Their recent Royal Rumble performances are a good sign for Japanese representation in Vince McMahon’s Promotion
I was watching the 2018 Royal Rumble in a bar when it happened. Two native Japanese wrestlers shot to the top of the pecking order with respective wins in the two Royal Rumble matches that night. Those two wrestlers are Shinsuke Nakamura and Asuka- a glimpse of hope that maybe, just maybe, WWE will try and rectify their years of poor representation of superstars of Japanese descent.
Now I’ve A) watched WWE long enough and B) seen enough of WWE’s historical documentaries to know that their representation of Japanese wrestlers isn’t the best. The WWE’s relationship with Japanese stars started off reasonably in the 1980’s with various great Japanese wrestlers visiting ,the then, WWF. Wrestlers such as Antonio Inoki, Tiger Mask, Genichiro Tenryu, Bull Nakano and the Jumping Bomb Angels all made appearances to varying degrees of success that never truly went beyond minor title wins. But it all went downhill around the 1990’s. Many talented Japanese wrestlers were part of the roster throughout the New Generation and Attitude eras, but they all either did very little, weren’t actually Japanese or were saddled with racist caricatures as gimmicks or storylines.
Figures such as Ultimo Dragon and Great Sasuke all appeared in the brief Cruiserweight/Light Heavyweight division garnering some popularity, but never really exploded into the main event scene. Then there’s Yokozuna, real name Rodney Agatupu Anoaʻi. Yokozuna was indeed billed as being from Polynesia, however, his name,costume and the fact that his manager carried around a Japanese flag, suggested that the WWE was saying he was Japanese. Yes, Yokozuna did win the WWF World Heavyweight Championship twice. But not only was he not actually Japanese, but he also portrayed a stereotypical farce of a Japanese person and inhabited the ‘Foreign Heel’ gimmick, a practice with a history of foreign (or billed as being foreign) wrestlers were villains simply because they were not from America and did not like ‘american values’.
But the WWE’s legacy of ugly stereotyping and misrepresentation of Japan does not end there.The peak of this awful trend is the stable Kai-En-Tai. They were a group of Japanese wrestlers who not only occupied the foreign heel gimmick but also were part of one of the most famous segments of the attitude era that just reeks of ugly racism. The set-up for it goes as such: Val Venis, who is a male pornstar wrestler (yes, wrestling is weird), had slept with one of the members of Kai-En-Tai’s wife and so the group captures Val. They then proceed to threaten to cut his penis off with a samurai sword all while shouting that they will “choppy choppy [his]…pee pee”.
With the Ruthless Era and PG era of the 2000’s, Japanese representation only got better through the fact that Japanese wrestlers were barely around to do anything of note. Sporadic appearances from superstars like Kenzo Suzuki and Tajiri did happen, but they were mostly occupying the space of either oriental fetishism or comedy derived from the wrestler being Japanese and therefore weird. However, it was the NXT promotion which changed everything for Japanese representation in the WWE.
For those not in the know, NXT is the WWE’s developmental brand/promotion where up-and-coming wrestlers (or as it is most of the time these days, veteran wrestlers from other promotions) go to train and appear on arguably smaller stages, venues and shows before they are called up to the bigger stage of the main roster shows of RAW and Smackdown Live. At NXT, it’s believed that with smaller stakes and stages, the wrestlers will learn the ‘WWE style’ of pro-wrestling and eventually earn a call-up to the main roster. NXT also tends, for various reasons, to have more realistic, engaging and well thought out storylines than those found on the main roster. Thankfully this also means NXT doesn’t, if at all, exhibit any of the racist nastiness which appears on the WWE’s flagship programs.
NXT’s initial crop of Japanese superstars, which includes Yoshi Tatsu and Hideo Itami, were very talented, but had only slightly-less oriental fetishistic gimmicks and didn’t have much success within the promotion. However, the arrival of Asuka in 2015 meant everything changed. Not only was Asuka a Japanese wrestler, who was allowed to be more ‘serious’ rather than fit into some comedic caricature of Japanese-ness, she was also a woman who was allowed to be dominant and strong within her division rather than just looking pretty. She has talent and is allowed to show it off over and over again. Not only that, but the WWE has given her some historic accolades: as of this writing she has never been beaten once. She also has one of the longest championship reigns in WWE history, clocking in at 510 days, and beating the likes of CM Punk and John Cena, as well as being the winner of the first women’s Royal Rumble match. Not only is Asuka a great example of Japanese representation, but in a nice bit of intersectionality, she is fantastic female representation- earning all these accolades both as a woman and as someone of Japanese descent.
But what about Shinsuke Nakamura? He hasn’t had the same historic run with the WWE as Asuka has, but his time so far with the WWE, and his potential future, are worth noting. Arriving in 2016, Nakamura made a quick impact by winning the NXT Championship within fours months of his arrival. His reign was cut short however as within a few months he had lost, regained and lost the title again, which all culminated with his departure from NXT to the main roster by April 2017. He sadly languished in the main roster for a while, with a failed challenge to the Smackdown championship in Summer 2017, but then as of January of 2018, he was afforded a main event spot at WWE’s marquee event, Wrestlemania, through his win at the Royal Rumble.
Seeing these two Japanese wrestlers is significant for me. As someone who is half-Japanese, and lived in Japan a large majority of their life, I haven’t been starving from a lack of representation- until I’ve moved to the UK. When these two first arrived I was excited, but I never knew they would reach these glorious heights within not only my lifetime but within a few short years. Hell, despite not being fully relevant to me, they are from the Kansai area as well which is a nice breath of fresh air when it comes to wider Japanese representation. Yes these two still do reek a little bit of orientalism and ‘haha look it’s a weird Japanese person’; but the fact that they both are presented as so strong and so worthy of their Royal Rumble wins, their title shots at Wrestlemania and hopefully the championships they will win, makes me very very happy.