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Q&A with Fumi Saito, for DROPKICK Magazine

3 years ago

Q&A with Fumi Saito, for DROPKICK Magazine

DROPKICK is a webzine hosted by NicoPro. Legendary journalist and Japanese wrestling historian Fumi Saito recently joined them in conversation about puroresu.

Not the puro style – but the word itself, and how it’s expanding globally as a form of taste.

The word “puroresu” has taken on new meaning with fans in the West, ever since launched on December 1, 2014, bringing English commentary to pro-wrestling fans seeking refuge from the formulaic “PG” WWE style. As the popularity of the Bullet Club exploded, subscriptions climbed to new heights with Kenny Omega’s rise in fame alongside Chris Jericho’s Wrestle Kingdom 12 appearance in January 2018 at the Tokyo Dome – providing juxtaposition to stars-in-the making like Tetsuya Naito and Kazuchika Okada.

STARDOM and NOAH’s Western popularity soon followed, as joshi and puroresu streaming services added new fans. Mr. Saito discussed how puroresu has evolved since the VHS tape trading days, from the perspective of how Japan’s domestic fans & writers perceive puroresu’s expansion in the West, something the Japanese liken to the broad adoption of karaoke.


Dropkick Magazine Cover

Fumi: The theme of this issue is about how the Japanese word “puroresu” (pro-wrestling) has been westernized and is now taking hold in American print and web media.

DROPKICK: Wow! It’s true that in America, we don’t call it pro-wrestling.

Fumi: Puroresu is completely Japanese-English, and in the U.S. the same word is used for both pro and amateur wrestling. It may be easier to understand if you think of wrestling in the U.S. as having the same nuance as “sumo” in Japanese. You call both “wrestling” even if it’s competitive or professional wrestling. For example, WWE is seen as the same “wrestling”.

Fumi: That’s where you have to take it in context. When you use it in the Olympics, you don’t refer to wrestling, you only think of the wrestling competition. When the word “wrestling” is used on WWE TV shows, it refers to professional wrestling.

DROPKICK: It is only in the last 20 years that “wrestling” has become established in Japan as “competitive wrestling”.

Fumi: Nowadays, when people talk about wrestling in the Japanese media, they are referring to competitive wrestling. But for a long time, it was called “amateur wrestling”. After the war, at the time when Rikidozan vs Masahiko Kimura was held, it was called “Pro Wrestling” with “Chugoro”.

DROPKICK: It was abbreviated to puroresu from there.

Fumi: Japanese people translate everything. That’s why “Puroresu” has been translated and established in the US. It’s the same phenomenon as karaoke. Just as the word “karaoke” has been translated into English, the katakana word “pro-wrestling” has been translated into English as the concept of pro-wrestling.

DROPKICK: When did “puroresu” start to take root in the US? Now it’s commonly used by the American media. Is there a reason for that?

Fumi: Some years ago, Kazuchika Okada, who was not so famous at that time in the U.S., suddenly appeared at No.1 in the BEST 500 ratings of the American professional magazine “Pro Wrestling Illustrated”. It was because the English version of New Japan Pro Wrestling was broadcast on cable TV in the US. When it became easy to watch Japanese wrestling in the U.S., there was an initial understanding that “in Japan, it is called professional wrestling/puroresu,” and the next step was to develop a consensus that “Japanese and American wrestling seems to be slightly different.” That’s when the study of Japanese pro wrestling started [to spread].

DROPKICK: It’s interesting that it started in the last 10 years. It wasn’t the ’90s when there were many groups.

Fumi: The first time Japanese wrestling videos were distributed in the U.S. was in the ’80s. With the spread of VCRs in Japan and the U.S., Tiger Mask vs Dynamite Kid matches were recorded on VHS video and sent to America. But that was just a niche event that was traded among enthusiasts, and it was the fact that New Japan Pro Wrestling matches were put on American TV, in the last 10 years, that was significant. New Japan was able to hold a joint show, with ROH at MSG in New York, two years ago, because of the media reality that many TV viewers outside of the mania crowd saw the NJPW footage.

WATCH: Dynamite Kid vs Tiger Mask II AJPW Budokan Hall Show (Nov ’85)

DROPKICK: No matter what movement occurred in Japanese wrestling in the 80’s and 90’s, it was only accepted by American enthusiasts.

Fumi: Nowadays, anyone in the U.S. can watch it on cable TV or video streaming with English commentary. One peak was reached when Japanese wrestlers from Japanese organizations performed at MSG, in the U.S., in the same style. And this is not limited to pro wrestling, but the impact of the internet streaming video distribution has become a part of daily life around the world. It’s no coincidence, and as one historical event, the WWE Network and NJPW World both started in 2014.

