In the process of talking to various puro-focused personalities online, I somehow neglected to pick the brain of the man who started the ur-website that remains a great resource today, puroresu.com. Our email back-and-forth produced quite a bit more than I expected it to! The conversation stretched over a month, as things like the disaster in Japan and the birth of his first child understandably took priority over the Q&A.
Q: When and where were you born?
A: 1971 in a rural area of northern Hiroshima Prefecture. I came to the US in 1987 when I was 16. Barely spoke English. Since my hometown was very small and I wasn’t from a rich family, I never had a chance to attend live wrestling cards before I came to the US. Kind of embarassing, isn’t it? I went to only one All Japan card. I don’t go back to Japan that often.
Q: How did you become a pro wrestling fan?
A: I always knew who Baba, Inoki, Tsuruta, Abdullah, Mascaras, and Destroyer were even when I was only 5 or 6. That’s how famous those guys were. However, All Japan moved from 8pm on Saturdays to a late night spot around that time. I was able to catch a tag team match involving Mascaras & Dos Caras just once right before the time change. My hometown didn’t have the station that carried New Japan until the summer of 1980. I was only a 4th grade then. One Friday night, I was watching a weekly cartoon at 7pm. Then, I continued to watch another show, a drama for kids, at 7:30pm. I had no idea what would come up next at 8pm. That was the first time I saw the guys like Inoki and Fujinami on TV. I got into it right away.
Q: When you moved to the US, did you quickly start buying tapes? Did you buy from people Japan, or mostly from traders in the US?
A: I knew no wrestling fans in the US in my first few years here. I could barely speak English. I didn’t even know tape trading was so popular back then. Luckily, my mother often sent me videos from Japan. Also, whenever I went home during vacations, there were always few friends who had many tapes ready for me to take back to the US. So, I didn’t have to miss much.
Q: Did you really coin the word ‘puroresu’ online? I was told that katakana for ‘pu-ro-re-su’ has been regularly used in Japan, but I can imagine that sort of thing wouldn’t easily become known overseas.
A: Did I "coin" it? Maybe not, because, as you said, it was commonly used in Japan. Did I make it popular online? Let’s see…
Around 1990, I started using so-called (pre-internet) "online services", such as CompuServe and Prodigy. Each service had a pro-wrestling forum. Back then, Wrestling Observer was the main source of the news from Japan for American fans, but Meltzer confused the readers with the facts and his own opinions. While he praised the Japanese wrestling, his view was more like just another American watching Japanese matches only for so-called "workrate". He shared reviews on Japanese matches, completely ignoring the cultural aspect of the country. His cult followers claimed he was the expert on Japanese wrestling when he didn’t even understand the angles and interviews let alone the language. He probably has good news sources nowadays (I don’t know because I stopped reading his stuff in the mid-1990s), but back then, his stuff was usually like, "my friend in Japan told me this, so it must be true". And, there were of course those who would say to me, "Your opinion on Japanese stuff is different from Meltzer, so you must be wrong." That really bothered me.
So, I wanted to provide my own perspective as someone who was a native to Japan and understood its culture to enjoy its style of pro-wrestling. I used to get some heat for that because I was trying to get to the point that Japanese pro-wrestling was (well, at least it was back then) more realistic than its American counterpart (cartoonish WWF; GLOW; Horsemen doing a promo with a mannequin?). You now, it was before the internet became common, and the world wasn’t as small as it is today. There were many people who couldn’t stand someone like me. There were guys who supported me, however, including Dave Scherer, who was active just about everywhere online, and Jeff Rubin.
Anyway, I got an access to the internet around that time (1990 or 1991) because I was a computer science student. Back then, the access to the internet was limited to certain people, such as college students in cetain programs , IT/telecomm company employees, etc. Even Microsoft didn’t yet have a website. I became active on the RSPW newsgroup, and continued to provide information on Japanese pro-wrestling with my poor English. Around the same time, Katz Kawai, who was in a Ph.D program at Univ. of Texas in Austin, became active on the newsgroup. He didn’t like Meltzer’s views with a different reason from mine. We kinda got together to help the English-speaking wrestling fans to understand how "we" enjoyed the Japanese pro-wrestling. Before we knew, we were using the word "puroresu". However, Dr. Kawai started using other words in Japanese when I thought he didn’t need to (e.g. "puroresuraa" for pro-wrestlers, etc.). I stuck to "puroresu" only.
Of course, there were people who didn’t know how to pronounce the word, including Meltzer. I guess they were trying to pronounce it like an English word (pure-oh-ree-soo, or something like that). So, did I make the word popular? I don’t want to take any credit for something I didn’t do, but for this, I proudly say "yes". If you ask this question to any English-speaking puroresu fan who was active online in the early 1990s, my name should pop up…whether it’s Dave Scherer of PWInsider or "grapsfan", a famous online poker player. David Lagana, a former WWE writer might remember me for that too.
