Chris Charlton is the author of “Lion’s Pride: The Turbulent History of New Japan Pro Wrestling” and the co-host of Japanese Audio Wrestling. He can be found on Twitter @reasonjp where he regularly provides translations of post match interviews as well as media interviews and appearances from Japanese wrestlers and personalities.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Chris Charlton about his love of puroresu, how the Japanese wrestling scene compares with the English and American scenes, what New Japan Pro Wrestling must do in 2017 to successfully grow their business model in the United States. He was also kind enough to share “locals only” puroresu knowledge for those of you who are heading to Tokyo.
When did you become a fan of Japanese wrestling? Can you provide some background about when you began watching pro wrestling?
I was just slightly too young to catch the tail end of the World of Sport era, instead starting to watch when WCW took up that time slot on ITV in the U.K. I fell away due to a lack of satellite/cable access, but came back to wrestling in the Attitude era.
Around that time, my brother, who had left home, would come to visit on the weekend, more often than not armed with a random VHS. Sometimes it would be Halloween Havoc ’90 style trash, sometimes treasure. Super J Cup 94 was a treasure one day in 2000 and went from there to NOAH of the era, Toryumon and more New Japan.
How has the modern wrestling landscape changed your consumption of wrestling media from the hey-day of tape trading?
It’s all there and accessible, but especially with adult time at a premium, somewhat more throwaway as a result. It used to be that any wrestling was a boon and something to be swallowed up in; now it’s background noise while I do the washing up much of the time.
When I first got into puroresu in 1995, The J-Cup and IWA Kawasaki Dream Death Tapes were in heavy circulation but it was largely through seeking out “Best Of” compilations that I educated myself to other wrestlers. Do you find the instant access and online archives like RealHero to be overwhelming?
There’s a paralysis of choice, perhaps. It’s a lot of content, curated very poorly. I’ve not seen a streaming service either legal or non, get to grips with properly curating their archives to make them accessible. Precious few people watch archives on wwe network or NJPW World as a result; they’re just expected to be there and a value add. In video game terms, it’s like backwards compatibility on a console.
The recent surge in interest of Japanese wrestling amongst English speakers a result of multiple factors: the English broadcast AXS shows, NJPW World, the NJPW relationship with ROH & former NJPW stars like Shinsuke Nakamura & Aj Styles success with WWE. What recommendations (modern promotions/wrestlers) would you make for them outside of NJPW to broaden their horizon?
NOAH has a brace of young talent and are desperately trying to give them real exposure. If you’re on the angle/entertainment side, DDT are trying hard to be more accessible to foreign audiences, and the goofy reputation belies solid characters (broadly unsung indie vet Daisuke Sasaki among them) and strong in ring work.
You live a half hour from Tokyo. For many people encountering Tokyo for the very first time, the city can be intimidating. It is a bustling metropolis in ways that are difficult to prepare for even if you’ve spent a fair amount of time in larger cities. What type of activities do you do to unwind, within or outside of Tokyo, that you might recommend for visiting fans looking to add something unique to their travel itinerary?
My circumstances are a little different to a lot of fans traveling for wrestling because I have two young sons and that dictates what you do with your free time pretty strictly.
We spend a lot of time at the bay- Sakuragicho/Minatomirai gives you a little sea air and some nice kid friendly attractions and parks. Tokyo’s only an hour away from the Shonan coast as well, the beaches around Enoshima are hardly a tropical paradise (think Japan’s Jersey Shore in summer) but there’s an aquarium and the small Eno island itself that’s full of historical spots.
How does the Wrestle Kingdom fan experience compare to WrestleMania?
I’ve never been to a wrestle mania, but WK certainly has patterned itself after WM the past few years and has done well as a result. The fan fest is a nice family friendly experience, the big show is the big show, and New Years Dash feels more relaxed and usually with a big angle or two.
How would you compare the Japanese indie scene compared to the resurgence currently happening in the U.S. & Europe?
There are far, far too many people competing for the same cash at the moment. If you look at an indie resurgence in the United states, that’s a grand thing because geographically it’s huge. Europe as a whole too, perhaps. Specifically the U.K. and Japan, and you’re looking at trouble, because the logic is to settle in a hotbed without thinking about whether the bubble will support them. There is no need for another U.K. indie in the Midlands, and there is absolutely no need or room for another Japanese indie in Kanto. If you have the initial capital to go outside there, there’s room to survive.
Thing is, a high tide rises all ships, but New Japan is only experiencing a mini boom. The pie is still a bit small for everyone to take a bite.
On Twitter, you provide translations for interviews in the media and television promos. It helps piece together storylines in ways that English speaking fans rarely had access to in the past. Have you been approached by any Japanese wrestling companies to provide this service?
No. Would I? Maybe. From a promotional standpoint, it’s more complex than simple translation- these are artistic products that need to be localized in a similar way to video games with translators and writers working together with talent as well. Giving it a real go is something many promotions don’t have the resources for, and when Stardom or Dragon Gate (even NJPWWorld) do on occasion, they can point at numbers and say the outlay doesn’t justify it.
The answer I think is a dedicated company that promotions outsource to. That’s not for me to set up though, I’m not dealing with the stress.
What do you think New Japan will need to do in order to make the shows in Long Beach a successful growth transition into regularly drawing profitable shows in the Los Angeles area?
They’re in a difficult spot because there’s a fine line between catering to and pandering. They need to have foreign friendly guys on the card, but not at the expense of the Naito’s and Okada’s who make up a lot of appeal for westerners. Again to make a video game analogy, the danger is in trying to appeal to a western demo so strongly that the result is neither fish nor fowl and nobody enjoys it; the games industry did that here ten years ago and has never recovered.
What advice would you give non-Japanese speaking tourists prior to their trip? (dining, public transportation, currency, etc., etc. – anything that stuck out to you as being remarkably simple, insanely confusing, or just generally unique-disturbing-absurd when you first came to Japan)
I’m so far removed from tourist days that I couldn’t really tell you. Broadly from a travel perspective, it’s not too difficult to get around signage and the like and I’m sure people will step in and at least try to help if you look lost enough.
Do you have any favorite rituals before or after attending shows? (i.e. restaurants, bars or shops you like to visit as part of the day’s experience?)
City Buffet in Tokyo Dome City isn’t great food wise but has become a January 4 routine. A bit outside, head to Deathmatch in Kawasaki, a yakkiniku joint [editor’s note: Japanese BBQ] with a wrestling theme.
In August 2016 I released Puroresu Travel: Vacation in Japan to Watch Pro Wrestling with the goal of finally making available information that has long been treated as tribal knowledge within the small circle of international wrestling fans. The book has been wildly popular since its release in August of 2016, including endorsements from The Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and other leading wrestling journalists!
I have helped dozens of fans with trip planning, ticket procurement, and previously hard to find puroresu landmarks. As a means of thanking everyone for their support and in an effort to provide the wildly popular travel book with supplemental information from third parties, I will be publishing conversations with people who have recently made their dreams a reality.
For additional information on traveling to Japan to watch puroresu, including maps of the TOKYO DOME / KORAKUEN HALL area, locations of wrestler owned and wrestling themed bars and restaurants, where to buy t-shirts and souvenirs, phrases to help you navigate JAPAN, read the first chapter of my book PURORESU TRAVEL or purchase the book on AMAZON or NOOK.