Kazuchika Okada’s Exit Is A Warning Siren For The Rest Of Japan
8:59 AM EST on January 23, 2024
Kazuchika Okada is the biggest in-his-prime star in Japanese wrestling and has been for several years now. I tried to come up with some kind of cutesy pop culture metaphor to explain his significance, but I think it's best to be blunt. Since 2013, nobody has been more of a fixture in the main event at the Tokyo Dome. His rivalry with Kenny Omega in the mid-to-late 2010s helped establish New Japan Pro Wrestling for scores of American converts sick of the WWE product. Through the bleakest days of COVID, it was Okada who put the promotion on his shoulders and carried it as best he could. At just 36 years old, he's an all-time legend. This is why it's so hard to imagine New Japan without him.
On Friday, the company announced in a no-frills press release that Okada would be departing NJPW imminently, with his final dates coming a month from now. It marked the beginning of a race between the two largest promotions in the west (and the world), WWE and AEW, to try to add royalty to their ranks. The victorious promotion will get both the bragging rights and the potential business gains that come with one of the most acclaimed and decorated wrestlers on Earth. It will also get one of the greatest performers of his generation, a master with an untouchable aura and a gift for turning the climaxes of big shows into cathartic struggles shared by all who watch them.
A Japanese wrestler with Okada's unchallenged gravity has never left his home country to go full time in the States. (Shinsuke Nakamura comes close-ish, but had peers in a way Okada currently doesn't.) If the move is shocking, however, it's also logical. Both WWE and AEW can both offer Okada far more money, and possibly a more relaxed schedule for his aging body, than NJPW can, despite its status as the front-runner of all Japanese promotions. Okada spoke of the move, possibly in character, as a chance to challenge himself after getting too comfortable with his longtime employer, but it's clear either way that NJPW is both the company that needs him most and apparently unable to give him or other top stars enough to stick around. The company has already lost several of its highest-profile English-speaking foils to AEW and watched its golden generation of domestic talents age beyond consistent viability, but Okada was the cornerstone. His departure is a true worst-case scenario.
There's no shortage of reasons why NJPW can't win bidding wars for the best wrestlers. Some of these are within NJPW's control, and many are not. It starts with All Elite Wrestling, which has provided a similar kind of alternative that NJPW did since it started running shows in 2019, in a way that was more accessible to both American fans and performers. There is also the matter of COVID, which Japan took far more seriously than the United States; the limits on attendance that followed were disastrous for revenues, especially considering that TV rights fees are far less lucrative there than here. The decline of the yen vs. the U.S. dollar in 2022 added another blow, as did the physical debilitation of ex-headliners like Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kota Ibushi. Anyone could have looked at NJPW in 2017 and known that they would have trouble finding a fresh group of wrestlers to eventually replace the ones that were on fire back then. That the world also chose to be as cruel as it could to NJPW's business in the years that followed certainly didn't help.
But NJPW didn't always help itself, either. They stumbled as a company when the times most demanded ingenuity. A draconian copyright policy prevents fans from sharing any clips online, which excludes potential new viewers, and some clunky booking has dogged them as well. A misstep was putting the championship belt on EVIL, whose whole shtick is getting angry reactions from crowds, during the dregs of 2020. So too was the elevation of perennial groomsman Sanada to the top of the mountain in 2023, which only served to weaken the prestige of NJPW's most coveted prize. (That Sanada didn't win this past year's Tokyo Sports MVP award, which basically goes to the most-pushed Japanese guy by default, is a damning indictment of his reign.)
And while NJPW was able to craft such a stellar roster in the 2010s, their development of young talent has left a lot to be desired. The New Japan system is a very, very thorough one. After putting in grunt work and training hours, "Young Lions" are given prelim matches in which they can do only the most basic of moves and always lose to their elders. Then they go on "excursion" to another country and find their footing there. Finally they return, repackaged, as a fully mature wrestler—and one who still has to work his way up the ranks. This guarantees that NJPW's wrestlers are comprehensively good at the core tenets of wrestling, but it also keeps the promotion from injecting itself with exciting youth. Not only would younger wrestlers likely attract younger fans—especially, again, if those fans could see them online—but first impressions are powerful, and the losses racked up by the promising trio of Shota Umino, Ren Narita, and Yota Tsuji since their returns from excursion will make it difficult for any of them to step into Okada's role anytime soon. (It's worth noting that Okada stands out as the exception to the pay-your-dues rule—he jumped the line and won the title within two months of his excursion ending.)
NJPW and its brand-new president Tanahashi will have to come up with some unique idea to fill the void of lost talent and turn business around, which is of course much easier said than done. (My vote: Strap a rocket to Hiromu Takahashi—the wrestler I'd most like to go to a punk show with—who's never had a main-event physique but has proved himself many times over as a magnetic and creative performer.) Finding a way forward is critical not only for NJPW's own economics, but the Japanese scene as a whole. For decades, watching Japan's promotions was a window into the future for western wrestlers and fans. The athleticism it demanded, the respect for the talents of female performers (a legacy carried on by NJPW's joshi partner Stardom), the blunt force of their strikes, the absurdly dangerous bumps, the capacity for telling stories in the ring instead of through poorly-paced talking segments—it was all dazzling enough to blow the mind of any fan who primarily knew the American cable TV style of wrestling. A great many fans who saw those matches, first on tape and then more widely on the internet, became devotees. Wrestling, as a whole, is incalculably better for what Japanese workers have done and still do. As the promotion with the most clout, it's primarily NJPW's responsibility to keep that flame alive.
That mission is made more urgent by WWE's determination to use the Japanese infrastructure in its repellent pursuit of endless growth; they have been feeling around for some sort of "partnership" with a Japanese company for quite some time. That may sound innocuous, but the "NXT UK" strategy from the late 2010s is a bright red flag in this case. WWE drank the European independents' milkshake by ingratiating itself on the ground, and then signing their wrestlers to exclusive contracts for a new show, and finally by abandoning the project entirely in 2022. That kind of pillaging would be tougher to pull off in Japan, where the wrestling scene is both more sprawling and more firmly rooted in tradition, but WWE has a lot of leverage at this moment. More than that, they have a lot of money; it could easily put its stamp on a Japanese promotion, pump in some Saudi Arabian or Netflix cash, and turn it into a pipeline for Raw and Smackdown. If this kind of relationship develops, where WWE's leadership has the primary say in who gets resources, it will stifle the spirit of the Japanese scene. It's tough to see how it would ever be allowed to reach its full potential, on its own terms.
Does all this sound like an overreaction to one wrestler leaving his promotion? Maybe, and it might well be one. But the world's richest men are aiming more and more for nothing short of total market domination, and while AEW's existence prevents a pure WWE monopoly, there is still the very real chance that these two companies evolve into a Coke/Pepsi dynamic as the sole gatekeepers to a viable career as a wrestler. It's an understatement to say that there needs to be at least a third way, which NJPW/Stardom currently represents. Eight or nine sounds great to me, because the more viable full-time wrestling companies there are, the better it is for both workers and fans. And if there are none in Japan that don't rely on outside influence, even that scene—one that has done so much for wrestling, up to and including producing Kazuchika Okada—stops looking like the future, and it starts feeling more like our ugly present.