New Japan and Women’s Wrestling

With show after successful show in North America and the UK, and with gaijin superstar Kenny Omega winning the top title in the promotion, New Japan Pro Wrestling’s (NJPW) western expansion is truly in full swing. As WWE recently announced their first all-women’s show, the ‘King of Sports’ seems out of touch, for once, with many fans in the West.

Japanese wrestling has had a very different route through history than it has in North America. Wrestling itself was essentially always a bit of a sideshow in the US and, outside of the likes of Mildred Burke and June Byers, women’s wrestling was effectively a sideshow within a sideshow.  In Japan, however, while retaining an element of the sport’s carnival roots it was still very much viewed as a serious prospect in the mainstream. This can be seen by the massive television viewership Rikidozan matches had in the 1960s, and the fact that a lot more wrestlers have been successful in entering politics in Japan than they have in the US. If you accept these assumptions, the segregation of male & female wrestlers in most mainstream Japanese promotions becomes more understandable, at the very least: most combat sports – at least the ones comparable to pro wrestling in viewership – restricted women’s participation at the highest levels until relatively recently. Women’s boxing wasn’t admitted to the Olympics until 2012, and UFC didn’t put female fighters in a prominent position until late 2012/early 2013 with the signing & promotion of Ronda Rousey as a top star. And while yes, those sports existed on a comparatively smaller level, so did women’s wrestling in Japan.

How wrestling was viewed by the public also played an important role in the development of women’s wrestling in the two regions. In America, as putting women on the card was an attraction in and of itself, the quality of the wrestling didn’t necessarily need to be too high; while this might have been acceptable or passable in the 1960s, as time went on, and work-rate & intensity became more valuable, women’s wrestling didn’t progress as much as it did in Japan from the 1970s onward. While women like Manami Toyota were innovating in Japan, in the States the shadow cast by the Fabulous Moolah over women’s wrestling meant that the quality of the wrestling & the wrestlers remained almost universally low. This meant that women, largely, remained a sideshow in the US while being an entirely different, credible alternative to the major men’s companies in Japan.

Historically speaking, major wrestling promotions in Japan have remained tied to one gender or the other. Despite sharing some nomenclature, All Japan Women’s, arguably the most world renowned women’s promotion in history, was a completely separate promotion from the All Japan founded by Giant Baba, and women-only promotions (‘Joshi’) like Stardom, Sendai Girls and Ice Ribbon have popped up to fill the void left by All Japan Women’s’ closure in 2005. New Japan hasn’t been devoid of women in its past – Joanie ‘Chyna’ Laurer worked in the promotion in 2002, though she only wrestled men, and there have been female valets and managers throughout time, though their presentation in the product may not always have been the most progressive, oftentimes falling back on the same type of oversexualisation seen in mid-late 90s American wrestling.

In saying that, the differences between east and west weren’t always cut-and-dry: the majority of US promotions rarely featured women at all well up until the mid-late 80s, and even then their presentation on screen could be much worse than that of some valets in Japan today. I mean, Debra once won the WWF Women’s title by losing an evening gown match. And do I even need to go into how ECW used women? Japan, equally, wasn’t exclusively segregated by gender, as promotions like DDT and Hustle have had both men and women on their rosters at times. The case still stands, though, that in the majority of circumstances, representation for women was better in the US than in Japan simply by default, if nothing else.

But now, in 2018, women’s wrestling is at the forefront of the major promotions. While there have been great female wrestlers in the past – even during the doldrums that are the Attitude Era – this is the highest-profile women’s wrestling has ever been. No matter how cynical the reasoning behind the push of WWE’s “women’s evolution” might be, it is objectively the most a major company has banked on its women to not only put on a great show, but to also draw major PPV buys (or Network subscriptions). In this respect, New Japan is clearly lagging behind.

Full disclosure: I do believe that New Japan should feature women’s wrestling in some way, shape or form in the near future, but it’s not necessarily as black-and-white an issue as you may think.

