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WWE tries to put headlock on Japanese market

Japan US Professional Wrestling
WWE wrestler Maria, left, and Victoria joke around with with Japanese comedian Tamuken during WWE SummerSlam Public Viewing event in Tokyo.  Shizuo Kambayashi / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Posing for a snapshot with a glittery championship belt in a packed theater, Seigi Nishiyama was among some 600 fans who can't get enough of World Wrestling Entertainment.

"The stories are so much more detailed compared to Japanese wrestling — it's like watching a movie," the 34-year-old food manufacturing employee said Sunday.

WWE is famous in the United State for its brand of professional wrestling, a kind of simulated sport and performance art that combines brute force with elaborate soap-opera story lines and larger-than-life characters with names like the Undertaker and Rey Mysterio.

WWE's big push to market itself in Japan is nowhere clearer than at gatherings like Sunday's SummerSlam Festival, a raucous party that charges fans a $30 admission fee to watch recorded WWE pay-per-view events on giant video screens.

The videos can also be watched at home, but going to events gives fans things they can't find in their living rooms — such as guest wrestlers flown in from the U.S., booths selling WWE T-shirts and key chains as well as plenty of camaraderie in this niche but seriously dedicated crowd.

WWE, based in Stamford, Conn., racks up annual global pay-per-view sales of $100 million. It won't disclose regional breakdowns, but it sees Japan as one of its most important overseas markets.

The latest push is spearheaded by the WWE's Japan office, which opened this year and is its only overseas office devoted to a single nation. The office hopes to woo Japanese newcomers, including teens and families, not just its usual 20-40 year-old fan base.

It remains to be seen whether WWE can follow the path of such American imports as Hollywood movies, hip-hop music and Disneyland.

Japan has its own brand of professional wrestling that is less outrightly fictional than WWE. The WWE is open about how no real fighting is involved. But Japanese wrestling is historically inspired by its American counterpart and boasts its own heroes and themes.

WWE's only Japanese superstar is 40-year-old Shoichi Funaki, who goes by the ring name Funaki. He acknowledges that Japanese are just starting to enjoy WWE, with all its boisterous exchanges and flamboyance, complete with heckling.

"Japanese fans are changing," he told The Associated Press. "The key is to give them more opportunities to watch WWE. If they see it, they'll get it."

Funaki said working with the WWE requires him to sell his created character to fans as a full-fledged entertainer, not just an athlete, as well as more obvious challenges such as mastering English and staying in top shape.

WWE's weekly TV shows — called Raw, SmackDown and ECW (Extreme Championship Wrestling) — feature ongoing story lines.

"Even if you've never watched it before, you can jump in and start watching because it's good versus evil," said Ed Wells, vice president and general manager of WWE Japan. "We always refer to ourselves as sports entertainment. We created that genre in the U.S. and it's something that we are now, as of this year, taking really worldwide."

Takayuki Hioki of Sports Marketing Japan, which runs WWE's Internet and mobile businesses in Japan, said WWE can catch on in the same way Major League Baseball has with Japanese baseball fans.

The WWE mobile Web site offers ringtones, screen wallpaper and video clips. It already has 35,000 users in Japan who pay $3 a month for the service, Hioki said.

Atsushi Oonita, a Japanese wrestler not with the WWE, is a former legislator is a respected social figure in Japan. He said WWE can improve its chances for success by making cultural adjustments, such as headhunting stars who appeal to Japanese tastes — perhaps a sumo wrestling champion.

But Oonita was optimistic that WWE's arrival would boost the overall popularity of wrestling. Right now, he says wrestling is getting bashed by such combat sports as mixed martial arts.

"Japanese are a very suppressed people," he said. "And so it takes a special kind of performance skill to fire up their passion. You can't overdo it. But I wish WWE all the best."