WWE in Japan: 2004
Based on its popularity, the company decided to create a book release solely for the Japanese market, a memoir of wrestler Yoshihiro Tajiri, and also translated the books of two of its prominent historical wrestling figures, Hulk Hogan and Freddie Blassie, into Japanese as well (documented in the January 19, 2004, edition of Dave Meltzer's The Wrestling Observer, 19). A history of Vince McMahon and American wrestling called Sex, Lies, and Headlocks was translated into Japanese as well, called The Dictator of WWE, according to the March 29, 2004, Observer (10). Otherwise, the company announced its philosophy as continuing to have one Raw and one Smackdown tour per year in Japan, for fear that any more than that would dilute the success of their shows (The Wrestling Observer, January 26, 2004, p. 9).
For its February 2004 Raw tour, WWE announced in late January that the $1.6 million advance for the Saitama Super Arena on February 07 was already the largest gate in company history for a non-televised show, making it seventh place at the time for the largest gate in WWE history (The Wrestling Observer, February 02, 2004, p. 15). When the Fuji Network gave WWE a chance to promote their shows in a ten-minute spot on February 01, Vince McMahon made Japanese wrestling promoters furious by playing up the entertainment aspects of his shows and even showing backstage footage that demonstrated how this was, indeed, a "show" (The Wrestling Observer, February 09, 2004, p. 16). Meanwhile, WWE was also announcing plans to continue its drive into India, despite an unsuccessful 2003 tour, by expanding its marketing deals there.
The February 2004 tour grossed more than $3 million in ticket sales, with 20,002 fans at the Saitama Super Arena drawing almost $2 million. The show, which lasted four hours, drew a lot of people on their mid-20s, many of whom appeared to be on dates, "described as more like a rock concert crowd than the more wrestling educated crowd" at Japanese pro wrestling events, according to Dave Meltzer in the February 16 ,2004, edition of The Observer (1).
WWE made several Japanese concessions in the show, including not having any outside interferences and clean endings to matches, as an attempt to balance between fans who want to see the American product and the traditional Japanese pro wrestling product. Further, WWE star "Stone Cold" Steve Austin appeared on the show, trading in his trademark American beers for Asahi. The WWE, however, only drew 2,117 in Hiroshima, with a gate of only $290,000, and 7,012 fans in Osaka, paying about $800,000, showing that "the fanaticism of the Japanese fans toward WWE is starting to fade outside Tokyo." However, the company announced plans for an upcoming tour for the Smackdown brand. Further, WWE kept rumors alive that they would eventually like to have a Japanese PPV super event, according to Meltzer (The Wrestling Observer, July 12, 2004, p. 11).
The July tour at Budokan Hall for Smackdown concerned many for the oversaturation of the Tokyo market in particular (The Wrestling Observer, May 31, 2004, p. 7). The two-day tour, however, called "Return of the Deadman" and highlighted by an appearance from WWE wrestler The Undertaker, did more than $1 million each night and was a major success. WWE played on Japanese wrestling history in matches, showing that they expected to draw traditional wrestling fans to some extent, but they also had a "cheap" finish in the main event the first night, angering traditional fans and causing accusations of American wrestling promoters who do not care about the local product from those fans.
However, the show definitely drew a much different audience than the Japanese wrestling product, many of whom were either couples or whole families and not the predominately young adult male audience of Japanese wrestling shows. According to Meltzer, "From reports from the building, lots of people that came were attending the first live show they had ever seen" (The Wrestling Observer, July 26, 2004, p. 7). The first show drew 9,614 fans, and the second--a sellout a week before the show--drew 12,525, making it the 14th most financially successful show in WWE history at the time.
By the end of the year, WWE announced plans to shift its philosophy to do overseas tapings of television shows while on tour, both to make the tours last longer--since the wrestlers would not have to come back to the States as quickly for television tapings--as well as to give an even bigger incentive for attending to international fans. With international fans still more excited about seeing WWE live than domestic fans, the question became how to balance these tours with maintaining the feeling of scarcity for the WWE product in markets like Japan (The Wrestling Observer, October 11, 2004, p. 1).
WWE in Japan: 2005
The WWE planned its first TV events from Japan for 04 February and 05 February at the Saitama Super Arena, with both Raw and Smackdown rosters being in Japan for the tour, while still playing up rumors that they eventually planned to run a major PPV event in Japan (The Wrestling Observer, January 17, 2005, p. 15), and the company even spread the rumor that they could eventually hold WWE Wrestlemania--the company's major annual event--in Tokyo (The Wrestling Observer, February 07, 2005, p. 18). The previous year's Wrestlemania, in 2004, had sold to 21,000 homes on PPV in Japan, the highest number for any foreign event in Japanese history (The Wrestling Observer, February 28, 2005, p. 12).
