 1957 and translated into English in 1972), American academics in particular have sought to understand why millions of people across the country are attracted to this performance of violence. Barthes claims pro wrestling is "a spectacle of excess," as the hero's struggle against the unfair tactics of the villain provides a plethora of symbols of suffering and justice.
Meanwhile, in his 1974 book Frame Analysis, sociologist Erving Goffman finds the power of pro wrestling to be a key narrative, in which the hero adopts the rule-breaking tactics of his opponent in order to retaliate against him, only after the rulebreaker has first broken the frame of fair play. In other words, pro wrestling fans like the show most when the rules break down, and it is that departure from the rules that causes the excitement of a match's climax.
Other scholars have taken the opposite approach, trying to understand why fans enjoy wrestling when, so often, the villain comes out with a victory. Both Barthes' and Goffman's theories examine why fans enjoy the struggle of the hero, but that struggle does not always end in revenge. In his 1983 essay "Will the Sheik Use His Blinding Fireball? The Ideology of Professional Wrestling,"anthropologist Jim Freedman defines this struggle between hero and villain as a metaphor for the struggle between the ideal of capitalism as a community of equal opportunity and the reality of capitalism as a lack of adherence to basic rules necessary for fair competition. While the hero is battling under the assumption of fair play, the villain is taking advantage of the loopholes, and Freedman believes the audiences he studies in rural Canada understand that disconnect between the professed values of equality and competition and the reality, where the cheater always seems to get ahead.
In his 1997 essay "Never Trust a Snake: WWF Wrestling as Masculine Melodrama" and his 2005 essay "Wrestling with Theory, Grappling with Politics," media scholar Henry Jenkins wrote about pro wrestling as a masculine melodrama and as a populist form of entertainment that defies conservative/liberal titles in the American pop culture landscape, while Sut Jhally and Jackson Katz attempt to demonstrate the narrow conceptions of masculinity in the pro wrestling world in their 2002 Media Education Foundation documentary Wrestling with Manhood: Boys, Bullying, and Battering.
Both Jim Freedman (in his 1988 book Drawing Heat) and Sharon Mazer (in her 1998 book Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle) have furthered an understanding of pro wrestling by conducting an ethnography of pro wrestlers themselves, as Mazer details the training process of the professional wrestler and the unclear line in that initiation process between "real" and "fake."
An ethnographic research approach has been taken up by Nick Trujillo as well to attempt to measure the complexity of the audience and many of the incorrect stereotypes the American pro wrestling audience has been labeled with, including some of the stereotypes of his own research team, presented in his 2000 essay "A Night with the Narcissist and The Nasty Boys: Interpreting the World Wrestling Federation."
My previous work on pro wrestling has attempted to combat some of the narrow confines scholars like Jhally and Katz have put on the pro wrestling world by examining a popular pro wrestling figure who does not fit into their narrow descriptions as to how wrestling defines manhood. This research will be part of the upcoming book, Bodies of Discourse: Sports Stars, Media, and the Global Public.
My ethnography of pro wrestling fans in Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee, finds varying levels of engagement in the pro wrestling text, from an appreciation of the event as a dramatic show and athletic exhibition to active engagement as part of the show. Some American fans believe that a loud and involved crowd are a major part of what makes a show "good" and see their job as playing this role, or else sending a message to the promoters when they don't like a show by not playing their part. See more on that study here. In my study, I even found some fans who justified their involvement in the show by explaining that, while they knew the wrestling was fake, there were some there, including children, who didn't know the truth, and they didn't want to spoil the magic for them.
Japanese fans and Japanese wrestling, however, have a much different history and traditionally a different form of audience engagement, as well as a divergent range of expectations from a pro wrestling performance. These scholars, and a wide variety of other academic pieces on pro wrestling throughout the past few decades, may explain various reasons why American wrestling fans enjoy pro wrestling performances, but they do little to explain how and why Japanese fans enjoy American pro wrestling.
Certainly, the cultural specificities of Japanese and American culture make any cross-cultural reading problematic, but my approach--considering my lack of knowledge about Japanese culture--centers more on the WWE response to the Japanese audience, rather than trying to proscribe a motivation on the WWE's Japanese fan base. Here, I hope to take the approach that Chad Dell does in his 2006 book, The Revenge of Hatpin Mary. Dell is writing about female fandom of pro wrestling in America from 1945 to 1960. While he has the luxury of interviewing some former female fans of wrestling after the fact, the majority of his approach is to understand this phenomenon by examining journalistic accounts from the period. In lieu of actually being about to see these phenomena firsthand, these accounts from the time period provide the best opportunities for understanding the Japanese audience's interaction with the WWE.
