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'Pro-businessman' steps into ring to liven up Japanese pro-wrestling franchise

New Japan Pro-Wrestling President Harold Meij crosses his arms in front of the franchise logo, in Tokyo's Shinagawa Ward, on June 15, 2018. (Mainichi)

After developing hit products as the vice president of Coca-Cola Japan Co. and reversing the dip in profits for struggling toy giant Takara Tomy Co. in only two and a half years, the next challenge for "pro-businessman" Harold Meij is as the president of "New Japan Pro-Wrestling." But what made the 54-year-old Dutch national decide to enter into a new "ring?"

At a New Japan Pro-Wrestling event at Osaka Jo-Hall in the city's Chuo Ward on June 9, before any of the bells rung kicking off any matches, Meij entered the venue with a flashy run-and-slide into the ring.

"I will work with all my heart so that you fans can feel a stronger sense of inspiration, and enjoy yourselves even more," Meij said as he gripped the microphone, addressing the crowd. "I would like to take New Japan Pro-Wrestling to the next level." The crowd went wild over his immaculate Japanese pronunciation.

When asked why he stepped into the ring for a performance of his own, Meij replied, "I think there are long-time fans that must be worrying, 'What? The operator is a foreigner? What's going to happen?' Because I look like a foreigner, you know?" Meij came to Japan in 1971 for his father's job. He was 8 years old at the time. "They worry that New Japan might change. I wanted to come myself as the president and talk with the fans to alleviate any anxiety they might have," he said.

During the 1950s when professional wrestling was starting to take root, people went wild for the "karate chop" of Rikidozan, the so-called father of pro-wrestling in Japan. Super stars like Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki took to the ring to follow in his footsteps. Their bouts were broadcast live during television golden hours on weekends and attracted a wide audience.

However, around 2000, New Japan Pro-Wrestling's stars left the ring one after another. Other companies such as those offering kickboxing and the martial arts platform K-1 and other combat sports also arrived in Japan one after another, and New Japan faltered. While the company made a profit of some 4 billion yen during the 1996 fiscal year, by fiscal 2011, earnings had fallen to 1.1 billion yen.

The revival of New Japan began with management rights for the franchise moving to collectable and trading card game company Bushiroad Inc. in 2012. Broadcasts also expanded from late night terrestrial channels to satellite and streaming video platforms. On top of that, flashy and talented New Japan wrestlers like Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada also gained popularity. Togi Makabe also landed a regular role in public broadcaster NHK's 2017 taiga drama "Onna Joshu Naotora" (Naotora: The Lady Warlord), attracting a completely different fanbase.

Profits returned with New Japan making a record 4.6 billion yen for the one-year period ending in July 2018. The timing of the rebound coincided with New Japan owner and Bushiroad founder Takaaki Kidani inviting Meij to become president of the franchise. The reason Meij cites for accepting the challenge is "passion."

With regained popularity and profits, a New Japan Pro-Wrestling match takes place in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward, on June 18, 2018. (Mainichi)

"The wrestlers' skills are very polished and the quality of the bouts is also high. This is already a high-quality franchise, so all that is left is thinking about how to spread it," explains Meij. "As consumers have begun to focus on the quality of experience-based products, I feel the potential of New Japan. If I can bring my skills and know-how as a businessman to the table, then it will act a large source of power for the organization. I want to use my skills in an area that I really love."

During his time as the president of Takara Tomy, Meij presented three concepts to change the thinking of employees. These were shifting Takara Tomy products to be "ageless," targeting an age group of 0 to 100 years old, "borderless," looking not just at the Japanese market, but at the international market, and "endless," not stopping simply at the sale of a product, but continuing to evolve. These ideas made their concrete manifestation in the reinvention of the company's representative character doll "Licca-chan." Licca made her renewed debut as an entertainment personality, becoming the face of cosmetics advertisements, and the doll originally released in Japan in the late 1960s was reborn as a product for the next generation of consumers. In the business year ending in March 2018, the company broke its record for the highest operating profit ever for the first time in eight years, taking in 13.1 billion yen. Meij felt a sense of fulfillment.

Then, he set off for the pro-wrestling world. Actually, Meij has memories of pro-wrestling from just after his arrival in Japan. What drew his attention when he landed in the middle of a country where he did not know the language or the customs were the large men on the television screen engaged in a battle of strength in a pro-wrestling ring. Those memories came back to him roughly 10 years ago, when his wife, a Japanese national, mentioned that pro-wrestling had been interesting lately and he ended up seeing some of the splendid moves.

"The wrestlers are really cool. They add drama to a match at amazing speed, and it felt like I was watching a real-life version of (the manga and anime franchise) 'Dragon Ball.' I felt like it would resonate with a lot of people," said Meij.

Wrestlers are, at their core, another type of "character." The toy and pro-wrestling worlds have in common the goal of selling a certain character. "My thinking hasn't changed since my time at Takara Tomy. I want to expand the fanbase regardless of age, gender or nationality," Meij explains. "New Japan has fantastic content, so it has the possibility of picking up popularity overseas. At the moment, there are some 100,000 registered members on our video streaming service 'New Japan Pro-Wrestling World,' and 40,000 of them live outside Japan. I would like to aim for the international market with things like videos in English or events for foreign tourists."

Seiwa University professor of business administration Ichiro Noro, who penned the book "Puroresu no keizaigaku" (Economics of pro-wrestling), has this to say about the current state and the potential of the industry:

"Fans up until now have been people with an ideology of admiring the powerful. But now, nearly all of those fans have moved to other fighting franchises. The direction of the current economy is toward things like humanity, the environment and diversity. The reason that there are a growing number of female fans is because instead of strength alone, pro-wrestling is starting to show qualities like diversity that it never had before. The unique characteristics of the big names behind the revival of New Japan Pro-Wrestling, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura, have actually been the most effective in bringing in female fans."

Of Meij plans to take New Japan to the international market, Noro says, "Somehow, overseas fans seem to be perceiving New Japan and the U.S.'s largest pro-wrestling organization WWE as completely different things. If WWE is considered to be a 'show,' then perhaps they see New Japan as a look into the world of 'bushido' (the way of the samurai). A good strategy could fit that image."

However, there are obstacles as well. "If we consider pro-wrestling to be its own culture, simply adding subtitles to streaming videos isn't going to cut it. Cultivating the human resources able to do an entire live broadcast as well as commentary in other languages is necessary," Noro explains. "I would also like to see a plan to beckon back old domestic fans as well. The important thing about experience-based consumerism is shared time. Live television broadcasts fueled the popularity of pro-wrestling. I think television broadcasts at a time when the most amount of people have the time to tune in is one step toward appealing to old fans."

Regarding his short-term goal, Meij said, "Even though there are a plethora of markets abroad, many Japanese companies aren't making any use of them. As someone not bound by language or cultural barriers, I would like to become a pioneer in sports marketing." Meij also promised, "In three years at least, I will achieve profits of 10 billion yen." The figure is close to the 10.2 billion yen made by the Japan Sumo Association in 2016.

"I will continue to show up at more and more matches, because I have to judge the reactions of the fans for myself. To that end, I will speak with fans whenever I have the chance."

The bell beginning a new match in the ring of the sports entertainment industry has been rung.

(Japanese original by Tetsuya Shoji, Evening Edition Department)

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