Section 1- Important Results & This Week’s Title Matches
NOAH- They ran the Tokyo Nippon Budokan on Friday night, with three title defenses. All champions retained; Kanemaru over Low Ki, Misawa/Ogawa over Saito/Inoue, and Kobashi over Taue with the mighty Burning Hammer. The latter was said to be very heated, and left fans pleased despite some worries that Taue was seen as inferior to Kobashi and thus not an interesting challenger.
New Japan- Jado & Gedo defended the junior heavyweight tag titles against Ultimo Dragon and Ultimo’s top young student Taiji Ishimori. The only title match remaining in the current New Japan tour is Ultimo challenging Heat for the junior singles title on Thursday, with Heat nearly a mortal lock to retain.
Section 2- Other news
All Japan- A number one contender’s match between Taiyo Kea and Kensuke Sasaki has been booked for next week. Kea is the favorite due to his being involved in a ‘belt stealing’ angle with Kawada. The Triple Crown match will take place at the end of October. What makes this especially newsworthy is Sasaki being scheduled to face Fujita for New Japan’s IWGP title, after the match with Kea but before the possible match with Kawada. If Sasaki loses to Kea before losing to Fujita, it’s a coup for All Japan. If Sasaki beats Kea then All Japan will look foolish, as Fujita is considered a mortal lock to beat Sasaki, and Sasaki would look weak heading into his match with Kawada. Meanwhile, Satoshi Kojima looks to be on the verge of a long streak of singles matches with midcard wrestlers in order to build momentum for a title shot down the line.
NOAH- Former Toryumon wrestler SUWA appeared at their big show on Friday and made a challenge for the junior tag titles held by Marufuji & KENTA. SUWA would team with Mexican high-flier Ricky Marvin, who has already fallen short in two title challenges. SUWA joins Low Ki as another high-profile addition to the very talented juniors roster in NOAH.
As for GHC champion Kenta Kobashi, his next challenger is already a dead man walking. The three named as possibilities are Akitoshi Saito, Mike “Gladiator” Awesome, and Rick Steiner. Saito has lost every high-profile singles match in his career, Awesome has done nothing in Japan for some time, and Steiner is Steiner. The reason for having yet another Kobashi title defense after such a long reign already is so that he beats Yuji Nagata’s record of 10 title defenses of a modern heavyweight title (Triple Crown, GHC, IWGP). His defense after that would almost certainly be against someone credible, though who Misawa has left is a pretty big question.
New Japan- They announced their card for their biggest show in October, taking place on the 9th in Tokyo Sumo Hall. Fujita vs Sasaki was made official, as was Tenzan’s participation in a match with a shootfighter (probably Josh Barnett). Tenzan will win that and go on to challenge for the IWGP at New Japan’s big Osaka Dome show in November. Also on the 10/9 card is Nagata vs Chono, two of New Japan’s top names going at it for the third time this year (they’ve traded wins). In an interesting development, they’ve booked the Tokyo Sumo Hall for early November, before the Osaka Dome show. These are back-to-back big shows of unprecedented scale, and it will be nearly impossible for them to assemble good enough cards to have a success at both venues in such a short span. What’s more, there are several other shows at 5,000+ seat venues in the second half of October. They’re laying a lot on the line.
Zero-One- They ran a show on Sunday that was headlined by Shinjiro Ohtani defeating Masato Tanaka, further securing Ohtani’s position as a top name in the company during Hashimoto’s absence. In related news, Goldberg has been booked for the HUSTLE-6 show. HUSTLE is a ‘sports entertainment’ (re: more like ’80s WWF with whacky gimmicks) federation run by shootfighting promotion PRIDE. It’s heavily tied to Zero-One, but also uses some All Japan talent, notably Kawada. I’ll be putting HUSTLE news in the Zero-One section.
Section 3- Introductions
There’s a fairly uniform set of things that occur before a match in Japan, and it varies slightly from what we’re used to among big US feds. Watching Japanese wrestling for the first time can be confusing if you don’t know the little rituals. It starts with the standard introduction and entrance theme playing. By and large there isn’t a video screen to play an ‘entrance video’ or some such thing. If there’s no entrance ramp the wrestler will come down the aisle, with young wrestlers clearing the way if fans are swarming nearby. Once in the ring the wrestlers are patted down for weapons, even in feds where weapon use is exceedingly rare. Then comes the more extended in-ring introduction.
Each wrestler has a corner, either red (aka) or blue (ao), like in boxing or shootfighting. The Japanese even use ‘corner’, though it’s pronounced ‘co-nah’. The weight is given, and since maybe two of you reading this know Japanese numbers (I sure don’t), that part will come as a blur. When the wrestler is announced at this point, fans may throw streamers (especially for upper-tier matches). Streamers have been a tradition in Japanese wrestling for decades. Often times there are so many that it completely clogs the ring, and once more it’s the duty of young wrestlers to clear it up. The last person announced is the referee. Current All Japan referee Kyohei Wada is notable here, because All Japan fans have taken to yelling his name (Kyo-Hei!) when he’s introduced.