Q: How did you put together all the information in your history section?
A: I was a double major in Computer Science and History. I don’t remember much of what I studied at college, but I do like studying history especially for something I’m interested in (wrestling, music, etc.). Besides, title histories were always my passion since I was in elementary school. Sources of the history section of puroresu.com are Japanese books, magazines, websites, mailing lists, correspondents in Japan and the US, etc. For Wrestling-Titles.com, newspaper sites such as NYTimes.com, Google News, and NewspaperArchive.com have been my main sources recently.
(I highly recommend him for historical data, especially going beyond 'big event' results that most sites are limited to for pre-2000.)
Q: Are there things about Japan/ puroresu that you think westerners have a hard time understanding?
A: Oh, where should I start…
I believe any form of entertainment is heavily influenced by the culture of that particular country. You probably can’t enjoy puroresu as much as people in Japan do unless you know the language and culture of Japan. Not just the certain aspects of the matches, but also broadcasting style, angles, interviews, the way media covers the angles/matches, etc. I believe the same goes to lucha libre. Even in the U.S. and Canada, pro-wrestling used to have different style in each territory.
When Rikidōzan opened the JWA dojo, he brought a lot of customs and "undocumented rules" from sumō, which was based heavily on the "nenkō joretsu" (seniority-wage system) and what we call "taiikukaikei" (sport team system/mentality) of Japan. Unless you understand these two, plus the stronger hierarchical society, it may be very difficult to fully enjoy puroresu. Even I have difficulty explaining them to non-Japanese sometimes. I believe these factors had a huge impact on the popularity of the feud between Fujinami and Chōshū, Tsuruta and Misawa, and Misawa and Kawada, as well as the promotional rivalry between Inoki and Baba.
I’ve been SLOWLY working on my PuroresuWiki and planning to add more to the Glossary of Japanese terms category so that I can provide some more cultural/social info in order to help others understanding puroresu better.
(I'll add that the 'seniority wage' applies even to indy workers. Zero1 Matt mentioned to me that someone like Men's Teioh would cost vastly more than a current junior-heavyweight like Madoka, despite Teioh never having been a mainstream star.)
Q: Have you had much contact with fans / message boards in Japan? English-speakers have almost no idea of what ‘smart’ Japanese fans think.
A: Yes, but we usually don’t like completely breaking kayfabe among the fans either. Well, at least in my generation…
Here’s a big difference between Japanese and Americans. I believe this has something to do with the last question too. Let me over-generalize a little bit. Americans want to make everything clear even when they don’t need to. They have to take sides on every freaking thing which exists on this planet. On the other hand, Japanese like making things blurred even when they have to make up their minds to draw a clear line. If you try to make everything clear, they think you don’t belong there. I’m not saying which society is better or worse. Just a difference of the culture.
Many Japanese fans enjoy discussing puroresu like it’s a real sport by keeping the things blurred. I guess you can say it’s the suspension of disbelief. Of course, things have changed over the years due to UWF/MMA and the infamous books by Peter Takahashi. There are, however, still some message boards whose rules prohibit breaking kayfabe in the discussions. Of course, there are ones in which people enjoy acting like ‘smarts’, but they seem to be younger generation. Let’s say, it’s something like "yeah, we know that, but why do you have to mention that when we are enjoying it just fine?"
Q: Maybe this is something you didn’t deal with much in rural areas, but… why is there so much tolerance of yakuza activity in such a clean, orderly society like Japan? That is what I am most confused about.
A: Good question. I wonder why too. But then, I wonder if Japan is really "a clean, orderly society". Eh, maybe compared to the US, it probably is. There is one thing I’ve been wondering, however. As bad as the existence of yakuza is, Japan might have had higher crime rate, especially in the individual level, without yakuza. Unlike the US, drugs and guns are controlled by yakuza. What if yakuza didn’t exist? There may have been a lot more "ordinary" people committing crimes. Again, I’m just wondering and hypothetically speaking here.
(While the yakuza does mete out harsh justice to 'unauthorized' criminals, I strongly doubt crime would increase in their absence. The social and cultural factors so often related to crime in the US aren't present in Japan.)
Q: It seems clear that Japanese fans believed wrestling was real when it started, and now they all know it isn’t. Here in the US, goofy gimmicks and a hostile press exposed kayfabe decades ago. Did anything specific happen to break kayfabe in Japan?