In order to understand the Japanese relationship with American pro wrestling, however, I want to very briefly examine the history of American wrestling in Japanese culture.
Americans in Japanese Wrestling
The most important figure in the formation of professional wrestling in Japanese culture
was Rikidozan, a Korean-born immigrant who became a national cultural icon while hiding his true ethnic identity. Rikidozan was first a fairly accomplished sumo competitor, coming from the very different athletic background that pro wrestling has in Japan.
However, pro wrestling as it is currently known in the country did not begin until the post-World War II period, when the American conception of wrestling collided with the Japanese sumo traditions. According to wrestling historian John Molinaro in his 2002 book The Top 100 Pro Wrestlers of All Time, Rikidozan was recruited by Americans in a 1951 pro wrestling tour, hoping to capitalize on his sumo fame. He was soon taken to Hawaii and then to San Francisco, where he became a headlining wrestler, teaming with former boxing champion Primo Carnera.
After a year in the U.S., where he was scheduled to lose only five of 260 matches, word had made its way back to Japan as to the success of their sumo competitor in American pro wrestling shows. The clever marketing of Rikidozan, by giving him both a chance to learn the pro wrestling style from Americans while also making him a mythical figure back home by sending news of his success through the news wires, led to Rikidozan announcing the formation of Japan Pro Wrestling Association in 1953.
Rikidozan became a well-known name in wrestling in both countries and, through partnership with American promoters, made wrestling a staple of early Japanese television, much as it was in America. The formula was to bring in big American wrestlers for Rikidozan to fight, and the sight of a Japanese man chopping down the 6'6" and 6'7" American Sharpe Brothers became a cultural legend and both cemented pro wrestling in Japanese culture and American involvement in Japanese pro wrestling.
Molinaro points out the irony that Rikidozan was actually Korean and the Sharpe Brothers were actually Canadian, but that didn't matter much in terms of the storyline. Molinaro writes, "Thousands of fans crowded department store windows and parks that had television screens set up to watch the match live and cheer on their native son as he exacted revenge on the U.S. for leaving their nation poor and devastated," and the "brilliantly orchestrated morality play of Japan vs. America would become a staple of Japanese wrestling and a defining theme of Japanese network television for decades to follow" (17).
While Japanese characters were largely known in American culture as an occasional heel performer who threw salt in the eyes of opponents, like Prof. Toru Tanaka and Mr. Fuji in the McMahon family's WWE (then called the World Wide Wrestling Federation), American performers were a fundamental part of the Japanese wrestling phenomenon, and eventually became accepted in both face (hero) and heel (villain) roles. However, the gaijin wrestled a different style when touring Japan, based on the sumo tradition and cultural factors that led to an audience that disliked the theatrics of American pro wrestling, particularly outside interference, disqualifications, or matches with "cheap" endings.
The presentation of wrestling was, in a way, more serious, and the Japanese audience was much quieter. Wrestler Terry Funk, who is a wrestling legend in both the U.S. and Japan, writes in his memoir, More Than Just Hardcore, "The fans in Japan always reacted to wrestling differently than the fans here. A lot of it was the way it ws presented to them, in the ring and from the commentators. The sense of realism stretched from their training to their booking. It created a domino effect--fro the promotion, to the reporters and then onto the people" (62).
For instance, American world champion Lou Thesz, who was famous in this country for his serious take on wrestling and for eschewing the theatrics of some of his more colorful contemporaries, described his shock when he landed in Tokyo with a mob of people he claims the newspapers estimated as 15,000 who were there to greet him. "They were there to welcome me, the first world champion wrestler to ever visit Japan. That's when I began to suspect that pro wrestling had an enormous future in Japan," he said (156).
Another American wrestler who became a major draw when he toured Japan was "Classy" Freddie Blassie, who was known as "The Vampire" in that country. The Japanese promoters had advertised him by showing pictures of his biting opponents, and when he saw the ads on coming to Japan, he started filing his teeth while doing press interviews to play up the "vampire" aspect of his character there. Legend has it that, during his series of matches with Rikidozan, "six elderly men suffered heart attacks watching the brutality of close-ups of Blassie biting. Blassie became a household name," according to Dave Meltzer in his book Tributes II: Remembering More of the World's Greatest Professional Wrestlers.
After Rikidozan's murder at age 39, Japanese wrestling was dominated by two major stars who studied underneath him, The Giant Baba (owner of All-Japan) and Antonio Inoki (owner of New Japan). Both had ties with American promoters and regularly brought in American wrestlers for tours, with Japanese wrestling publications often including pictures and information about American wrestlers. However, American promoters seldom put on cards in Japan themselves, instead working through relationships with Japanese promoters.