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

WWE's Previous Trips to Japan

Current WWE owner Vince McMahon's father, Vince Senior, ran the WWE from the 1960s until the early 1980s and had a working relationship with New Japan Pro Wrestling, occasionally featuring their wrestlers on his shows at Madison Square Garden and sending his wrestlers to Japan for tours. The figurehead president of the company on the shows themselves was even Japanese for a while, with Hisashi Shinma from New Japan playing the WWE President role, as noted in the May 24, 2004, edition of The Wrestling Observer Newsletter (17).

However, when the WWE expanded on cable television in the 1980s and put many regional promoters out of business, they opted to begin touring in Japan in joint-promoted shows with Japanese promoters instead of merely sending over a few wrestlers for a tour. In America, Ted Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling and the WWE were both looking at ties with the Japanese market, considering the continued success of Japanese wrestling since the 1950s.

WWE worked with both All Japan and New Japan to promote the "U.S. and Japan Wrestling Summit" on 13 April 1990, not promoted as a major deal in America but promoted heavily to the Japanese audience through the two Japanese organizations. The show was considered something of a disappointment for not selling out the huge arena rented for the event, but it drew 41,000 fans and a $2.1 million gate, and drawing a 14.1 rating on NTV, according to the July 28, 2003, edition of The Wrestling Observer Newsletter (5-6).

With all the promoters trying to put a show on together, arguments ranged from endings of matches to where the ring would be positioned to how the ring announcer would announce time limits.

Another WWE joint-promoted show, held on 30 March 1991, along with the Super World Sports promotion, drew 42,000 fans, but reports are that only about 25,000 had paid and the rest were giveaways, according to Dave Meltzer in the June 21, 2006, edition of the Wrestling Observer (4).

The main event pitted top American star Hulk Hogan and a top Japanese star, Genichiro Tenryu, teaming against an American team who had wrestled often in Japan, The Road Warriors. The undercard featured former sumo Grand Champion Koji Kitao against an American with sumo background, John Tenta. The final attempt at a co-promoted show with SWS was on 12 December 1991, in which WWE star Hulk Hogan defeated Japanese star Genichiro Tenryu. The show drew about 40,000 fans, with about 31,000 of those paying for a gate of $1.5 million (Wrestling Observer Newsletter, September 27, 2004, p. 10). SWS closed its promotion soon thereafter.

As mentioned before, WWE continued on with attempts to promote shows in Japan itself, but a show in the mid-1990s only drew 4,500 fans for a 17,000-seat arena, and that number included a lot of giveaways, "the smallest crowd ever for a pro wrestling event in that arena" at the time, according to Meltzer (Wrestling Observer Newsletter, March 11, 2002, p. 4). Aside from the aforementioned refund chant, reports from that show was a quiet crowd, many of whom reportedly only came to buy WWE merchandise rather than wanting to actually see the show.

WWE in Japan: 2002

Reports are that the March 01, 2002, show was the exact opposite of the WWE's mid-1990s show at Yokohama, with every character down to the opener being popular. More than 200 reporters came to the press conference a month before the show according to Meltzer (Wrestling Observer, February 04, 2002, p. 11), and Japanese promoters were reportedly stunned at the tickets selling out in the first day, since their events were not often selling that quickly in 2002. Feedback indicated that the majority of the fans for this show were there to see the WWE and, as opposed to the audience in the mid-1990s, were not necessarily Japanese pro wrestling fans.

The $1.1 million gate was one of the largest for a non-televised event in WWE history, and even the families of Japanese wrestlers competing for the WWE had to pay for tickets, with almost no giveaways. According to Meltzer, the crowd acted as an American crowd would rather than a traditional Japanese audience, cheering "for the trademark spots as opposed to the building of matches as a Japanese crowd would," according to Meltzer (Wrestling Observer, January 28, 2002, p. 10).

In 2002, WWE aired on Japanese cable, which has very limited subscription in the country, as well as a one-hour show airing after midnight on TV-Tokyo. They were drawing less than half the ratings of Japanese wrestling shows that come on late night as well, but the audience at the show seemed to know all the personalities and even brought signs to hold up for their favorite wrestlers, written in English, and other fans came dressed in costume. A report in the May 12, 2003, issue of the Wrestling Observer revealed that the Smackdown show that launched on Fuji Network, while giving more exposure to WWE, was commentated by a Japanese comedian who didn't know anything about wrestling and a play-by-play announcer who didn't even know the wrestlers' names most of the time (16).

When a popular Japanese professional wrestler came out before the show started to do announcing for the event, people ignored him, as they seemed intent on seeing an American pro wrestling show come to Tokyo, rather than Americans blending into a Japanese wrestling show, as they could from the Japanese promotions. The WWE tour continued on to Singapore, drawing 11,023, and Kuala Lampur, drawing approximately 14,000.

