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Q&A with President Takami Ohbari, on NJPW Strong and post-pandemic NJPW

10 months ago

Q&A with President Takami Ohbari, on NJPW Strong and post-pandemic NJPW

Interview with New Japan Pro-Wrestling President Takami Ohbari

By: Thom Fain

The launch of Monthly Puroresu coincided with New Japan STRONG, both out of LA, and invariably linked. Our first on-scene coverage – which has since grown to multiple cities in the U.S. and throughout Tokyo – was right here in LA at the Resurgence event that saw the United Empire grow stronger, and a return of live audiences to New Japan events in the West.

Overseeing it all was President Takami Ohbari, who had the difficult task of steering the “King of Sports” through turbulent times in the Pandemic.

Even with All Elite Wrestling (who Ohbari comments on below) gaining popularity quickly on the backs of several former New Japan stars and storylines, Mr. Ohbari saw an opportunity to re-shape relationships frayed under former President Harold Meij, and further grow out the NJPW U.S. division.

In 2020, the STRONG brand was launched alongside a timely, episodic show which provided entertainment for fans locked away at home along with a proving grounds for many current stablemates of the Bullet Club, who were New Japan homegrown & hand-selected and Young Lions under the tutelage of sensei Katsuyori Shibata.

The new breed of NJPW talent would witness, wrestle with and learn from perennial five-star match machines “Switchblade” Jay White and United Empire’s Will Ospreay, both of whom can credit their success and skill to the cerulean blue rings from which they rose to fame. Let’s also not forget junior heavyweight veterans Rocky Romero and TJ Perkins – original members of the Inoki Dojo in Santa Monica more than 20 years ago – who continue to bridge wrestling worlds two continents apart.

Once travel restrictions were lifted, Japanese stars like Satoshi Kojima and Yuji Nagata would join the party along with, eventually, the rest of the New Japan mainland roster for PPVs that have grown in buzz and in quality over the three years since STRONG’s inception.

Mr. Ohbari gave us his thoughts on the meaning of “Strong Style” and growing with NJPW, developing STRONG, his relationship with Tony Khan and so much more below.

Monthly Puroresu:
First, I want to congratulate you on three years of NJPW Strong, and now five whole years since the launch of LA Dojo — can you believe it’s been that long?

Takami Ohbari:
I appreciate all of the fans for helping us reach a major milestone.

The pandemic really brought about a decade’s worth of change in a three year span. We were able to adapt to the changes put on us and keep nimble which is why NJPW STRONG & LA Dojo could stay being important parts of our business. If we hadn’t established a subsidiary in the US, we wouldn’t have recognized how things were changing in the US, and we wouldn’t have the versatility to keep those brands alive. Now LA Dojo is an academy open for everyone, and NJPW STRONG has gone from taping shows without fans, to being a PPV regularly, with enough of a following to pack Korakuen Hall for two nights when we brought STRONG to Japan.

Eddie Kingston defeats KENTA to become STRONG Openweight Champion in Korakuen Hall. c/o New Japan Pro-Wrestling

Monthly Puroresu:
And for those who don’t know, you actually went to college in SoCal for a time and grew in the wrestling business right here in LA with New Japan. This was before becoming its president, and going back to Tokyo. Was it a dream job for you coming out of college, and do you appreciate having the distinction of bridging two cultures more closely with entertainment and New Japan STRONG?

Takami Ohbari:
I’m now in the world that I had dreamt of when I was at the Newport Beach looking at the horizon. I have never forgotten the days I spent in California, it’s such a special place for me. The diversity of people, always cheerful and positive, is something that stuck with me.

I wanted to study in South California because it was such a hub for worldwide entertainment brands like Disneyland and Hollywood. Until I got MBA in the UC-Irvine, I went to the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy and received a blue belt from Rorion Gracie. At the same time, I learned an Irish Jiu-Jitsu which includes standing techniques. I went to the Staples Center and other venues to watch the WWE shows, bought an annual pass and went to Disneyland many times. So while I was studying business, I was also able to immerse myself in martial arts, professional wrestling and entertainment.

