Consider Yokozuna. One of the chief bad guys of WWE in the early 1990s (back when it was still the WWF), Yokozuna was billed as a representative of Japan, a sumo-wrestling monster who, when unable to defeat opponents through sheer size, would succeed through more devious routes. Mr. Fuji, his ringside manager, would throw salt into the faces of all-American good guys, blinding them and giving Yokozuna the victory. When not throwing salt, Fuji was waving the Japanese flag. Together, Yokozuna and Fuji were a dominant anti-American force, and it took a hero like Hulk Hogan to defeat them at Wrestlemania IX.
In reality, Yokozuna wasn't even Japanese. He was Rodney Agatupu Anoa'i, a member of the Anoa'i Samoan wrestling dynasty whose cousins included the Rock, Rikishi, and Roman Reigns. But Vince McMahon decided that he looked Japanese enough, and so Yokozuna became the embodiment of the anti-Japan sentiments WWE saw in its audience during the early-90s recession. Audiences could look at him and see Honda or Sony or any other alien, non-American thing that was, in their eyes, coming across the ocean to take over.
Japan, of course, has a rich pro-wrestling tradition. Its practitioners pride themselves on their athletic conditioning, their toughness, and their ability to make their fake fights look as real as possible. But when a giant American company like WWE has brought in Japanese wrestlers (or made them up, like with Yokozuna), historically it's been for another purpose—to stand in for whatever nativist anxieties Americans might have been feeling at that moment. (There have been some exceptions. WCW had a decent-enough record of letting Japanese wrestlers like the Great Muta or Jushin "Thunder" Liger be cool and interesting rather than blinking-neon foreign evildoers.)
For decades, WWE has gone to that well again and again, taking incredible Japanese wrestlers and turning them into duplicitous, cartoonish bad guys and offensive stereotypes. There was the Orient Express, a tag team that, for much of its run, included a white guy in a mask. There was Hakushi, who came to the ring in a kasa and a kimono, with Japanese characters written all over his body. There was the bumbling team of Kai En Tai, who, during a feud with the porn-star wrestler Val Venis, brandished a samurai sword and threatened to "choppy choppy your pee pee."
Pro wrestling in general has a long, troubling history of foreign menaces, and Japanese wrestling promotions have brought in Americans to play similar roles. But WWE's record with Japanese talent has been particularly depressing in its unbridled, unapologetic xenophobia and racism. Even a beloved figure like Tajiri, who became truly popular with WWE audiences for a few years, had to do it while stroking his goatee maniacally and spitting a mysterious green mist in the eyes of his opponents.
But in a stunningly short period, that's all changed. This past August, a sold-out Barclays Center lost its mind as Shinsuke Nakamura, strutting to the ring while a violinist played his triumphant theme music, defeated the veteran American star Samoa Joe to win the NXT Championship. For the uninitiated, NXT is WWE's farm-league system, where the company trains its new recruits and figures out what to do with them. For the past few years, NXT's stripped-down, back-to-basics approach has resulted in a much more gratifying form of pro wrestling than what the WWE main roster offers. And people are noticing. NXT's house shows routinely sell out smaller venues around the country, while its bigger shows can even pack a full-sized arena like Brooklyn's Barclays.
That has everything to do with Triple H, the 90s wrestling veteran and Vince McMahon's son-in-law. These days, he also runs NXT, and he's put it together as a sort of wrestling nerd's fantasy. He has brought in stars from the indie wrestling scene and refugees from TNA, America's struggling No. 2 promotion. He also increasingly relies on Japanese wrestlers, presenting them not as deceitful heels or even as exotic curios but as, quite simply, the best wrestlers in the world.
Right now, Japanese wrestlers hold NXT's two main titles, its men's and women's championships. The men's champion is the aforementioned Nakamura, a sure bet if ever there was one. Until earlier this year, Nakamura was one of the two or three biggest stars in New Japan Pro Wrestling, which probably ranks as the world's second-biggest wrestling promotion. Nakamura succeeded in NJPW partly because he was a real-life badass, an MMA veteran whose kicks look like they could legitimately detach your face from your skull—that's not hyperbole—and partly because he's an outsized character. He's a fascinating figure, a cocky showman in red-leather pants who has mastered both Michael Jackson's fluidly spastic movements and Clint Eastwood's squint-glare. When NXT brought in Nakamura, it changed nothing about him—not his character, not his name, not his brutally physical wrestling style. The company just treated him like a big fucking deal, and that's what he immediately became.
The women's champion, meanwhile, is Asuka, a tiny flame-haired psychopath who became a legend in Japan while wrestling under the name Kana. Since Asuka arrived in NXT late last year, nobody has beaten her—and honestly, nobody has even come close. She's one of the smallest women in the division, and yet she's also its monster, its indestructible force. When someone finally defeats her for the championship—something that doesn't seem likely to happen anytime soon—it's going to be a huge story.
NXT has showcased other Japanese stars like the wiry innovator KENTA, who now wrestles as Hideo Itami, and who might well have been NXT champion already if ill-timed injuries hadn't sidelined him. Or like the brilliant floppy-haired high-flyer Kota Ibushi, who reportedly hasn't signed an NXT contract but who keeps being brought in for tournaments anyway. The first time NXT came to the Barclays last year, its opening match featured a one-time appearance from the pioneering cartoon-superhero Jushin "Thunder" Liger, who wrestled in a WWE ring for the first time and who got to win his match. And in the Cruiserweight Classic, a recent tournament that featured some of the best of the world's smaller wrestlers, Japanese stars like Ibushi, Akira Tozawa, and a returning Tajiri all got big moments. Through it all, NXT has presented some of Japan's best wrestlers with the respect that they deserve—something that no major American promotion has truly committed to doing until now.
Some of the credit there clearly has to go to Triple H, who understands how wrestling fans think because he is one. It probably helps that the United States isn't in any kind of trade war with Japan right now, but there are other reasons why American fans might be more willing today to view Japanese wrestlers as competitors rather than invaders. In the 80s and 90s, you had to be a seriously committed wrestling fan to have any idea of what was going on in Japan. You had to trade VHS tapes through the mail or order them from ads in the back of wrestling magazines. With the internet, it couldn't possibly be easier to keep up; New Japan is even marketing itself directly to Western audiences and co-promoting shows with Ring of Honor, the big American indie. If you're an American wrestling fan, there's a decent chance you already recognize these Japanese stars before they show up in NXT. And if you don't, you at least understand that you're supposed to think they're cool.
Thus far, this new presentation has proved wildly successful with the smaller, more devoted NXT audiences. WWE hasn't really tried it out on its mass-market main-roster crowds, though it has primed them a bit by showcasing Western stars like A.J. Styles, Finn Balor, and Karl Anderson, all of whom have recently been headliners in Japan. When Nakamura or Asuka or Itami finally shows up on Raw or Smackdown, we'll finally see whether the larger WWE audience is willing to view Japanese wrestlers as something other than evil foreigners. But in NXT, it has already happened.
This weekend, fans in Toronto will fill a hockey arena to watch Nakamura and Asuka defend their titles in one of NXT's biggest shows of the year. They'll probably win those matches. Even if they don't, they've already done something considerably more important: win over American audiences. It's about fucking time.
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