I’ve already gone through a lot of the arguments in favour of NJPW introducing women’s wrestling in the product, mainly that it sticks out like a sore thumb in 2018, comes off as backwards to some, and is giving WWE an unopposed market to tap on a truly major level. I, personally, would also consider it the right thing to do, but you could argue that what’s right and what’s wrong is subjective. New Japan’s strength, both fiscally and with respect to popularity, has allowed guys like Juice Robinson to credibly say that they would never go to WWE, and surely they have some sort of responsibility to provide this option to the top female talent in the world of wrestling, an option that promotions like Pro Wrestling Eve just can’t provide on their own. It also would silence their critics and these calls of sexism, at least for a while. It benefits them in a practical way too: New Japan currently relies on big, essentially pointless multi-man tag matches to provide variety on the card, variety that could instead be provided by women.

I also believe there are practical short-term solutions that New Japan could implement within the next year. Unlike in most other (American, at least) promotions, New Japan’s championships aren’t branded with New Japan’s name – they’re named after the fictional IWGP governing body. This means that the prospect of a women’s title in New Japan is an easier pill to swallow for detractors to the idea. New Japan could mint an IWGP Women’s championship tomorrow, and have it defended on ‘independent’ shows in Japan and in their sister companies like ROH and CMLL. This avoids one of the main issues often brought up in the conversation – that New Japan’s roster is already far too bloated to even support the titles & roster it has at the moment, and that there’s no space for the 8-12 women needed for a credible division to prosper. New Japan doesn’t have a narrative week-to-week show like the WWE have, so they could, credibly, only have the women show up on one show a month, and if a title change has happened they can use footage from the relevant promotion. Think how the NWA World’s Heavyweight Title is used now – Nick Aldis appears on everything from Championship Wrestling from Hollywood to Ring of Honor to ALL IN, and it doesn’t devalue the ‘10 Pounds of Gold‘ by him not being consistently represented by one promotion. New Japan could also marry their financial power with the talent pools of promotions like Stardom to keep talent away from WWE while providing a highly-skilled professional opposition. This is a positive from a talent prospective too, as having two competitive sides with deep pockets means more power for them when negotiating their pay.

As mentioned above, it’s not as clear an issue as it might seem; promotions like Stardom mightn’t want to be seen as New Japan’s little buddy, and probably want to retain their own total autonomy when booking their shows and their talent. The model I proposed above is definitely just a band-aid – a stop-gap – and both New Japan and the fans may not like it enough for it to progress to being a more full-time solution. The idea itself isn’t necessarily perfect: double standards, no matter how well intended, are still double standards, and if the women’s talent brought in aren’t to a comparable standard in the ring (an issue which has affected the success of ROH’s women’s division) it could negatively affect the perception of women’s wrestling as a whole. Indeed, if New Japan themselves aren’t fully behind the idea, and the booking of the division is poor, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy, a venture always doomed to fail.

It could also jeopardise one major advantage New Japan have over WWE, and that’s the believability of their champions. Some believe that by adding more belts you devalue the ones you already have. And while that’s true, to some extent, how much value would really be lost by dropping the NEVER Openweight Six-man titles (and how much prestige was taken away from the World or Tag Team titles) versus how much value could be added by introducing a women’s title? I genuinely don’t know who has those titles at the moment, and I doubt a majority of you do either (it’s the Young Bucks and Marty Scurll, by the way).

One of the most common arguments against New Japan adding women to its roster is a cultural one, that Japanese wrestling has always been this way. And while that’s essentially true, it’s not a good argument against future change, it’s an explanation for why it hasn’t happened already. When speaking about a different culture one needs to tread lightly (and not being Japanese this is a different culture I’m discussing), but I don’t think it’s as cultural as people have been professing it is. Women weren’t included in the upper echelons of mixed-martial arts, and this was seen as an institutional fact, to the point that Dana White once said that women would never fight in the UFC. Within a year of Dana White saying that he announced Ronda Rousey as the inaugural women’s bantamweight champion, and after her six year career in UFC she recently became the first woman to be inducted into their Hall of Fame. Unshakable truths aren’t always as everlasting as they might seem.

At the end of everything, I still believe New Japan should introduce a women’s division. From an ideological standpoint it’s the right thing to do, and from a business standpoint it’s also the right thing to do if they want to properly tackle WWE in the long-term. It’s not an easy decision for Harold Meij & the New Japan office to make, but it’s arguably the right one to make for the future of their company, and the future of wrestling.

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