During my studying abroad to the US, I heard some case studies about Lexus and Toyota Tundra that left an impression on me. This is the story of how Toyota changed its export-oriented style of vehicles for Japan and developed products to be optimised for the North American market environment, turning them into big hits in North America. I think there are lessons to be learned there for NJPW in the US. Before the Pandemic, NJPW used to satisfy only one need of fans hoping to watch Japanese professional Wrestling. But now, we incorporate elements required by American fans, and marry them with the best elements of NJPW. Then, just like Lexus and Toyota Tundra, we reimported New Japan STRONG to Japan this year. The essence of business is often common across industries and eras.

Monthly Puroresu:
What does Strong Style mean to you, Mr. Ohbari-san? I know it has had an effect to lift my spirits and give me strength at necessary times in a way unique to puroresu, which is why I want to give back in my own way with our magazine.

Takami Ohbari:
Everyone has their own take on what Strong Style is. It doesn’t have a single, permanent meaning. For me as well, my interpretation of Strong Style has changed with times and position I’m in. Now, I think Strong Style means showing the superhuman strength inside the ring. Physical strength, technical strength and mental strength. That’s a strength from wrestlers themselves, or it’s a meta strength, something where we want to emotionally engage and attract fans. As human beings we need to draw on strength to overcome struggles and progress, and Strong Style embodies that.

A big part of imbuing that Strong Style is in the Dojo system; there’s something about our own training system that gives our wrestlers a fighting spirit. Even if a wrestler outside of NJPW want to join us, he must be as strong as NJPW wrestlers have. That’s why our Dojo system plays a quite important role in keeping Strong Style.

Monthly Puroresu:
Of course our readers can get so much information on njpw1972.com, but the NJPW Academy represents the next step in evolution of your U.S. expansion. Can you give us more detail on how that effort going in your opinion?

Takami Ohbari:
Our goal is to create a synergy between Japan and the US. We used to hold occasional shows in the States, sending a lot of talent and staff to handle it, meaning we couldn’t run in Japan and the US at the same time. So that’s a big cost in flights accommodation, and we miss the opportunity for Japanese market.

Now, we’re close to an ideal. NJPW in the US is more of an established brand now. We still send some of our talent, but not all, to the US. So we can run Japan and the US concurrently. LA Dojo and NJPW Academy is also paving the future for NJPW in the US. In the previous financial year, which ended in June, NJPW of America was profitable for the first time, and they helped NJPW as a whole reach its second highest revenues in company history, which is a really impressive feat.

Monthly Puroresu:
What is the status of your relationship with Tony Khan and AEW, would you describe it as generally healthy and mutually beneficial?

Takami Ohbari:
We certainly keep in touch personally and professionally, and we’ve exchanged gifts. Friendship between us is vital to make dream matches like at Forbidden Door happen, and it can only be beneficial for both companies to expand the professional wrestling market in both Japan and the US.

Monthly Puroresu:
NJPW Strong has really, truly grown into its own. We met at Rumble on 44th in NYC and to me that was the brand finding all streams flowing into one river, so to speak, and capturing its own essence. Are you happy with where NJPW Strong is at as a unique experience for wrestling fans?

Takami Ohbari:
NJPW in Japan that has been in existence for more than 50 years. Because NJPW has been active for that long, we have unique strengths that no other companies can imitate. Those strengths have been appreciated internationally as well. Using those strengths, NJPW had been aiming at establishing a unique position that companies established and developed in the US cannot easily attain.

Monthly Puroresu:
Can you speak about the growing position female competitors have in NJPW?

Takami Ohbari:
Many traditions in Japanese pro-wrestling derive from professional sumo wrestling. There are no women wrestler in Japanese professional sumo. On the other hand, the ratio of men and women participants in the Olympics is almost 5:5.