Section 4- Tours, geography and venues
Just two federations have had the resources to tour North America in the last while, those being WWF/WWE and WCW. Before then it was a network of smaller local federations, because it’s very hard to cover such vast distances (especially west of the Mississippi). The same does not hold in Japan, which packs 130 million people into a space the size of California. Touring all the major regions is something at least a handful of promotions have done for some time now. As for the tours, there’s a big difference from what we see in the big North American federations.
There is no particular tour in WWE, for instance, because they run shows year-round. In Japan there are breaks ranging from 10 to 25 days between the tours, giving wrestlers time to rest. Because Japanese federations have limited mainstream TV time, they tape several weeks worth of shows on every tour in order to cover the downtime. Most tours have no particular meaning, though some are associated with tournaments such as All Japan’s Champions Carnival and New Japan’s G-1 Climax. Finally, because there are only a few big cities in Japan, very few large venues are run. In North America there are dozens and dozens of 8-15 thousand seat venues, one for every relevant city. In Japanese tours, the average house show is in a venue seating under 2,000.
Japan is divided into Prefectures. Big wrestling shows only ever occur in six of the largest eight of these. Here are those six, along with the related venues.
Hyogo- Located in the west of the country. Its largest city is Kobe, home to Kobe World Hall. This building is notable as the site of large shows for Toryumon/Dragons Gate, which was started by Ultimo Dragon and is staffed by his students. New Japan and NOAH have struggled to fill the building in recent years. Another big building is the Amagasaki Memorial Park Gymnasium, which has seen some big matches over the years.
Hokkaido- This covers the northern ‘head’ of Japan. It features the Sapporo Dome (rarely used in wrestling) and the Tsukisamu Green Dome, which is run several times a year by NOAH and New Japan.
Aichi- Located in the western portion of the ‘body’ of Japan. Its largest building, the Nagoya Dome, is hardly ever used by wrestling. However, the Nagoya Rainbow Hall and Aichi Prefectural Gym are both sites of a couple big shows every year.
Kanagawa- Part of the massive Tokyo metro area in the center of Japan’s southern coast, which also includes the Saitama and Chiba prefectures. Kanagawa is the third largest prefecture and as such sees some major shows. The Kawasaki Stadium, its big venue, isn’t used much of late. In the ’90s it saw supershows for hardcore feds like FMW. Yokohama Arena has seen many large wrestling shows over the years, as has the smaller Yokohama Bunka Gym.
Osaka- Also in the west, near Hyogo. The Osaka Dome, which New Japan is using this November, doesn’t see much use in wrestling. Neither does the Osaka Castle Hall. However, the Osaka Prefectural Gym is one of the five most important venues in Japan, and is regularly used. The tiny Osaka Delfin Arena is home to Osaka Pro, and also gets used by other small promotions.
Tokyo- Largest city in Asia. Largest non-third world city by quite a large margin. It is the heart of Japan and as such the heart of Japanese wrestling. The Tokyo Egg Dome is a staple of New Japan, and has also been used by All Japan and NOAH over the years. It hasn’t been legitimately sold out in years due to a decline in business. What has seen sell-outs is the Nippon Budokan, long the home of All Japan (and now vital to NOAH). The Budokan has also been used in a few ‘Live in Tokyo’ albums by major musicians. Ryogoku Kokugikan, or the Sumo Hall, is a centerpiece of New Japan (especially the G-1 tour) and the ‘big show’ venue for Zero-One. Tokyo Ariake Colliseum and Tokyo Differ Ariake are usually associated with NOAH, the latter being NOAH’s proverbial mothership. Yoyogi National Stadium Gym #2 is a commonly used mid-range building, and has been especially important for All Japan of late. But there’s one venue in Tokyo, nay, all of Japan, nay, all the world that stands out as THE home of pro wrestling.
Tokyo Korakuen Hall. Its closest counterpart could be said to be Philadelphia’s Viking Hall, aka. the ECW Arena, but Korakuen is more notable by far. It’s been a part of virtually every tour by every major promotion going back years and years. It’s also a ‘big’ venue for literally dozens of independents, some of which rely entirely on Korakuen for survival. Korakuen crowds are generally the hottest in Japan as far as getting into every match, they house the most die-hard wrestling fanatics, and yet unlike small shows in North America there isn’t a big problem with loud hecklers who can spoil the fun. You won’t see the major heavyweight titles defended here, but anything else can and does happen there.
One last thing that’s important to note about when Japanese feds run ‘big’ shows is that TV networks pay for whatever building is being used for a taping. The network gets ad revenue, the federation gets ticket sales. While it’s only done within reason (ie. Tokyo Dome only used 1-3 times a year), this does reduce a lot of the risk held by the promoters. New Japan, with the most TV tapings, is able to run far more large shows every year and thus sell more tickets (which in turn allows for the biggest payroll).
Next Week: Kayfabe and the Japanese media, more news/results, and some more of the things that are standard in Japan but might seem strange outside of it.