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


The WWE has continually attempted to balance its domestic product with an attempt to maintain and foster an international appeal, especially at a time in which numbers are down from a late 1990s popularity boom for the company in the U.S. However, taking an international audience in mind raises new questions about the business dangers of relying on old stereotypes, as the WWE's change of heart regarding the Hirohito character demonstrates.

Meanwhile, the Japanese audience has to balance its desire for an authentic American product with a desire to see that product tweaked in some ways for the interests of a Japanese audience. Should matches be conducted in the colorful "American" style or the more traditional serious athletic Japanese style? Fans seem to expect an authentic American product that nevertheless acknowledges the "Japanese-ness" of its audience at points, and WWE has tried to find ways to balance the American stereotypes of U.S. pro wrestling's past with a transnational audience.

To return to the quandary posed at the beginning of this study, that moment when fans asked Shane McMahon to kick the Japanese interpreter from the ring, one inclination might be to say that it proves the cultural imperialism of the WWE, internalizing a desire for another culture's language. However, as James L. Watson points out in Golden Arches East, the outward appearance of globalization must be distinguished from the meaning that people attribute to that product.

The WWE's rise in popularity may well be ascribed to its very Americanness and the Japanese desire to learn more about the "meat" of American culture and a product not attuned to their interests but presented as authentically American, as the concept of pop cosmopolitanism might indicate.

In this case, while the fans enjoy winks at their culture, they desire a product that does not attempt to replace WWE legends with Japanese pro wrestlers or sumo stars--they want to see an American wrestling show as if they were an American audience, to experience some aspect of "American-ness" through an American media product. The idea here is one of "cultural fragrance," not "cultural odor," where the authentic American product is what is sought out, not a desire to make the show more Japanese. For more on such concepts see, Koichi Iwabuchi's "How 'Japanese' Is Pokemon?" from the 2004 book Pikachu's Global Adventure.

While this cannot be substantiated without the ability for ethnographic evidence to back this claim up, the pop cosmopolitan theory does seem to help explain the Japanese fervor for an American wrestling product. The pop cosmopolitan approach to understanding Japanese fandom of the WWE may also serve to explain its waning in popularity with more regular shows in Japan.

The uniqueness of attending an American wrestling show wears off when fans have the chance to see it more and more often. Further, with the loss of a major media outlet in the country distributing their product, the WWE is at a disadvantage in reaching less hardcore wrestling fans and fostering a desire from pop cosmopolitans for American entertainment.

As Iderpal Grewal points out in "Traveling Barbie: Indian Transnationality and New Consumer Subjects," "the influence of global media, made possible by the presence of media conglomerates and their local affiliates," are key in providing the channels by which fans become connected with this content. With the chance to reach casual fans stripped away, the WWE is left with only the hardcore Japanese wrestling fans who seek out WWE programming as part of their interest in pro wrestling in general, as opposed to the pop cosmopolitans who make the difference between six-figure and seven-figure gates. As Dave Meltzer said, "Two tours a year is too much. People want to see it once a year or every two years. It's an American novelty" (personal interview).

Understanding the way the WWE and Japanese fans have fostered this arrangement answers the call of anthropologist Ian Condry in his 2006 book Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization, to find a way to understand "how the forces driving new cultural styles emerge from the interaction among diverse actors--media industries, artists, fans, writers, and so on--in a way that requires grasping the connections (rather than oppositions) between culture industries on one hand, and creative artists and active fans on the other" (2).

This process of pop cosmopolitanism and examining these cultural flows through the financial success of these shows helps flesh out the active ways in which Japanese fans and the WWE have constructed this transnational relationship and how it has evolved in a four-year period. What this process shows is that globalization, for all parties concerned, is far from a passive enterprise and that Japanese fans are very discerning consumers of American pro wrestling, desiring authenticity yet respect, novelty yet familiarity, and, above all, an entertaining show.