A: Similar to the US, there were always people who criticized it for being "fake", all the way back to the Rikidōzan-Kimura match. Still, I believe the ratio of people who believed it was "real" over those who thought the otherwise was much higher in Japan. As far as I know, major papers such as Mainichi, Asahi, and Yomiuri haven’t covered puroresu results since the Rikidōzan era. All sports papers still do, however.
In modern day history, the biggest impact was probably the second version of UWF, which would eventually evolved into the MMA in Japan. I still don’t think that was the biggest reason for the decline of puroresu popularity. I believe the failure to create a true crossover star was as much as the UWF/MMA if not more. After all, we haven’t had a real star since Inoki and Baba.
(To expand on the UWF point, quite often shoot-style wrestlers would call other promotions 'fake', and they tended to be strict about keeping pro-style off their shows as much as possible. UWFi lost a lot of its credibility when they started having matches with New Japan, WAR, and even using Abdullah the Butcher, leading to the promotion's demise at the end of 1996.)
Q: Why did ‘gaijin’ remain such an important part of puroresu, even after WW2-related hostility faded? Was it about having enough great foreign wrestlers so that Japanese promotions would be seen as world-class?
A: I wouldn’t say "world-class"; to this day, neither All Japan nor New Japan has recognized its own version of the "world heavyweight champion". They never claimed to be the top of the world (although in the eyes of many fans, they really were). But at least they meant to be "international". Also, having gaijins would provide more variety in the bookings. I believe Rikidōzan set a pattern by bringing different gaijins for each "series" (tours), having them beat the prelims and mid-carders just to get beaten by Rikidōzan at the end of the tour. That way, those gaijins can always have a fresh comeback to Japan several months later. Usually, the gaijins were heels and Japanese were hometown heroes. This style continued until the mid-1980s.
So, what changed? It’s hard to pick one factor. Between the late-1970s and the early 1980s, some gaijins became so popular that they could no longer be booked as the heels (the Funks, Mascaras, Backlund, Steamboat, Hogan etc.). Still, they were always "gaijins" anyway. The rise of Riki Chōshū in the early 1980s brought the hot feuds among the Japanese natives and showed a possibility that the promotions may not always have to rely on the gaijin talents.
Another thing was the national expansions by WWF and JCP in the US, which limited the gaijin stars available to Japan. Both companies always wanted to keep their top stars on their own tours, and the guys who used to wrestle in Japan could no longer be there. The so-called "world" champions stopped defending their titles outside their companies. On the other hand, some gaijin talents who were not signed by WWF or JCP (or decided not to) started wrestling in Japan almost every series. This might have lessened the line between the natives and gaijins. For example, some Japanese guys started teaming with gaijins regularly (Tenryū & Hansen, Kobashi & Johnny Ace).
One more thing. This may be just my opinion. At least in puroresu (not in lucha libre or American style), the best match between two Japanese is always better than the best match between a Japanese and a gaijin. I think those great feuds among the natives in the 1980s and 1990s showed that.
(I'm with him in preferring Japan vs Japan to Japan vs Gaijin, but I think it might have been different had there not been the gaijin talent squeeze that so changed things as the '80s and '90s progressed.)
Q: Was wrestling from the US widely watched in Japan? I know it has aired in Japan in one form or another for a long time, but it’s hard to tell whether it was really that important.
A: I don’t think so, at least not in the pre-internet days. Magazines always had coverage on the wrestling scenes from North America, but in terms of the video footages, not much. New Japan and All Japan often showed matches from other countries especially when Japanese stars toured in those countries or NWA World Heavyweight Title was changed hands, but that was about it. Once a while, they might show a TV studio squash involving the wrestler(s) who would come to Japan for the first time, but it was rare. TV Tokyo, a minor network, used to air a weekly show in the 1980s featuring the cards from North America, but it didn’t last long. The show also brought the controversies because they often showed the regulars of New Japan or All Japan and brought conflicts with other networks that had contracts with those promotions.
Q: Did you start watching US pro wrestling after you moved in ’87? If so, how did you feel it compared to Japan?
A: I couldn’t wait watching the US wrestling. As soon as I got here, I checked the TV Guide and looked for it. What a total disappointment it was. Immediately, I was embarrassed to admit that I was a wrestling fan. We were always told that the US was the "mecca" of pro-wrestling. Historically it was, and maybe it still was then and is today.
