New Japan Pro-Wrestling is the world’s number one professional wrestling promotion, assuming we class WWE as ‘sports entertainment’. No longer is NJPW confined to Japan with fans from elsewhere having to rely on newsletters, magazines and second-hand VHS tapes to keep up to date. Globally, NJPW is a brand on the rise, but what is it all about? Today, Jamie, a relative newbie to NJPW himself, covers the basics in our Beginners Guide to New Japan Pro-Wrestling… by a beginner.
Not too long ago I shared my first impressions of New Japan. I have been following the promotion closely since January so I am most certainly not an expert on the group’s history and backstory of every wrestler. However, I do feel like I am fully up to speed with the current product and have a firm enough grasp to potentially help introduce other like-minded wrestling fans to it. There are other articles and YouTube videos on the subject of NJPW, but personally I found a bit of a disconnect between myself and the die-hard fans behind this content. Therefore, I figured I’d have a bash myself, newbie to potential newbie…
New Japan Pro-Wrestling was formed in 1972, the same year as the similarly named All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW). This is no coincidence as both promotions spun-off from the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance (JWA). All Japan were founded by Giant Baba, a name which may or may not be recognisable to you. New Japan were founded by Antonio Inoki, who is probably more recognisable because he is in WWE’s Hall of Fame, as well as generally being more famous. All Japan are very much still around, albeit not quite in the same league as NJPW anymore. I say ‘anymore’ because the promotions have traded top spot in Japan over the decades. I should probably mention Pro Wrestling Noah too. They are a much younger promotion (formed in 2000) but debatably occupied top spot in Japan during the mid-2000s. For reference, the likes of Shinsuke Nakamura, Karl Anderson, Luke Gallows, AJ Styles and Finn Balor have all joined WWE from New Japan in recent years. KENTA aka Hideo Itami joined from Noah while currently I can’t think of any All Japan alumni in WWE. This comparison is probably a good illustration of where the big names within modern Japanese wrestling can be found… and no, I don’t mean WWE!
Enough about the history, let’s get to the here and now. If you want to watch New Japan then NJPW World is what you will most likely need to use. This is the promotion’s streaming and on-demand service. It is basically their version of the WWE Network, and coincidentally costs 999 Yen per month, which is around $8.99 or £6.80. It broadcasts live shows and also has a massive library of events and matches going back to the group’s inception. It is browser based i.e. the mobile/tablet app does not have a built-in interface like the WWE Network. You will need to download the app in order to play the videos, but the actual interface you will use to find the content is based on the website. The app has Chromecast support too, so you can watch it on your TV. I won’t lie, even when you select English as your preferred language on the website the archive is a nightmare to navigate unless you are very specific about what you want to watch. Thankfully, watching live or the most up to date content is a doddle. Chances are you will want to keep an eye out for the yellow banner on the video’s thumbnail image. This banner indicates English commentary which is usually provided by former WWE announcer Kevin Kelly plus someone else. Don Callis (aka The Jackal/Cyrus from ECW) and Rocky Romero are frequent partners for Kelly, who is really good as the play-by-play announcer. There is usually also a translator on hand to help when a performer is cutting a promo in Japanese. The English commentary is done live for big shows and dubbed over after the fact for smaller ones. However, there are still quite a few shows that only come with Japanese commentary, which is hopefully where this guide can help you out.
