Turning Japanese: First Impressions of New Japan Pro Wrestling

Jamie Lithgow

It is said that more and more wrestling fans from outside Japan are gravitating towards New Japan Pro Wrestling, and I am one of them. Having exclusively watched American professional wrestling for most of my life I have held a NJPW World subscription for almost six months now. Today I share my first impressions of NJPW, what I like, what I don’t like, what is different and what is the same when compared to WWE.

To apply some context, I am 33 years old and have been a fan of wrestling ever since I was a kid. Like most people my age, if you like wrestling then WWE is probably what you grew up on. I did also partake in a healthy dose of WCW while dabbling with ECW and ROH. Over the last two or three years I have gradually turned away from WWE, for reasons that could probably fill another post. Having all but turned off from WWE completely, in January I decided that I’d give NJPW a shot to see what it was like.

As a reformed ‘smark’ – I hope I’m reformed anyway – I already had a basic understanding of Japanese wrestling. I’d heard of Shinsuke Nakamura before he arrived in NXT, check me out! However, other than the previous years’ Wrestle Kingdom, I had never actually watched an entire NJPW show before January 4th 2018. So, rather than obtain an illegal download of the show – which I would never do, obviously – I signed up for New Japan’s version of the WWE Network, NJPW World, with the expectation that I’d watch Wrestle Kingdom and probably cancel my subscription before my second month began.

First Impressions

Like many new fans, the first show of my NJPW World subscription was a Tokyo Dome show and what a show it was. Wrestle Kingdom is often referred to as the Japanese version of Wrestlemania, and rightly so. The elaborate entrances, giant set, massive crowd and sheer length of the show are all comparative. There’s even a pre-show battle royal for the guys not booked on the main show. This type of grandeur is not the norm though. Pretty much every other show is held in a fairly modest, by WWE standards, venue. Korakuen Hall appears to be NJPW’s home arena and it doesn’t even have a proper entrance for the wrestlers. It very much reminds me a slightly nicer version of the ECW Arena. One of the immediate differences for me, however, was the first thing that strikes many a western fan; the quietness of the fans. In reality, Japanese crowds act exactly like me when I’m at a show i.e. they sit quietly and enjoy the action but make a bit of noise for the big spots or when the match reaches a climax. There’s no duelling chants or fans trying to draw attention to themselves in NJPW. The fat also appears to have been trimmed compared to Wrestlemania too. Wrestle Kingdom was wall to wall wrestling matches, with every New Japan Title being defended. There seemed to be no time for musical performances, fireworks, celebrity guests, in-ring promos or backstage skits. This carries through into every other NJPW show too. In my six-ish months of watching I have yet to see a single backstage segment and could count on my fingers the number of in-ring promos I’ve heard. Speaking of hearing things, it makes sense to address the language barrier here.

The Language Barrier

For the big shows (and some smaller ones too) we get English commentary provided by former WWE announcer Kevin Kelly. On the odd occasion we get Jim Ross, but that’s only happened once while I’ve been watching. Kelly is usually joined by a colour commentator, usually Don ‘The Jackyl/Cyrus’ Callis. So, with these shows there is no language barrier, in fact the English commentary is really rather good. For some of the smaller shows there is no English commentary, so this does take a bit of getting used to. While I don’t understand what the Japanese announcers are saying I can still pick up the cadence of their speech so can, at least, understand the emotion they are trying to convey. Thankfully, most of the matches are of a good enough quality to hold my attention despite not being able to understand the commentators. Also, wrestling is a physical thing. The wrestlers communicate using their body language so it’s easy to follow the story of the matches. Granted I do prefer having the English commentary, but not understanding the Japanese guys is not as big a turn-off as I initially thought it would be.

In terms of promos then yes, the language barrier can be a disadvantage. Thankfully there are precious few promos on NJPW shows anyway. In fact, we only really get them from one or two guys at the end of bigger shows. Yeah, their bigger, pay per view calibre shows often end with a promo. I find it a bit weird, but whatever. Recently, however, the English commentary team has been provided with a translator to help with this. Sometimes this isn’t needed though. Kenny Omega sometimes closes a show with a promo and he speaks Japanese and English.