The world has changed and the speed of change has been exponential. We cannot stick to the outdated ideas of male-only professional wrestling. We often say that professional wrestling is a mirror reflecting the world. All wrestlers and all matches should be appreciated, and any wrestlers should be provided fair opportunities in the ring regardless of gender or anything else. If we can maximize the business value of that, then so much the better.

I think this will be realized in the US first, and then in Japan. In the last few years since STARDOM has become one of Bushiroad’s group companies, I think Japanese pro wrestling fans’ way of thinking is getting closer to a global standard. The first time we had STARDOM wrestlers participate in our Tokyo Dome show, we faced major criticism from fans and our partners in and outside the company. But now, it is taken for granted.

Monthly Puroresu:
Antonio Inoki, of course, was memorialized and honored at that show in New York. Can you give our readers a special memory you had with Mr. Inoki-san?

Takami Ohbari:
As a fan, Inoki-san is a big star who I’ve admired since I was a child. For me, he is a symbol of strength. I have been encouraged to take on challenges by seeing a fighting spirit Inoki-san showed us. I wouldn’t be who I am now without Inoki-san.

Then, speaking as an executive. Inoki-san is the founder and first president of NJPW. I’ve never taken any advice from Inoki-san, but I think his founding principles have become more important as the years have passed. I’m always trying to think how Inoki-san felt when he founded and developed New Japan Pro Wrestling as a wrestler and president. The Road – his famous poem left after his retirement match is something that I have close to my heart.

The Road, by Antonio Inoki
Don’t fear what happens if you keep going on this road,
With fear, there will be no road.
If you give one step, the step becomes a road,
Go on without fear, then you will find out…

Monthly Puroresu:
The Independence Day shows this year were a big success, did the Japanese fan reception to STRONG take you by surprise — or did you have some insights that let you know Strong would succeed domestically?

Takami Ohbari:
It was a dream which I and Tezuka, who is COO of the US office, had when we established NJPW STRONG in 2020. We said to each other that we should let Japanese fans experience our NJPW STRONG at Korakuen Hall once we’d established the brand. It is unknown territory for most pro wrestling companies to make business cross borders. So we weren’t 100 % certain it would be successful. It was our goal to make NJPW STRONG the unique brand that not only fans in the US but also fans in Japan were invested in, because we wanted that vision of a sold out Korakuen watching STRONG.

Not many pro wrestling companies can sell-out Korakuen Hall two days in a row, but NJPW STRONG achieved it. Hearing the US style of chants in the venue was an emotional and unforgettable moment for wrestlers and the staff, especially the ones that had been there at the outset, mid pandemic with no fans.

We’ve already started to plan a show for next year!

Monthly Puroresu:
The G1 Climax these last two years has featured some foreign talent who came to earn the respect of NJPW fans on STRONG. Is there someone who hasn’t wrestled in the tournament you hope to see in it next year?

Takami Ohbari:
I will answer this question not as an executive but as a New Japan STRONG fan. With their achievements in NJPW STRONG and their popularity, I want to see Fred Rosser, JR Kratos and Brody King, who now wrestles in AEW, in the G1 next year.

Monthly Puroresu:
You are a busy man, Mr. Ohbari, so I don’t want to take up any more of your time. Would you like to leave our readers with any thoughts or announcements?

Takami Ohbari:
Right now we have a lot of tourists heading to Japan. The number of foreign visitors in Japan has rapidly recovered to more than 80% of the pre-pandemic level and the trend will continue going forward. There are lots of delicious foods and historic sites. And above all, foreigners can buy everything in Japan with cheap prices due to a strong dollar. I think there are not many capital cities in developed countries which you can eat lunch for only $5 dollars.

It is an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people who’ve been wanting to see New Japan Pro Wrestling in Japan at least once. We look forward to seeing you soon!