WWE's Television Product and Japanese Stereotypes
As Brendan Maguire and John F. Wozniak point out in their 1987 essay "Racial and Ethnic Stereotypes in Pro Wrestling," pro wrestling has long played heavily on racial and ethnic stereotypes. From the German and Japanese villains of the Post-World War II era to the Russians of the 60s and 70s, wrestling has a long background of playing up current events with villainous foreign heels. With its roots in Rikidozan battling the evil gaijin, there are similar uses of racial stereotypes in traditional Japanese wrestling storylines as well.
The WWE has continued that tradition, whether it be the Iron Sheik when American/Iranian hostilities were at a peak in the 1980s or La Resistance, a French team who drew the ire of American fans post-9/11. Yet, when the company is attempting to draw a massive international audience, some of these business practices have to be rethought.
In 2004, WWE made plans to bring in Japanese wrestler Kenzo Suzuki, running a promo on its RAW broadcast for his new character, named Hirohito. The character was introduced amid old war footage, and the obvious plan was to try and create an evil Japanese villain of the post-World War II type (The Wrestling Observer, April 26, 2004, p. 14).
Why the WWE thought this would draw well among current American fans, most of whom do not have memories of strong Japanese hostilities, much less how they thought Japanese fans would react to such a narrow-minded storyline, much less bearing the name of a beloved leader from recent Japanese history, has been debated.
However, after word got out in Japan as to plans for the gimmick, the fear was that WWE would ruin its Japanese business (The Wrestling Observer, May 03, 2004, p. 16). The original plan was to make Hirohito a major character, wrestling at the top of the card against the WWE Champion. Ironically, the WWE Champion at the time was Canadian, but they had changed his hometown to "now residing in Atlanta, Georgia, perhaps to capitalize on a Japanese vs. American dynamic.
He eventually debuted under his real name and languished on the mid-card, aside from a run as one-half of the tag team champions.
The character still demonstrated many Japanese stereotypes, even without being called Hirohito (see The Wrestling Observer, June 14, 2004, p. 1), but was widely regarded as a terrible wrestler, above all else (see The Wrestling Observer, June 21, 2004, p. 17). By the end of the year, the writer who proposed the Hirohito gimmick had been fired, with some speculating that his plans for that character may have been among the reasons for his termination (The Wrestling Observer, November 15, 2004, p. 11).
Current debate continues around a WWE character named Jimmy Wang Yang, a Japanese-American redneck character currently on Smackdown and playing with various Japanese stereotypes (see The Wrestling Observer, November 20, 2006, p. 17).