I know what you must be thinking now; with hardly any promos then how are the dots joined between feuds, matches and storylines? This is mostly done via actions in the ring but promos from most of the guys are recorded and uploaded to NJPW’s YouTube channel. This is a nice added bonus but I’ve never once used this channel and never been made to feel like I’ve needed to either.

Watching A Show

Kazuchika Okada; he’s ‘The Man’ in New Japan right now

The matches are generally really good on NJPW shows. Put it this way, every NJPW show seems to be about the same standard (and frequently higher) as a WWE pay per view in terms of match quality. So, we get a good consistency of good to great matches, rather than one or two per month. Generally speaking, the matches tend to get better the higher up the card you go. Quite often the best match is the main event, with the second best being the semi-main event and so on. In that respect, New Japan is not too far removed from modern day WWE. Due to the lack of backstage segments, promos, angles etc. most of the feuds and stories are told during the actual matches, which everyone can understand whether they speak Japanese or not. This appears to be one of the keys to NJPW’s growing success. Okada will not cut two or three promos in a night to tell us what is happening. Instead, he’ll be booked in a match against Tanahashi and that will tell the story for us. This is one of the big differences, which I love, between NJPW and WWE; New Japan focus on matches and competition rather than angles and storylines. Don’t get me wrong, every now and then we will see an angle. Most recently Chris Jericho disguised himself as a fan and ambushed Tetsuya Naito after he had just competed in a match. However, for the most part the drama is reserved for the matches with an emphasis on winning and losing. It took me a little while to get into that groove because in WWE the actual results of matches tend not to mean a whole lot, rather the story behind the matches is the focus. In Japan, however, the results of the matches determine what happens next. For example, Juice Robinson (the former CJ Parker from NXT) pinned NEVER Openweight Champion Hirooki Goto in a tag match. As a result, Robinson became his next challenger. Even the lower card matches seem to matter in NJPW. This does, however, lead me to my first bugbear.

Part of NJPW’s formula for success is the way they book shows. Half, or sometimes two thirds, of a card will be populated by tag matches. This is less prevalent on bigger shows, but does still happen there too. Firstly, this gets loads of guys exposure on the card. Secondly, it helps to build or prolong feuds by having rivals interact without giving fans that one-on-one encounter just yet. Also, only having a couple of one-on-one matches on a show makes them feel that little bit more special. This also helps to elevate more guys into featured spots. The aforementioned Juice Robinson – who is a dependable mid-carder –  made it into a featured spot on the card when he challenged Goto for what is probably NJPW’s fourth of fifth tier singles title. That’s like Heath Slater competing for the US Title in a featured match on a WWE PPV. The lack of other singles matches on the card helped to pile emphasis onto this match as something special, and it worked. While I totally get why New Japan use this formula, and I actually agree with it, it can sometimes be hard work watching so many bloody tag matches. I watched a show recently that featured three six-man tags and two-ten man tags. Forgive me if I cannot recall the participants or exactly what happened.

A result of this booking philosophy is another aspect of New Japan that I struggle with; repetition. Unlike WWE, which is on TV at the same times every week, NJPW does tours. This means we will get bursts of shows culminating in one or two bigger shows at the end of a two week peroid. There will typically then be a week or two break before the next tour. This means that the card is essentially shuffled ever so slightly from show to show so that guys who are feuding can continue to work with each other, but not be in the exact match as the previous show. Sometimes when they reach the actual match they have been building to I feel like I have seen it multiple times already, especially if it’s a tag match or involves the junior heavyweights. Much as I have grown to like him, Will Ospreay makes this more obvious than most. He’s a high flyer and uses a lot of eye catching spots, but it is because of this that he can sometimes appear a little repetitive. I know, all wrestlers have their go-to moves, but his are so eye-catching and memorable that it’s hard to forget if you’ve seen him practice a spot in a tag match the previous night.