Fumi:  Currently, Pro Wrestling NOAH, DDT, and TJPW are broadcast on WRESTLE UNIVERSE in English with live commentary, while NOAH’s matches are also broadcast worldwide on FITE TV. All Japan Pro Wrestling has a video streaming service called “AJPW TV”, which is finally starting to get attention in the U.S. It’s not about exchanging videos. It’s about being able to watch videos from anywhere on the internet with no time delays, and that’s how wrestling, which used to be in Japanese katakana, has come to be known as “puroresu,” or Japanese culture.

DROPKICK: Does that mean that Japanese wrestling is seen as something special in the eyes of America?

Fumi: Of course. Pro wrestling is pro wrestling. But, apparently, Japanese puroresu is a different kind of thing when compared to the WWE in America. That’s partly because it’s done by Japanese people.

DROPKICK: That’s how strong the perception of “WWE = professional wrestling” is in the United States, isn’t it?

Fumi: In general, that’s true. That’s why when Japanese wrestling started to be distributed on video with English commentary, people started to notice the differences between it and American wrestling. Minoru Suzuki is getting a lot of attention in this trend.

DROPKICK: Minoru Suzuki is on a long tour of the United States, isn’t he?

Fumi: Minoru Suzuki has been fighting in the U.S. for a while now. In AEW, he had singles matches against Jon Moxley and Bryan Danielson, and at Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport event, he had a match that was a cross between wrestling and MMA. The way Suzuki is introduced in the American ring is that he is a pioneer of MMA and a professional wrestler.

DROPKICK: Suzuki, who participated in the founding of Pancrase, was the first professional wrestler to do MMA wasn’t he?

Fumi: Fans who saw Suzuki’s Pancrase fights on video in the ’90s are now in their 40’s and 50’s. When they see Suzuki now, they are in awe of his physical prowess and say, “He’s over 50 years old.”

DROPKICK: I guess it’s like Lou Thesz and Karl Gotch having a match in New Japan Pro Wrestling when the company was first launched.

Fumi: Not just this time. But whenever Suzuki fights in the U.S. or the U.K., the fans all sing his entrance song, “Kaze ni nare” together.

DROPKICK: I heard that Ayumi Nakamura’s “Kaze ni nare” was ranked on the iTunes chart in the U.S. because it was played on AEW (laughs).

Fumi: It’s risen rapidly on the international charts. Nakamura herself is a big artist in Japan, but overseas, Suzuki’s music is more established. Since coming to the US, Suzuki has wrestled in AEW, Impact, GCW, West Coast Wrestling, Glory Pro Wrestling, and other indies that even I don’t know the names of. They’re all crazy about seeing Suzuki “live”.

DROPKICK: So we are witnessing a living legend.

Fumi: Suzuki’s merchandise is selling like hotcakes at the event. There is some misunderstanding of the American image of “Puroresu”, and there is an understanding that it is a style that is somewhere between MMA and WWE.

DROPKICK: I think that Japanese fans have a misunderstanding of what I do.

Fumi: It’s not an exaggeration. When you see Suzuki’s fights, you can believe what you witness straight away, and it’s like he’s in uncharted territory that makes that argument irrelevant. Bloodsport is run by Josh Barnett, a guy who has a foot in both pro wrestling and MMA. Barnett has been doing pro wrestling matches without changing his MMA style too much. And then Suzuki comes along, and it’s a big deal. I was surprised that there was such a wrestling match. To American fans, Suzuki is a legend who represents the Japanese culture of “Puroresu”.

DROPKICK: In short, in Suzuki, the Japanese wrestling movement of about 30 years is condensed here.

Fumi: So you’re packed into the body of one Suzuki. He’s 53 years old, and he’s in such good shape. If you watch his matches, you’ll see that he doesn’t just do wrestling moves, but tackles and choke sleepers from behind. Most importantly, he proved that American wrestling didn’t need mic appeals, backstage theatrics, or storylines.

DROPKICK: I guess it’s new to American wrestling fans.

Fumi: I believe that as we enter the streaming era, “there is no language barrier in professional wrestling”, and the most obvious example of this is Suzuki. I’m also interested in what would happen if Suzuki, who does “Puroresu” in Japan, went up to AEW. He fought Danielson and Moxley without compromising his style. There are a lot of people in the U.S. who think that the center of the world is the United States. So there is a lot of interest in what would happen if you took the Puroresu that is being held in Japan and brought it to the United States.