But imagine this. Here I am, growing up watching more realistic stuff from the early 1980s in Japan where it was treated more as a sport compared to the US, and what did I get? The infamous mid-1980s cartoony WWF, GLOW, etc. All the free TV shows were filled with squashes and interviews, which meant nothing to someone like me who didn’t speak much of English. Plus, some of those shows were taped at small TV studios, which was unbelievable to someone like me who was so used to watch arena cards broadcasted live on TV. Looked so cheap. Well, it was the late 1980s, and wrestling in this country was already something to laugh about anyway…
Speaking of the interviews, it is another big difference between Japan and the US. In Japan, we had a belief that real warriors show what they have in actions but not in talking. It changed over the years, but traditionally, samurai should keep their mouth shut. Here in the US, fighters had to talk before they actually show what they were supposed to do. Most of the time, they talked way too much AFTER the match when they were supposed to have fought tough matches and be too tired to talk. It took some time for me to realize that’s just a difference in the cultures.
Similarly, another cultural difference was the gestures and reactions. I’ve heard some people say Japanese were boring/bland, but to us, Americans are over-reacting and loud. Soon after I came to this country, I learned that that’s how Americans were, but I couldn’t connect that to pro-wrestling for a while and kept wondering why they had to talk too much before, during, and after the matches with a lot of facial expressions like they went insane. Again, I had to learn that’s how Americans are in general. Until I got better idea and sense of the language and culture of this country, I never knew what was so great about Ric Flair. I still don’t think he is the greatest, but now I understand why he is/was so popular here (I guess he was a great worker, but to many Japanese fans, he didn’t look very realistic, especially compared to other world champs such as Race and Bockwinkel) and eventually became a fan myself.
Q: Have you watched US wrestling much in the modern era (ie. after 1997)?
A: Yes. I enjoyed some of the WWF Attitude Era as well as the early nWo stuff. I still do watch RAW and Impact! if I’m home on Monday or Thursday nights (rarely home on Friday nights because I go to a weekly prayer meeting at church). Never ordered PPVs from WWF or TNA, though. I’ve been to some indy shows around here too. ROH, PWS, JAPW, Dragon Gate, NYSWF (holds benefit shows in my neighborhood once every few years), etc. I also run a regional wrestling website that covers many promotions around NYC.
In the 1990s, I was a big fan of Ric Flair and Chris Benoit. I like Alberto del Rio, but again, I don’t watch Smackdown! that often. I liked Bryan Danielson in ROH and other indies, but he seemed to have toned down (or forced to be?) in WWE.
Q: Any Japanese Matches/promotions/wrestlers (from the past) you think deserve more attention?
A: I think IWE deserves more recognition. It was the first promotion in Japan that used the entrance music, booked death matches, and sent its wrestlers to sambo training. In Japan, it is popular among the older fans, but it doesn’t appear that way in other countries. Of course, if you compare their stuff to ECW or CZW, it’s probably boring. We are talking about the 1970s, however. They were very innovative. What wrestling promotion in the 1970s can be famous for the traditional technical style of Europe AND the death matches such as steel cage and indian strap?
Also, there are several people who tried to take credit for discovering Andre the Giant, who left Europe and moved to Canada in 1970. In fact, thanks to IWE, he had already started getting attention in Japan before that. I believe Billy Robinson and Tony Charles found a way to the US through IWE as well.
(IWE had very little footage survive and make its way to the tape traders. In recent years several DVD sets were released in Japan, and as those have circulated they show what Hisa is talking about. They had the hardcore/bloodshed element, but also some cutting-edge action from wrestlers like Mighty Inoue and Animal Hamaguchi.)
Q: How big was joshi in the ’70s-’80s relative to NJ and AJ? It’s clear that AJW was very successful but it’s hard to compare.
A: Yes, it is hard to compare. Remember, it was all about All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling, which had the monopoly in the joshi scene between the late 1960s and 1986, except when IWE briefly had a women’s division between 1974 and 1976.
As you probably know, girls were forced to retire at 28 or 29 back then. They had very short careers. That made the popularity of joshi puroresu always temporary (I guess this is the answer to your question). They had Mach Fumiake, who was the first crossover star from joshi puroresu, having hit records and singing at the wrestling cards, between 1974 and 1976. She set the precedence to the teen idols who would follow her later, such as the Beauty Pair (Jackie Sato & Maki Ueda) of the late 1970s and the Crush Gals (Lioness Asuka & Chigusa Nagayo) of the mid-1980s. These five are really the only crossover stars from the joshi puroresu in those decades (Jaguar Yokota became popular several years ago due to her story of post-40 pregnancy). I’m not sure if they had any significant star at all since then. None to my knowledge anyway.
Another thing is that All Japan Women’s had the TV show in an irregular basis. They had a weekly show in the mid-1980s, but it didn’t last long.
(By 'significant star', he refers to mainstream/pop culture figures. Wrestlers like Aja Kong and Manami Toyota were only known by pro wrestling fans.)
My thanks to Mr. Tanabe for his voluminous replies! I expect to return to him in the future when I'm researching puroresu history.