Wrestlers & Factions

Move over Bullet Club, LIJ are New Japan’s most popular group these days

Obviously, everyone knows about Kenny Omega and Bullet Club. Ring of Honor’s Matt Taven recently referred to them as ‘the McDonald’s of wrestling’ and he isn’t wrong. These guys are front and centre when it comes to NJPW’s recognition outside of Japan. However, if you watch just a couple of shows you will learn that Bullet Club is just one of several factions and Omega is one of many big stars in the company. Los Ingobernables de Japon (LIJ) are my favourite stable and appear to be by far the most popular faction purely based on the merchandise worn and carried by fans in the arenas. What may surprise some is that Kenny Omega is not NJPW’s top guy either, that role is filled by current – and record breaking – IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuchika Okada. Guys like Omega (leader of Bullet Club), Tetsuya Naito (leader of LIJ) and Hiroshi Tanahashi (he’s a bit like a Japanese John Cena, only a much better wrestler) feel like ‘the top guy’ until Okada comes out, at which point it becomes clear who ‘the man’ really is. Okada is basically what Vince McMahon wishes Roman Reigns was. In this regard, NJPW feels a bit like early 2000s WWE. They have so many guys that could easily be the top guy and then there’s The Rock, or in New Japan’s case, Okada. I really enjoy this aspect of New Japan because there are so many guys who, in my head at least, could easily be the IWGP Champion.

Not being WWE, NJPW also take junior heavyweights i.e. cruiserweights, seriously. heavyweights and junior heavyweights do not face each other unless it is within a tag match or under an exceptional circumstance. For example, earlier this year Okada chose to defend his IWGP Heavyweight Title against IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion Will Ospreay. There could technically be a one-on-one match between a heavyweight and a junior in a NEVER Openweight Title match – because that title is open to both weight classes – but I’ve not seen or even heard of that scenario yet. Like in WWE, the tippy top stars are the heavyweights but unlike WWE the top juniors are presented as just beneath this level. Guys like Will Ospreay, Kushida, Hiromu Takahashi and Marty Scurl have all main evented shows whilst I have been following NJPW.

Some of new Japan’s stables are so big that their members feud amongst themselves

The reason I have titled this section ‘Wrestlers & Factions’ and not just ‘Wrestlers’ is because damn near everyone appears to be in a stable, or can at least be grouped with other wrestlers in some way. There is Bullet Club, which is huge in both popularity and members. CHAOS is also a massive stable and is currently headed by Okada and his manager – and head booker – Gedo. With so many members in each of these groups it appears, to me at least, that the line between heel and babyface is almost non-existent within these groups. Most of CHAOS seem to be babyfaces, but Okada and Gedo often come off as arrogant heels. I think Bullet Club are supposed to be heels but they often wrestle each other which blurs some lines. Their leader, Kenny Omega, has also transformed into a massive babyface while Cody (Rhodes) is a top heel. Suzuki Gun make it easy, they are heels through and through. In the time I have been watching I have seen LIJ move away from heelish tactics to being a babyface group. Then there is the very loosely associated Taguchi Japan group, which I cannot quite figure out. This basically seems to comprise every remaining babyface who is not a Young Lion or veteran. Oh yes, Young Lions and veterans. These guys occupy the bottom of the card and, if I’m totally honest, are usually involved in the matches I fast-forward if I’m short on time. Young Lions are exactly that, fresh faced youngers taking their first steps in the world of wrestling. They are often booked against legends and veterans like Jushin Thunder Liger and Yugi Nagata. Being a sucker for putting people in pigeon holes and following alliances, I love all these stables. It’s totally different to WWE’s roster structure and helps with the booking of all the tag matches in New Japan. This structure also allows for tension within stables, as well between them. One of the biggest storylines right now is the heat between Kenny Omega and wannabe Bullet Club leader Cody. All the while, Omega is Okada’s next challenger for the IWGP Title. There’s lots of layers to enjoy here and there’s no Michael Cole deployed to ram it down our throats.