So, you’ve decided to sit down and watch a New Japan show. I guess you should probably know some of the rules then? Thankfully, they are largely the same as in WWE. However, a few things to be aware of are that wrestlers have a count of 20 when they are outside the ring, as opposed to 10 in WWE. The ring announcer will count along (in English) and most likely the guys will do the spot where they roll back into the ring at the count of 19. This is quite a common spot, you will likely see it two or three times per show. Also, disqualifications are relatively rare in New Japan. This is largely because not all of the heels in New Japan cheat all of the time, and the referees are pretty lenient when they do decide to use weapons and such like anyway. As a result, don’t be surprised if you see a heel win a match cleanly, it happens just as often as babyfaces winning clean. Coming from watching WWE this is most certainly a change of pace. It certainly makes the matches more interesting because you are not thinking of how the match will end without the babyface having to be pinned. For example, I’ve seen Kenny Omega lose clean two or three times this year and it’s done him no harm at all. Like in WWE, rope-breaks are very much a thing for breaking submissions and pinfalls. Unlike in WWE, however, masks are protected in New Japan. It has been a while since WWE did an unmasking angle with a wrestler so I’m not sure what their stance is, but in NJPW a wrestler will be disqualified for removing the mask of an opponent. This doesn’t stop some wrestlers teasing it and toying with their masked adversary though. Something else that New Japan enforce is time limits. Every match has an advertised and announced time limit, putting the prospect of a time limit draw on the table. Such things are rare, in fact I don’t think I’ve seen one yet, but it all adds to the ‘real sport’ feel of New Japan. Which leads me to the overall vibe and presentation of a show…
If ‘sports entertainment’ is an accepted synonym for professional wrestling then it is probably fair to say that while WWE lean more towards entertainment then New Japan sway more towards the sport side of things. Think about a typical WWE show, how many of the matches revolve around a personal issue or feud? This is one of the big differences between WWE and NJPW; the reason for many WWE matches stems from, let’s face it, the soap opera aspect of their shows. New Japan on other hand is presented more like a sporting endeavour where guys wrestle each other to win and progress up the ladder. When you watch a New Japan show you will mainly just see matches presented back to back, very rarely do we see storyline angles. In a nutshell, think of every New Japan show as being structured like a WWE pay per view.
The storylines in NJPW are largely told in the ring rather than over the microphone or backstage, much like how any ‘real’ sport produces its headlines from what happens on the field of play. One of the best pieces of advice I can give a WWE fan interested in watching NJPW is to think of the promotion as more like the Premier League, NFL or NBA. Think of a New Japan show as a game day or fixture weekend rather than a soap opera. Obviously, New Japan is closer related to WWE due the wrestling matches, but the approach to how these matches are presented is far closer to a ‘real sport’. Obviously, there are feuds but by and large these rivalries start and finish in the ring with nobody trapped inside a porta-potty or having their car flipped over.
A consequence of focussing on wrestling and wrestling matches means that New Japan lack a few things. Things like illegitimate sons of the General Manager, pointless celebrity appearances, 20 minute promos to open a show and, believe it or not, a heel authority figure. In fact, they don’t have any kind of on-screen authority figure who ‘books’ the show. Again, it’s presented as an actual sport. It’s not like the head of the NFL comes out on a Sunday morning to tell all the teams who they are playing that afternoon before putting the Patriots in a gauntlet match against the entire NFC. It doesn’t happen there and football is still pretty popular, thus it doesn’t happen in New Japan Pro Wrestling either.
Another aspect of New Japan that is vastly different from WWE is the fact that allies, stable mates and even tag team partners will wrestle each other from time to time. It is relatively common to see members of the same faction booked against each other. Again, this all adds to the ‘real’ feel of the product. At some point, most sports men and women will have to compete against a friend and it’s no different here. Friends wrestling each other in WWE usually indicates tension or a break-up, it’s always story driven anyway. Sometimes this is the case in NJPW too, but often it is not. Also, because New Japan hosts so many tournaments, it is inevitable that stable mates will wrestle each other at some point.
One last thing I should mention here, and I mentioned this in my ‘First Impressions’ post; quiet crowds and smaller arenas. Japanese crowds are different to American, and most other, crowds. You’ll get over it though, after all they are doing exactly what you will be doing at home; sitting quietly and enjoying the show. As for some the smaller arenas they use? Again, you’ll get over it by knowing that New Japan can fill bigger arenas when they want to. After all, Wrestle Kingdom is not compared to Wrestlemania for nothing.
Hopefully I have not bombarded you too much, as this is merely part one of our Beginners Guide to NJPW. While there are lots of similarities to WWE, New Japan presents itself more like an entertaining sport rather than an entertainment spectacle which also features wrestling. Next time, we shall be looking at the wrestlers and factions you can expect to see if indeed you do decide to give NJPW a look.