Tuesday, June 12, 2018

On New Japan, Women's Wrestling, and Picking Your Arguments

Chyna was the last regular female competitor for New Japan, but should she be the final one?
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Every now and again, the topic of women in New Japan Pro Wrestling comes up. Women don't regularly compete in the promotion, and outside of a Maria Kanellis vs. Amber O'Neal match promoted during the heyday of the Bullet Club's second iteration, one would have to go all the way back to when Joanie "Chyna" Laurer competed against the men for another female competitor. For people who like diversity in representation, it's a black mark, even though the female audience of the promotion isn't exactly hurting. Still, many promoters are realizing women are just as viable wrestlers as men, and especially in Japan, the joshi scene pretty much influenced everything the men were doing from the late '80s until, well, today. It's not that women are lesser competitors than men.

So why the segregation? Japan is even further polarized along gender lines in its mainstream culture than even America is at this point. While Japan has elements of its society that are far more progressive than the United States, in some respects, it is just as withheld as the rest of the world or even moreso. For example, Attorney General Jeff Sessions probably uses Japan's draconian drug laws as spank bank material at night. Gender roles are another place where Japan isn't as progressive. Sure, indie promotions have intergender wrestling, most famously Yoshihiro Tajiri's defunct Smash Wrestling (not to be confused with the Canadian wrestling promotion of the same name that's still going), where he feuded with KANA (now Asuka in WWE).

However, New Japan is a lot more mainstream, and the idea of a joshi division, let alone intergender, hasn't really caught on outside of having Chyna come over. To be fair, a good portion of the criticism rings hollow from people playing FED WARZ online, people who have an ax to grind and think the promotion they watch the most is a personality trait. Spoiler alert, it isn't. It's often used as a disingenuous barb by people who don't understand anything about even the stuff they watch all the time when someone rightfully calls WWE out on its bullshit. In the grand scheme of things, no women wrestling in New Japan is a drop in the bucket compared to stashing a former high-ranking official in the company on the Trump cabinet and literally partnering with a genocidal, serial violator of human rights in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

However, peering into the criticisms even more show that they do have legitimacy. Basically, New Japan is the only big company left, even if All Japan Pro Wrestling is making somewhat of a comeback. Regardless, it's the only "main event" level company, and no joshi company really comes close. David Bixenspan made this point well enough; women have an indie level ceiling while men are the only ones who get featured on network television. That's a hell of a thank you for an entire gender in a country, one subset that pretty much laid most of the foundation for what pro wrestling is today, if you ask me.

The counter-criticisms don't really hold much weight either when pressured. "Do you really want Gedo to halfheartedly book another division that isn't the IWGP World Heavyweight Title scene?" No, but at the same time, is it written in stone that Gedo has to book the company? "Wow, so you want Bushiroad (New Japan's parent corporation) to raid joshi companies?" In principle, not really, but at the same time, a so-called "raid" of joshi would still leave enough talent to support most companies. Also, just because Rossy Ogawa isn't corporately backed doesn't mean he doesn't deserve to protected from talent drain, especially since a lot of rumors about him are, well, unkind. A lot of these bookers and owners are scum, but again, that's ALSO not a reason to take up for a corporation. Yeah, the corporate megastructure shouldn't be supported, but at the same time, it's still patently ridiculous that it's built to prop up a sexist system and exclude the best wrestlers because of reasons? And I mean, it's not like WWE isnt trying to move into Japan, and if it can't raid New Japan of its top talent, well, it can offer lucrative deals to the others. It's not necessarily a reason for making New Japan jump in the arms race, but to pretend any raid isn't already happening feels disingenuous.

Admittedly, the counters, for as principally flimsy as they might seem, provide a good logistical reason not to press the issue. A lot of stuff that happens in Japanese pro wrestling happens because it's a product of Japanese society. I get it, and that's why it's not really a cause I try to fight for or write about or argue about a lot. I'm a dickhead from the East Coast whose never been closer to Japan than San Bernardino, i.e. the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean. I have no idea how to "fix" Japan or what exactly needs fixing or to make assumptions of what exactly is even wrong. I can listen to Japanese women who might have opinions on it, but at the end of the day, a lot of rumination from an outsider can come off as super racist. That being said, I'm also not super comfortable giving a pass to a big corporation to continue to operate while shutting out an entire half of a population from representation. It's a shitty situation no matter what happens, but not knowing how to act doesn't mean one doesn't care. I just don't want to partake in the argument anymore, especially since it comes up so much in bad faith.

That bad faith is almost totally couched in the fact that WWE has women in prominent positions on the wrestling program. I mean, sure, one can take it as sort of a positive, but really, is WWE doing any better by women, especially its female fans, by putting on what it puts on? The women are mostly an afterthought on the show. The only one who gets paid anything close to her counterparts with penises is Ronda Rousey, and outsider and a celebrity. Once a woman "graduates" from NXT, their creative direction is mostly muddled, and forget the fact that they've "gotten" to main event a couple of pay-per-views now; the men are the main event and will always be presented as such, no matter what Stephanie McMahon has to say. Would WWE be better off without a women's division? I wouldn't say that. I'd say it'd be better off if the McMahon family got blinked out of existence tomorrow and replaced with someone who might do better by the entire roster without prejudice by gender or any other barrier demographic, but that's a fantastical, unrealistic answer, much like any "solution" to women wrestling in New Japan.

Wrestling, like the world at large, is an awful place, especially if you belong to a marginalized demographic. The only thing someone can do is accept the corporate power structures as monolithic bulldozers and recognize that even if you have no options other than possibly tuning out and trying to work locally at the grassroots level. It doesn't mean you don't recognize that things are fucked up, but sometimes, the only thing you can do is point it out and recognize which arguments are the ones worth having.