The Smackdown show sold out well in advance, and the Raw event ended up selling out by the event as well, making the two days the most successful television tapings in WWE history financially (The Wrestling Observer, January 24, 2005, p. 23). The Raw show drew 16,657, while the Smackdown show drew 18,757, and a combined $3.5 million gate. According to Meltzer in the February 14, 2005, Observer, for the WWE's first television shows form Japan, "The company tried to both present its usual product, and tweak it a little with a Japanese flavor in the arena" (4). Those tweaks included more wrestling than the average WWE television show, and a WWE Tag Team Title victory for British wrestler William Regal and Yosahiro Tajiri, in front of Tajiri's native crowd.
The WWE also used sumo Yokozuna Akebono on both shows. Meltzer wrote, "It was smart business for WWE, because Akebono is such a major cultural figure that his being part of the shows gave the company far more mainstream publicity" (4). While traditional Japanese crowds were known to be silent, Meltzer pointed out in the February 21, 2005, Observer that the WWE crowd on the live TV event was "far more wild than any Smackdown crowd in months" (11).
WWE decided to capitalize on this Japanese publicity by scheduling a sumo match for its annual Wrestlemania event, pitting Akebono against American WWE star The Big Show. The announcement made the front page of Tokyo Sports (see March 21, 2005, Wrestling Observer, p. 10), although it drew protests from The Japanese Sumo Association for a "worked" sumo match (The Wrestling Observer, April 04, 2005, p. 16). While the crowd in California for Wrestlemania were not excited by the sumo event, the sumo match made Wrestlemania XXI a high-profile event among Japanese sports fan, with the Japanese media giving it more coverage than American media. Every Japanese sports paper had front-page coverage of Wrestlemania following the event, which followed traditional sumo traditions and involved no Americanized wrestling, according to Meltzer in the April 11, 2005, Observer (3). Akebono won the "contest."
While the Fuji Network cancelled all WWE programming, WWE planned to follow up its successful February television tapings with another Japanese tour in July from the Saitama Super Arena (8, 17), along with plans for shows in Nagoya and Kobe (The Wrestling Obsrever, April 18, 2005, p. 11). To play up on his Wrestlemania involvement, Akebono was planned to wrestle on one of the Saitama shows (The Wrestling Observer, May 16, 2005, p. 11).
The July 2005 tour, following a Seoul, South Korea show, was a joint tour that drew 9,500 on 01 July and 12,500 on 02 July, for a total gate of $2 million. According to Meltzer in the July 11, 2005, Observer, reports were that the second show drew a more traditional Japanese audience, in that the crowd was often quiet, even when interested, and only built toward big reactions from time-to-time (12). Fans were reportedly initially upset at Akebono's involvement, feeling that it was diluting the American product, but did give him some cheers.
WWE in Japan: 2006
A February 2006 tour showed signs of WWE's popularity in Japan waning, perhaps due to the two tours a year giving people such regular access to the WWE product, as well as a dearth of television coverage in the country. The Smackdown tour, playing to two dates at the Yokohama Arena, drew 8,530 fans the first night and 7,090 the second night (with reports that the 7,090 was more like 4,000, the number the WWE drew in the mid-1990s), being labeled "the smallest crowd WWE has ever drawn for a show in the Tokyo metropolitan area" (The Wrestling Observer, February 13, 2006, p. 6).
Of course, being that WWE did significantly better the night before, the key indicator was that there was no longer enough interest to sustain back-to-back shows in the same arena, made worse for WWE's spirits because the Smackdown tours were historically the more popular. A show in Bangkok during the Asian tour drew approximately 5,000 (18).
In October, the Raw crew ran two shows at Budokan Hall, drawing 5,633 fans the first night, for $515,000, and 6,579 fans the second night, for $520,000 (The Wrestling Observer, October 30, 2006), p. 17) Because ticket prices are significantly higher in Japan, the show was still profitable but certainly down from WWE popularity a couple of years ago.
According to Meltzer in the October 25, 2006, Observer, "What has happened with WWE in Japan is since they got dropped from the Fuji Network, the fan who might tape the shows or watch them late at night (they were on past midnight) could follow the storylines. Now, just on cable, which isn't as developed as in the U.S., you have a lot less people following the product. Those that do are just as into it as before" (11). Beliefs are that the WWE in 2006 is drawing more heavily on the hardcore wrestling audience, who is more likely to still be seeking out the product, as opposed to the more casual fans who were filling up the arenas in the past few years.