On Spectacle and Being Spectators in Japan

“Everyone is looking at us.”  

There are two thousand people settling into their seats in the Gifu gymnasium, nestled deep in the Japanese Alps.  Only two of them are not Japanese.

“Everyone is not looking at us,” Dan says firmly as we try to find our seats.  It’s late 2015; this is only the fourth wrestling show we’ve ever attended, and all the others were WWE shows.  But we’ve decided to try a New Japan show, and so we took a train up into the mountains and then walked twenty minutes to this gym full of local wrestling fans.  Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks are on the program, as well as Karl Anderson, Luke Gallows, a scattering of Ring of Honor guys and a lot of Japanese wrestlers I don’t know yet.  I don’t actually know the non-Japanese wrestlers very well either, but I know the Young Bucks were Steen & Generico’s last opponents (twice, implausibly!)  That’s pretty much all I know.

And I’m pretty sure everyone is looking at us.

We find our seats in the eighth row and sit down gingerly.  I’m wearing my Sami Zayn shirt, Dan is wearing an El Generico shirt.  We don’t own any New Japan shirts yet.  I wonder if this is a breach of protocol as I smile nervously at our neighbors.  My Japanese is good enough that I can overhear a couple of people discussing whether we came all the way from the big city of Nagoya.  For a person with an irrational terror of standing out or being noticed, being a foreigner in Japan can sometimes feel like a protracted panic attack.

The show begins, with the late-afternoon sunlight slanting through the windows to illuminate the ring.  You’ve probably heard that Japanese audiences are very quiet, and I can tell you (though if you’ve watched a New Japan match, you already know) that’s largely a myth.  I’ve seen rowdy audiences in Osaka, I’ve heard more emotion than I could process in Korakuen Hall.  

However, tonight Gifu is… well, it’s pretty much as silent as the stereotype would have you believe.

Unlike WWE shows, where the matches are planned to deliver ups and downs, ebbs and flows of emotion, New Japan designs its cards with one slow steady climb of emotion through a show.  The form is almost always the same: the earliest matches feature the Young Lions, their beginning trainees.  Then there are tag matches with the elder statesmen wrestlers, sometimes mixed with Young Lions or wrestlers from higher up on the roster.  In general, each match has slightly higher stakes or slightly more popular wrestlers than the one before, until the show culminates in the main event–either a singles match or a tag match featuring mostly top guys.  By the main event, this Gifu crowd will be pretty noisy.  However, the build is very slow and until then the audience is mostly sitting politely and applauding respectfully for good moves.

As I don’t want to call any attention to myself, I also sit politely and applaud respectfully.  I actually rather like this chant-free, focused audience.  As long as I’m quiet and polite, no one is going to take offense and I’ll fit in just fine.  Quiet and polite is very much in my wheelhouse.  Now and then in the earlier matches, I almost think that some of the foreign wrestlers are looking in our direction, but since we’re not doing anything to stand out at all, I decide I must be imagining it.

(Quick reminder that Dan and I are the only two non-Japanese people in the audience, we are wearing Sami Zayn and El Generico shirts, and there are a bunch of Ring of Honor guys wrestling.)

Kyle O’Reilly, definitely NOT looking right at us, because that would make me uneasy.

About halfway through, there’s a trios tag match between two of New Japan’s biggest stables, Bullet Club and Chaos.  The Young Bucks are teaming with Karl Anderson; on the other side are Shinsuke Nakamura and two Chaos comrades.  The Bullet Club is heeling like mad, cheating and being jerks.  The Gifu crowd is… still really quiet.  Nobody boos.  Dan and I are applauding politely when everyone around us does.  Everyone in the ring is wonderful, but the crowd isn’t really giving them any energy.

Shinsuke Nakamura knees a Young Buck in the face.

About halfway through the match, Karl Anderson turns to the audience and unleashes a torrent of abuse in English, concluding with “…we hate coming to this fucking town and this is the reason why, because you’re all a bunch of motherfucking losers who sit on your hands and don’t make any fucking noise at all, goddamn it!”  The audience gazes at the shouty foreigner in solemn, respectful silence.  He’s not looking in our direction at all, but considering his rapid-fire delivery and profanity, we’re probably the only people in the audience with a good chance of understanding him.  As such, it feels rather like a personal challenge, and, goaded beyond endurance, Dan rises to that challenge.

Cupping his hands around his mouth, he yells at the top of his lungs from the eighth row: “FUCK THE YOUNG BUCKS!”

The words ring out like a pistol shot in the quiet gym.  Two thousand people turn to stare at us.  I break out in a cold sweat, smile apologetically and briefly consider bolting for the door and fleeing into the night.  Everyone really is looking at us now.  In fact, the only people who don’t spare a single glance in our direction are the wrestlers.

In the ring, Nick Jackson of the Young Bucks kicks Shinsuke Nakamura, then grabs him and announces quite loudly:  “Brainbustahhh!”

It’s delivered exactly the way El Generico used to announce the move before he did it.

Startled, I look over at Dan in his Generico t-shirt.  He’s staring at the ring with a look of infinite puzzlement on his face.  Dan is a college professor with a specialty in argumentation, a former college debater.  I’ve known him for more than twenty years and I’ve never once seen him at a loss for words, until this moment.

He looks at me and says “Hey, that’s a weird coincidence.”

I start laughing.  He blinks at me.

In the ring, Nick Jackson has (shockingly) failed to deliver a brainbuster to Shinsuke Nakamura.  He shrugs and tags out.  His brother, Matt, gets in, grabs Nakamura, and announces once more: “Brainbustahhh!”

Dan says “Olé?”  It’s probably the most uncertain “olé” ever delivered; it tilts up at the end, questioning rather than declaring.  Matt, having failed again, tags Nick back in and they both grab Nakamura simultaneously and yell “Brainbustahhh!” together–and wait.  

This time Dan’s “Olé” manages to achieve an exclamation point.  The Bucks fail once more and Nakamura goes on the offense and the match moves forward again, and I’m laughing in sheer startled amazement, and everyone is definitely looking at us, and–you know what? It’s okay.  It’s actually okay.

Our first New Japan show is over, and we’re walking back to the train station through the dark and silent streets of Gifu.  It’s a clear November night, the kind of night up in the mountains where the stars seem so close that you could almost reach out and touch them.  Or more to the point, I suppose, they could reach out and touch you; they could make you feel like you were seen and known and appreciated.

Dan and I walk together through the cold, and now and then we stop and look at each other and start to laugh, and one of us says, with infinite deep affection:

Fuck the Young Bucks.”

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J.J. McGee Written by:

I'm an American expat who lives in Japan and spends most of my free time being painfully earnest about narrative, character development, and slippage between kayfabe and reality in wrestling.


  1. Fresca
    April 29, 2017

    I’m thinking it might be permissable to acronymize that to “FUYB”, for use in polite company, perhaps at work meetings or family dinners and the like?
    Very much enjoyed reading this.

    • J.J. McGee
      May 26, 2017

      Dan and I have been known to mouth it to each other now and then, when driven beyond bearing… 🙂

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