DROPKICK: Suzuki’s boom is a combination of the Japanese “Puroresu” movement, isn’t it?

Fumi: In America, a magazine called “Monthly Puroresu” is being published. It’s literally a wrestling magazine titled “Puroresu”.


Fumi: The first issue came out in the Summer of 2020, and there’s already a sixth issue in production, and the people making it are in their 30s. They are now trying to learn more about Japanese pro wrestling and delve deeper into it. I know what kind of wrestling WWE is, and I kind of know what AEW is. I know that there are a lot of indies in the U.S. But I feel that Japan’s “Puroresu” is in the same genre, but there’s something different about it.

DROPKICK: If I touch the UWF movement [in this conversation], it will be a big mess (laughs).

Fumi: You might be able to enjoy [shoot wrestling] as something that you don’t know the end result…. and maybe it’s only Japanese fans who watch [shoot wrestling] with that much logic. If it wasn’t for Japan, I don’t think anything like the UWF would have been created, and the debate over the definition of pro wrestling wouldn’t have happened. With Japan’s print wrestling, there would be dozens of books about the UWF.

DROPKICK: Because everyone has their interpretation of wrestling.

Fumi: Even in the UWF, if there is the “UWF as a myth” as Jan-kun was tweeting, there is also the “UWF as a technology” view, right? You can also talk about “What were the RINGS that Masaaki Maeda created?” That’s what I’m talking about. The reality of the matter is that from RINGS came the best of the best in American MMA, such as Hyodor and Alistair Overeem.

DROPKICK: It’s a re-evaluation of the UWF in America.

Fumi: In America, the UWF International, which Americans call UWF-i, is more famous than the original UWF. Because the video of Nobuhiko Takada vs Trevor Berbick was studied, and Dan Severn, who was active in the UFC, was up in Uinter. Not Uinter, but Ken Shamrock, who fought Royce Gracie in the early UFC, later moved up to the WWE ring. Shamrock was introduced as a fighter at the time, but it was later delved into that he was also a professional wrestler. Shamrock was unable to continue his wrestling career due to contractual and other problems. But over time, in the midst of all this, the one who is now making American fans go crazy is the superhuman Suzuki, who knows no decline.

DROPKICK: You’re the kind who lets people know that legends are real.

Fumi: The most popular Japanese wrestler in America right now is Suzuki. By the way, the cover of the 6th issue of “Monthly Puroresu” is Starlight Kid. There’s something different about women’s wrestling from the Women’s Division in the U.S. We’re digging up footage of Japanese Joshi right now. Even some of the Women’s Division wrestlers say, “I’ve never met her, but Manami Toyota was my idol when I was a kid.”

DROPKICK: Toyota is a superstar of the ’90s tape-trade era, isn’t she?

Fumi: There are a lot of current wrestlers who don’t understand the language but became Toyota fans after watching her matches. Not necessarily from that, but there’s a generation that saw Bull Nakano vs. Alundra Blayze (Madusa) and longed to be a pro wrestler. Some fans saw the JB Angels when they were very young.

DROPKICK: So “Joshi Puroresu” is also trying to take root.

Fumi: Yes I think “joshi” is also going to become an English word. By the way, recently Jake Lee vs. Kento Miyahara, in a full 60-minute draw for the Triple Crown was a hot topic, so I think it will become a movement that isn’t limited to New Japan Pro Wrestling.

DROPKICK: It is said that “SANKAN” may attract attention and Four Heavenly Kings Wrestling may be dug up.

Fumi: I think there is that possibility. In the case of NJPW, they have started a distribution program for the US called New Japan STRONG, so they are starting to show Japanese-style matches in the US. Will Ospreay and Jay White are there, as well as American wrestlers from the LA Dojo and Japanese Young Lions. I think there will be cases where young Japanese wrestlers will be noticed in the US before they make their triumphant return to Japan. It is often said that New Japan is heading in a WWE-like direction, but I think that what is needed in Japanese wrestling is not a WWE-like taste, but something that is unique to Japan.

DROPKICK: That’s what “Puroresu” is all about, isn’t it?

Fumi: I heard that G1 is easy for American fans to watch because it’s a series of singles matches. There was a lot of talk on the internet about where Kota Ibushi got hurt in the G1 finals. There was a lot of talk about it on the internet.

DROPKICK: That kind of shocking stuff is highly publicized compared to WWE.

Fumi: Even though the match ended in an accident, Okada was recognized for his superstar-like mic appeal. I think that as the word “puroresu” becomes more and more popular, the discussion of what pro wrestling is will deepen in America.