Shinsuke Nakamura and the New Generation of Japanese Wrestlers in America
This past August, NXT Brooklyn 2 was hailed as one of the best wrestling shows of 2016. It was a thrilling night that was made up of a series of great moments. The three biggest of them (or maybe three of the four, considering Bobby Roode’s entrance was truly glorious) were Shinsuke Nakamura winning the NXT title, Asuka retaining the NXT women’s title over Bayley and Hideo Itami coming out and hitting a GTS on Austin Aries.
Yes, Brooklyn was all about the wave of Japanese talent that has made their way to WWE as of late. But could this have happened just a few years ago? There have been many Japanese wrestlers that have come to North America over the past few decades, and yet few of them have accomplished as much as Nakamura or Asuka have done in the past year. It raises a question about why more Japanese wrestlers haven’t been so lucky, especially when wrestling has such a strong foothold in Japan, and since arguably the second biggest wrestling company in the world (New Japan Pro Wrestling) behind WWE calls Japan its home.
Japan, for a long time, has been a place where American wrestlers could go and achieve great success. Wrestlers today still choose to travel to the famous dojos to become “young boys,” with all that entails, and train in Japan, because of the training they receive and the respect that is earned. And it’s not just up-and-comers who would make their way to Japan. Big names in America have had their careers changed there, like Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan and Andre The Giant, just to name a few of an extensive list of legends. But it’s not always the future hall of famers: guys who may not have been big in America could go to Japan, and if they had the right mentality, they could do very well over there. Gaijin wrestlers like Matt Bloom (known in America as A-Train/Albert/Tensai), Scott Norton and Mr. People Power himself, Johnny Ace, traveled to Japan and became big names, despite that success not transitioning back across the Pacific.
There wasn’t much tradeoff, however. While Americans have found success in Japan, many of the Japanese wrestlers and ones of Japanese origin who would try to try their luck in America, particularly with the WWE, have not always been received the same way, no matter how talented or big in other countries they were. Yes, the late Mr. Fuji (a Japanese American born in Hawaii) is in the Hall of Fame now, and he did much more as a wrestler than many people remember. However, it was his more cartoonish manager version of Mr. Fuji from the 1980s that was a precursor for what would come in later decades. Talented wrestlers like Taka Michinoku and Sho Funaki brought their skills to America, but are now best remembered for culturally insensitive storylines and phrases like “Choppy choppy your pee pee” and “Indeed!” Kenzo Suzuki ended up rapping with John Cena, and Yoshi Tatsu danced around to the J-Pop Drop. They weren’t treated so much as wrestlers as they were parodies.
That’s by no mean an all-inclusive list of every wrestler, but it gives you a pretty good idea of what the history of Japanese wrestlers coming to work for Vince McMahon has been. No matter what the reason, whether it’s that people didn’t have confidence in performers who weren’t great with English, or just an inherent bias, Japanese wrestlers have simply not fared that well in the WWE. It also may explain why Japanese wrestlers have been somewhat hesitant to come to America.
But are things starting to change for Japanese wrestlers coming over and looking for success in the WWE? The answer might not be so easy. Yes, this could end up like how wrestlers like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan helped to open the door for guys from the indies to come up to the big leagues. Japan is definitely a market that could be tapped more, and with the WWE Network, this could be the beginning of a wave of talent as they try to entice the Japanese wrestling fans to tune in. However, it certainly could prove to be that Nakamura and Asuka are two truly transcendent talents, and this is more of a blip than the beginning of a movement.
Let’s assume though that this isn’t just an anomaly, and that WWE is going to look across the Pacific for more talent. Who else could be on their radar? The first name that would pop up would clearly be Kota Ibushi. There’s a reason that he was brought in for the Cruiserweight Classic, and a reason that he was featured so heavily. Don’t forget, he was first shown on WWE TV all the way back at Wrestlemania weekend, when he appeared in the crowd. Clearly the WWE had plans for him even then. The contract situation hasn’t worked out yet, and Ibushi has said that he doesn’t see himself signing with WWE, as he doesn’t want to wrestle exclusively for them. However, when WWE truly sets their eyes on someone, like they have with Ibushi, it’s rare to see them not get their guy.
The next name is arguably the biggest name in Japanese wrestling right now, Kazuchika Okada. Okada, the current IWGP Champion, has risen through the ranks to be the undisputed “ace” of New Japan Pro Wrestling. The man known as “The Rainmaker” definitely has what it takes. He has the skills, a great look, could appear in the WWE without a gimmick change right now, and he’d still fit right in. He doesn’t have the same level of charisma as Nakamura (who does?) but he certainly has non-verbal charisma, which is important as he doesn’t speak English so well. One question about him would be how eager he is to join WWE. When Rolling Stone spoke to Okada last year, he said he was open to it, however, he did show some reluctance, based on the way he was treated when he came to America to work for TNA. That still weighs heavily on his mind. Yet he’s 27, looks and carries himself like a star. You’ve got to imagine WWE has to be drooling over the possibility of bringing him in.
A third name to watch, particularly with the rise of the cruiserweights, is Yujiro Kushida. Kushida has been one of the top light heavyweights in the business over the past few years. He held the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title for the better part of two years (mixed in with a couple of Kenny Omega reigns) and has been putting on great matches with the likes of Omega, Will Ospreay, Roderick Strong, Ricochet, Matt Sydal and many others. He’s also shown the ability to be in a strong tag team, as his duo with Alex Shelley, The Time Splitters, were one of the most popular tag teams in Japan during their time together. Much like Ibushi, he could be a guy targeted for the cruiserweight division, and if he did, he could put on some instant-classics with the rest of the division.
So is this an anomaly or the beginning of a Japanese Invasion? Time will tell. Either way, it’s time to enjoy the ride.