Rumors after the show began circulating that WWE would partner up with Japanese wrestling promotions in the future for shows, but most of these were either spread by Japanese publications or Japanese promoters themselves, hoping to capitalize on the popularity of the American wrestling show. Instead, WWE made it clear that they planned on doing one WWE-only tour in 2003 (see June 10, 2002, edition of The Wrestling Observer, p. 15). Further, WWE created a Japanese fan club after the success of this first show to capitalize on Japanese WWE fans, as opposed to Japanese pro wrestling fans in general. With WWE's success in Asia, rumors even began to circulate that there were plans to create an Asian office for the company (reported in December 16, 2002, edition of The Wrestling Observer, p. 16).

WWE in Japan: 2003

WWE planned that tour for Jan. 24-25, 2003, at the Yoyogi Gym in Tokyo, with a trip to Seoul, South Korea the day before. The Yoyogi Gym, with a 13,000-seat capacity, sold out for the first show and came close to a sellout with the second, with 16,000 of the seats being sold to the WWE Japan Fan Club for the two shows combined before ever going to sale to the public, with several thousand more selling in the two hours they were made available (as reported in December 09, 2002, edition of The Wrestling Observer, p. 10).

The WWE had seen major decline in its domestic popularity in 2002, and Japanese wrestling organizations were struggling as well, as detailed in the February 17, 2003, edition of The Wrestling Observer on pp. 4-5. According to 2003 polls, wrestling had fallen to the tenth most popular sport position in Japan, after being as high as number three in the 1980s (The Wrestling Observer, June 21, 2003, p. 2) Meanwhile, a summer 2003 poll of American sports fans found wrestling to be the second most hated of more than 100 sports, with only dog fighting ranked lower (The Wrestling Observer, October 06, 2003, p. 4).

The WWE's popularity in Japan continued to be astounding for this second tour, playing on the scarcity of being about to attend WWE live events. In the States, the WWE had split its roster in two after buying out rival WCW, creating a Raw and a Smackdown division (the names of its two shows).

The January 2003 Japanese tour featured the Raw tour, as well as Smackdown wrestler Yoshihiro Tajiri. The tour also sold out in Seoul, with 10,000 fans at the Jamil Basketball Stadium and appearing as the lead sports item in ever major South Korean newspaper. The Japanese fans bought approximately $15 in merchandise per person, according to the February 03, 2003, edition of The Wrestling Observer (7).

The second show ended up with 2,000 tickets left unsold, attributed at the time to the Smackdown brand being more popular than the Raw brand in Japan. Firsthand reports stated that Japanese fans were yelling American phrases like "asshole" or "you suck" at wrestlers. While still presenting an Americanized show, the WWE tried to play up the Japanese ethnicity of several of its characters and even allowed Tajiri, not normally a major character on the American broadcasts, to get a shot at the championship (11).

While the WWE originally announced plans for only one tour a year, with the "brand division" into Raw and Smackdown, they announced that the Smackdown crew would come to Japan in 2003 as well, with a planned tour in July. In fact, given the lack of enthusiasm for the WWE product at home, the company announced it planned to expand its number of international dates from 19 to 31, including the tour of Japan and Thailand in mid-July and several other planned Asian tours, according to the June 21, 2003, edition of The Wrestling Observer (2). WWE continually, however, emphasized its philosophy to continue running shows on its own. In the April 26, 2004, edition of The Wrestling Observer, WWE VP Jim Ross' philosophy was reported to be that, since every company wanted to do business with WWE, the best plan was to do shows on their own, without getting involved in the political battles of the Japanese pro wrestling industry. According to Meltzer, "He felt it was better not to send any talent to Japanese groups" to keep from "diluting the WWE events as the only place to see WWE talent" (3).

The company also made another significant decision, to start creating storylines on WWE television that might help sell more tickets and make the fans more enthusiastic while on tour in Japan. While Japanese WWE wrestlers like Tajiri, Sho Funaki, and The Ultimo Dragon never received significant pushes as main event talent, while being placed higher on the card in Japan, a storyline launched on Smackdown in July, with wrestler Eddie Guerrero turning on partner Tajiri, was done to create a high-profile match for the Japanese tour, according to the July 14, 2003, edition of The Wrestling Observer (11).

The WWE ran shows on 17 July and 18 July at the Yokohama Arena and on 19 July in Kobe. The last two shows sold out well in advance, with the second Yokohama show drawing 15,500 and $1.3 million and 8,998 fans in Kobe. The 17 July show, added after the first show sold out, was not anywhere as close to full, with about 10,000 or so fans, announced as 11,600, according to the July 28, 2003, Observer (1).

Big shows from Japanese wrestling organizations that same weekend also did decently well, with All Japan at Budokan Hall drawing 15,800 fans (about 4,000 or so giveaways), WJ drawing about 6,000, and New Japan drawing about 6,500.

Interest in the WWE shows were reported to have been driven by the first appearance of Olympic-gold-medalist-turned-pro-wrestler Kurt Angle and women's wrestler Sable, neither of whom had wrestled in Japan before. Japanese wrestlers were placed prominently on the card, and rumors started circulating that WWE might eventually bring a big pay-per-view event to the Tokyo Dome.