When it comes to the topic of heels and babyfaces, NJPW seems to have spectrum not unlike modern day WWE. There’s some black, some white and lots of shades of grey i.e. a substantial number of tweeners who come across as either a babyface or heel depending on who they are wrestling. Jay White is a prime example, as is his stable mate and NJPW Champion Kazuchika Okada actually. There also appears to be no such thing as a cowardly heel in New Japan. 100% bad guys like the members of Suzuki Gun – specifically the juniors within the group – will try to cheat to win if the opportunity arises. However, cheating and sneak attacks are nothing like as common as in WWE and never once have I seen a heel try to bail on a match. In NJPW heels at all levels on the card are just as likely to win clean as the babyfaces, which is most certainly a refreshing change from WWE.

Championships

I like Goto but I still cannot figure out the purpose of that belt he’s carrying

There’s a lot of familiarity between WWE and NJPW championships i.e. there’s too many for my taste. New Japan boasts five singles titles and three tag titles. They are just one brand too, it’s not like they are split between Raw and Smackdown. I do like all the tag titles. We have heavyweight and junior titles plus a six-man championship open to both weight classes, which makes sense given the number of multi-man tag matches they book. The IWGP Heavyweight and Junior Heavyweight Titles make sense, obviously. One thing I will say about these titles, specifically the heavyweight version, is that more emphasis appears to be placed on how many title defences a champion makes rather than how long in days they hold the belt. In this regard, the IWGP Title can feel more closely related to a boxing or UFC championship than the WWE or Universal Title. On the flip side of this, I can’t help but feel that if two of the three other titles were to disappear overnight not many people would notice or care. The Intercontinental Title seems to be more prestigious than the WWE’s much older version, so I’d keep that one. Their newest championship is the US Title, which has so far been held by a Canadian and a New Zealander. Then there is the NEVER Openweight Title. This title can be competed for by both heavyweights and juniors but as I mentioned earlier, in the time I have been watching New Japan this has never once been mentioned, despite it being the title’s only distinguishing feature. I’ve therefore been left wondering what the point of this championship is?

Overall Thoughts

Other than a few bugbears, I have very much enjoyed my five and bit months of being a NJPW fan, hence why I have not cancelled my subscription. Even better is that the best appears yet to come. New Japan is known for tournaments and a ‘real sport’ feel. So far I have only seen the New Japan Cup, which was a single elimination tournament like WWE’s King of The Ring or Cruiserweight Classic. Starting shortly will be The Best of The Super Juniors followed by the G1 Climax and World Tag League. I understand these to be round robin tournaments, which I have never seen in a wrestling context so I am very much looking forward to the kind of drama that will create.

This has been my first impressions of NJPW. If you are thinking of giving the promotion a look then I would highly recommend it and I would be very interested to hear your first impressions. I’m not trying to sell NJPW World subscriptions here, but at ¥999 it is somehow even better value than the WWE Network. For reference, that’s about £6.70 or $9.00. NJPW is a refreshing change from WWE but not too far removed to make new fans feel lost. If you’re even remotely tempted I’d say give it shot.

5 thoughts on “Turning Japanese: First Impressions of New Japan Pro Wrestling

  1. I just got DISH and they have Access TV and air it weekly. The actual wrestling is superior to WWE,s IMO, you have a few week links (Jack Sabre Jr, you’ve been doing this too long to look so robotic) but overall these guys work up a real sweat for the fans.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Really solid article that hopefully helps convert new fans away from Vince’s monopoly hold on mainstream wrestling.

    Like

  3. Pingback: A Beginner’s Guide to New Japan Pro Wrestling, By A Beginner – Part 1 | Ring the Damn Bell

  4. Pingback: Wrestle Kingdom 13 Preview | Ring the Damn Bell

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